Summit Presbyterian Church October 14, 2007 Luke 17:11-19 Delivered by Jim Eby
SAY "THANK YOU!"
They were the walking dead, those ten. Their disease had cut them off from the ones they loved. It would take a miracle for them to be healed and to be able to return to the communities from which they had been thrown out, thrown out for the safety and sake of the community. And miracles were in short supply in the only community that would accept them, the community of the rest of the walking dead. Leviticus, chapters 13 and 14 detailed what the lepers were to do to warn others. They were to wear torn garments, cover their mouths and cry out "Unclean, unclean." They could come no closer than half a football field length to any one not infected. They lived by begging, dependent upon what others would give them and the supplies their families and relatives left outside the city gate, if they had relatives.
Jesus came by that day, through Samaria.
That was a strange place for a Jew to be. The enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews returned from Exile was centuries old. Usually, if Jews journeyed from the north of Israel to the south, they crossed to the other side of the Jordan River in order to avoid going through Samaria, as one would cross the other side of the street to miss the confrontation with a homeless beggar in center city.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. There he would become an outcast; there he would be deserted; there he would be as lonely as the ten lepers. There he would die. And on the way to his death, he passed through Samaria, where he was as much an outcast as those who stood the required 50 yards away and cried "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." Perhaps they were hoping for food, or if they were very fortunate, money.
But Jesus knew their condition. He knew what they needed. And so, instead of food or money, he gave them instructions. "Go and show yourselves to the priests." Jesus was referring to Leviticus 14:2-3, which tells the priests what to do in the very, very rare instances when a leper happened to become healed. A leper was not allowed in the temple to give thanksgiving because lepers were thought to be "unclean." If cured, the leper must go through a process of ritual purification, like baptism, then be certified "clean" by the priest. Then the person could give thanks to God for the mercy of healing that had resurrected him, given him new life, reunited him with family and friends and the community of the village.
What Jesus instructed is a bit confusing, isn't it? They came asking for what Jesus could give, mercy, release, healing. But Jesus did nothing to heal them. He only told them to go and act as if they are healed. Go, present yourselves to the priest as if you are whole, healed, accepted, living people. No laying on of hands. No spittle mixed with the mud as an anointment.
Strange, but then, Jesus often did things that seemed strange. So, the ten go. And as they go, they are healed.
Nine of them just kept going, just as Jesus instructed. Perhaps they made no connection between Jesus’ weird reply and their recovery from leprosy. After all, Jesus didn't do what he usually did. He didn't command any demons to come out of them, as he did some sick people. He didn't even say, "Be healed."
Nine of them went on, never making the connection.
But one did. A Samaritan. The one hated by the rest of the inhabitants of Israel who was also a leper. The two-time loser. That one made the connection. That one realized the source of the blessing and the healing. That one returned, praising God at the top of his lungs, and fell at Jesus' feet, saying "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
And Jesus, once again, said the unexpected: "Hey, so what happened to the other nine? Has only one come back to say thanks? And him a Samaritan of all things? Get up and go your way. Your faith has saved you."
What a puzzling question. "Where are the other nine?" Hadn't Jesus sent them with orders to go to the priest? Was he now criticizing the nine for obediently carrying out his instructions? This doesn't sound like the Jesus I know. What are we to make of this question of Jesus?
Martin Bell, an Episcopal priest in Indiana, struggled with that question. He imagines this answer in his book, The Way of the Wolf:
One of them was frightened -- that's all. He didn't understand what had happened, and it frightened him. So he looked for some place to hide. Jesus scared him.
A second was offended because he had not been required to do something difficult before he could be healed. It was all too easy. He had expected months, maybe years, of fasting and prayer and washing and righteous living to be the requirement. But he had done none of this. He had not earned his reward. His motto was "you get what you pay for." And so Jesus offended him.
