Luke 17:11-19 [English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13and lifted up their voices, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." 14When he saw them he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went they were cleansed. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus answered, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 19And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well."
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In both childhood and adolescence, I was taught the same important lesson about gratitude. Obviously I didn't learn it the first time.
On the first occasion, my birthday came and I was pleased to receive birthday cards with money in it from my aunts, a grandmother, and a godmother. My mother told me to write "thank you" notes, and I did to everyone on the list except for one aunt. About a month later I received another note from that same aunt saying that she was surprised not to have received a "thank you" from me. She said perhaps I was ungrateful for the money and didn't really need to be given any more money in the future. I wrote an apology immediately.
In my senior year of high school, my former piano teacher asked that I might come to her students' spring recital and sing the solo for which I had received an award at the state contest. On that day she explained that she had taught me a number of years in childhood and that even after no longer taking lessons that I continued both to play a band instrument and to sing in the school choir. At the end of the recital, to thank me for singing, my teacher gave me a pewter mug with my initials engraved upon it. It was a thoughtful and expensive gift, but I thought nothing more about it. Several weeks later my former teacher wrote me note asking if I had not appreciated the care and expense that she had gone to in the selection of that gift. I wrote an apology immediately.
The point, of course, is that gratitude is not simply a character trait that some have and some don't. Gratitude is not simply a virtue for which one is remembered somewhat like having been voted "Most Grateful Student" by one's high school classmates. It's not just that a person is grateful within her or himself. Gratitude is about one's relationships.
My aunt was hurt that I wasn't grateful for her kindness. My former teacher was hurt that I wasn't grateful for her thoughtfulness. Both had been generous with me. Both hoped to hear that I was pleased and that indeed I cared that they loved me!
WHAT THEY WANTED
These ten leprous men - that's what the Greek text says - were banned from living in town by the Law of Moses (see Numbers 5 and Leviticus 13). They could not live with their families. They could not go to worship. They could not attend any of the important events of the community, because they were a danger to the community's health. They had to live on the outskirts of town and had to shout the warning that they were unclean.
As Jesus was passing between Galilee and Samaria on His was to Jerusalem, these men begin to cry out for Jesus to show mercy. They call Him "Master," a person of authority. Somehow they have heard of His healing gifts. Hoping against hope they ask to be set free from the terrible curse of their condition. Hoping against hope they ask to be set free to be able to live once again in community.
The Lord Jesus, the Great Physician, shows compassion upon the ten. He tells them to obey the Law's prescriptions concerning healing - to show themselves to a priest in order that they might be pronounced cured (see Leviticus 14). And, as they hasten like the Christmas Eve shepherds, to see if this good news is true, they are healed.
If this story were all about being grateful as some kind of character trait or virtue, the reader would have to see these men were pretty joyful that they were going to get a new beginning. They were, after all, rushing to see a priest. They were, after all, rushing to be pronounced clean so that they might once again live in community with families and friends. Surely they were overjoyed with disbelief that the impossible had happened.
But gratitude is about relationship, and, in this case, about relationship with Jesus. The other nine called Him "Master," but what did that possibly mean to them? They really didn't know Jesus, and they really couldn't see anything other than their own victimization. They had been thrown out of the community. They had been forced to live unhappy and hopeless lives - disregarded, disenfranchised. Before Jesus came, had they been almost ready to heed Job's wife's advice: "Curse God and die?"
As is the case so often with Jesus' parables, so today in this healing story there is an unusual twist. The one man that shows gratitude to Jesus, the one man that recognizes what it means to call Jesus "Master" is a Samaritan. The other nine men are Jews and will be welcomed back into their community. But the Samaritan will have to go to his own people. Healed or not, the Samaritan remains a Samaritan - despised by the Jewish community. One might even suspect that the other nine that had shared his misery before would act, in time, as if they never knew that stinking Samaritan.
But Jesus is the friend of sinners. Jesus is the Master of the Universe come down to earth in human flesh. Jesus is the replacement of the Jerusalem Temple - where God meets sinful humans. Jesus is the replacement of the priesthood that alone can offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin and alone can restore healed lepers to communal living. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem to suffer and be rejected and killed by the political elite with the blessing of religious leaders. And all of that He will do, as Luther says, that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness (see Luther's Small Catechism, the Apostles Creed, the Second Article)
The Lord Jesus has come to reclaim all that He has made as the creative agent of His heavenly Father! The Lord Jesus desires that all will receive the forgiveness of sins in His name and have life and salvation. It's as if, in this text, St. Luke is paraphrasing for us that old political slogan: "It's About the Relationship, Stupid."
The Samaritan got it! He got that it was about relationship with Jesus. St. Luke isn't holding him up as an example of what some generic grateful, virtuous person looks like. Rather the Samaritan got an on-going relationship with Jesus. He suddenly understood what it meant to call Jesus "Master." He was grateful for a healing that was more than skin deep. He was on the road to understanding that Jesus' healing was about being restored to relationship with the Maker and Owner, the Lord and Savior, and the Holying Spirit. Again - to quote Luther - the Samaritan was being called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified (Apostles' Creed, Third Article). I suspect the Samaritan was right there in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when the Church was born!
GETTING IT TODAY
Within much of the American evangelical community, and those influenced by them, there is a great emphasis on making one's personal decision for Jesus. Indeed many of that type of Christian regard the personal decision as the only way to be saved.
The classic billboard shows an image of Jesus on the cross with the slogan: "It's your move." The message is clear that you have to make Jesus your personal Lord and Savior.
They have it partly right. God does indeed want people to be saved through faith in Jesus' death and resurrection for sinners. It is about a relationship with Jesus, His Father, and the Holy Spirit. It does involve an awareness of sin and a need for healing.
The story of the ten lepers makes clear that they understood that they were broken and unclean. They understood that they were outside the community and needed to be restored. They understood that they needed a miracle, and they hoped that Jesus would give them a miracle.
Indeed once they were healed they went to the priest who would make a sacrifice for them and then require them to have a ritual bath and then require them to shave and to rid themselves of their old clothing and bandages. Then they could be good Jews again and be restored to community. But that wouldn't help the Samaritan. It took a Samaritan to see that Jesus' healing was about something much more than returning to an old life. It was about a whole new life with Him.
I don't know for certain that the Samaritan followed Jesus thereafter, but I believe he did. I believe he went to Jerusalem and saw Jesus crucified and was among the 500 that St. Paul says saw the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). I repeat that I believe that the Samaritan was there in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when the Church was born.
What some Protestant Christians tend to miss is that it's about more than a me-and-Jesus relationship. It's about being baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection and being discipled within the community of God's people, the Church. It's about hearing God's Word daily and dying to sin. It's about the Holy Spirit nurturing our growth in the grace and knowledge of God's Son and through Him with the Father. It's about returning with joy and gratitude each week to the house of God and being grateful to that One that comes to us in the Breaking of the Bread and in the Cup of Blessing. We are living members of the Body of Christ that knows no boundaries of time or space or ethnicity.
The Samaritan got more than the other nine, because He was grateful for the mercy of the One who came to befriend sinners like you and me.
St. Luke doesn't want us merely to be known as grateful people. St. Luke wants us to be befriended by the Lord Jesus so that we might be saved from sin, death, and evil. All this the Lord Jesus does that we may, in Luther's words, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. To which Martin Luther loves to add: "This is most certainly true!"
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.