The third had realized too late that he had not really wanted to be cleansed. That he did not know what to do or how to live or even who he was without his leprosy. Although it had been his fervent plea to be healed, he now began to see how much he had needed his leprosy and consequently how necessary it had been in defining him as a person. Jesus had taken away his identity.
It is difficult to explain the reason why the fourth leper did not return to give thanks. Perhaps because it is such a simple reason -- and perhaps because we very nearly tread on holy ground even to talk about it. In a word, the fourth leper did not return because in his delirium of joy, he forgot. He forgot. That's all. He was so happy that he forgot.
The fifth leper was unable to say thank you any more to anybody. There is something that happens to a man who must beg and who is shunned by his fellows, and who is grudgingly thrown a few coins and who is always -- in the midst of such an existence and in the face of such treatment .... expected to say thank you. He just doesn't say thank you any more to anybody -- not even to Jesus.
The sixth leper was a woman -- a mother who had been separated from her family for eleven years because of the leprosy. She was now free to rejoin her husband and children. She did not return to give thanks because she was hurrying home. Like a wild animal released from captivity, she had been freed by Jesus. And like the animal, she simply went straight home.
The seventh just didn't believe that Jesus had anything to do with the cleansing. He knew that healing had taken place, but why and how were the questions. Certainly he did not believe in hocus pocus, magic, miracles -- any of that. There was a perfectly intelligible explanation of what had happened, but it didn't have anything to do with Jesus. He didn't return to give thanks because Jesus had had nothing to do with the healing event.
The eighth leper did not return precisely because he did believe that Jesus had healed him -- that the Kingdom of God was here and the Messiah had arrived. To return to give thanks when the Kingdom of God was so close at hand -- unheard of! And so he ran to publish the news."[i]
And the reason for the ninth not returning to give thanks? You'll have to read Martin Bell's story so you can tell me what you believe he surmises.
Ten dead people are returned to health. They now have a chance, once again, to be like normal people. Nine assume that's what Jesus gave them, a return to the normal. But there is one, the Samaritan, the two-time looser, who experiences resurrection. He alone comes back to say, "Thanks!" He realizes that his healing puts him in relationship to Jesus, and that relationship alone has made him whole and alive again.
He came to understand that healing wasn't all that Jesus came to bring. Jesus brought resurrection. Resurrection for right now, right this moment. The Samaritan was saved and accepted by Jesus now, while he was a leper, when he was still sick, untouchable, before he got well. Of the community of the living dead, he alone realized that Jesus didn't just want to make people well, much less normal, Jesus wanted to raise people from the dead.
Where are the nine? Why aren't they leaping and shouting for joy, having the time of their lives? Where are the nine?
They are back at work, back to business as usual, nothing more than merely normal. Skin now clear and clean, lives all progressing along nicely, and everything so, so utterly, boringly normal.
What a shame, to have met Jesus, the Lord and Giver of Life, the one who loves to eat and drink with sinners and take us and embrace us just as we are, what a shame, to have met Jesus and to come away nothing more than normal! What a shame to accept healing as enough.
What a shame for people to settle for Monday, when they could have had Easter Sunday.
We come to the Lord, often, and ask for healing. We ask Him to satisfy our material needs -- then go right back to the same old lives we've always lived. And so, Jesus is still on the road, receiving the few who return for something more, and still giving them far more than they could have ever expected. And those who have ears to hear, those who are compelled to return to give thanks, those hear the words, "Get up and go -- your faith has made you well. Now spread the news through word and deed that God is still at work in the world. Be an instrument of Christ's peace -- sow love where there is hatred. Give pardon where there is injury. Where there is doubt, encourage faith. Bring hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, and joy where there is sadness. Go in peace. And in every breath you breathe and every act you do, say 'Thank You!'"
Our redeemer, the one who brings us resurrection; open our eyes so we can see how your love and forgiveness gives us new life. Then use us as instruments of your peace. In the name of the one who brings us healing as well as resurrection we ask this. Amen.
[i] "Where Are the Nine?", from The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell, Seabury, 1970, pp 47-49.