I want to take a moment to set the scene for the above scripture reading from the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus and his disciples are “on the road,” and have been for some time. All the way back in chapter nine, Luke notes, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Most of what Jesus teaches in Luke’s gospel happens in the context of this journey toward Jerusalem, which takes up ten chapters of Luke’s 24-chapter gospel. Now, all of the gospels describe Jesus’ leaving Galilee and traveling to Jerusalem, where he dies about a week later. But Luke exponentially expands this travelogue in order to offer parables, stories, and teachings that are not found in other gospels.
But despite this overarching theme of travel, the references to Jesus’ actual travel, or references to his location at various points, are so sparse that it drives Bible scholars crazy. When we finally get to chapter 17 and today’s reading — toward the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem — all we are told is that it took place somewhere “between Samaria and Galilee” (17:11).
In any event, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he is entering an unnamed village in an ill-defined region along the way when he is approached by ten lepers. And Luke says, “They approached him, keeping their distance.” We know people like this, don’t we? People who approach while simultaneously keeping their distance. People who are drawn by the Spirit’s movement in their hearts and minds; people who are compelled by life’s circumstances to come seeking something. They are visitors to the church who slip into and out of the back pew of the church, not necessarily looking to be noticed, but looking for the Savior whose voice they heard calling them here. They are the bereaved who desperately listen to the words of a funeral homily in search of words of comfort and hope. They are those who have been given cause to question whether or not they will be welcomed if they come. We’ve all seen it; some of us have been there. We approach, but we keep our distance. This phrase speaks to me simply because I am what I call a “shy extrovert,” meaning that I love being around people, but I feel socially awkward starting a conversation with someone. So I often will approach, meaning that I’ll come around groups of people, but also keep my distance, meaning that I don’t feel comfortable speaking until I’ve been spoken to.
From that “near distance,” the lepers cry out, saying, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy.” We hear in their words the universal cry of a wits-end humanity. It is the cry of those who have been left behind; those who have been denied access; those whose circumstances have left them question not simply their choices, and not only the marginality of their place in society but even their very humanity, their very personhood. These are lepers who, under the theory that their disease is not only communicable but also divine punishment, have been both quarantined and ostracized. They’re not welcome anywhere — not even in their own family homes — and have been cut off from the love and support that their religious communities might otherwise afford them. “Lord, have mercy” is their cry.
When he saw them, Jesus said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” That is, apparently, all that Jesus had to say to them. Those were their only instructions. Not words of commiseration or compassion, not washing instructions like the ones Elisha gave to Naaman in the Old Testament. Just, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” The Temple priests were the ones who could repatriate these lepers. If they were found by the priests to be cured of their leprosy, they would be declared fit for both human contact and religious enfranchisement.
But imagine yourself one of these lepers (and perhaps it’s not so difficult). You need only imagine having approached while keeping your distance. And if it’s hard to imagine having the disease of leprosy, imagine instead being one of today’s ostracized people. Perhaps your skin is a different color than everyone else’s in the room, and you question whether you’ll be welcome, even though the host at the Lord’s table has bid you come, and given us assurance that we will all sit at one table in his kingdom. Perhaps, as a homosexual, you have heard too many times in your life that church is not the place for you, even though you have also heard that the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting, and the Spirit has moved you to approach. Perhaps you are an addict — of any of a number of kinds — and have found it difficult to accept the good news that God’s mercy extends to one such as you, because you have found it hard to show yourself any mercy, and have experienced the scorn of others.
Imagine yourself one of these; and then imagine hearing Jesus say, “Go and show yourself to the priests.” That’s it. That’s all he says. And now you have a decision to make. As yet, nothing at all has happened! So do you obey the command of Jesus?
As it turns out, these ten lepers did obey. Their obedience was not an act of thanksgiving, but an act of trust, because — again — nothing had happened in Jesus’ presence. But then, a remarkable thing happens: they are healed on the way. This happens in life, doesn’t it? We tell God what we want. God sends us off somewhere; and along the way, what we need is provided along the way. It happened in my previous post about the story of Elijah. Elijah prays to God asking for his own death and then lays down under the solitary broom tree to sleep the sleep of depression. But God wakes him up and answers his prayer not by giving him what he wants — his own death — but rather what he needs, which is purpose for his life.
The lepers obeyed Jesus’ command, and they found that as they went, they were made clean. And that’s not even the interesting part! That’s not the best part of the story! One leper returned, praising God in a loud voice, and thanking Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, these two actions are especially important. Praising God is what we call doxology; thanksgiving is how we translate the word Eucharist. The word “praise” appears more times in Luke than in all the other gospels combined. And the word “thanks” appears in Luke at least twice as often as in any of the other gospels. Praise and thanks are foundational attitudes and actions of devotion and discipleship according to Luke, beginning with Mary’s song of praise in chapter one before Jesus was even born.
So out of the ten lepers, one turns back in search of Jesus. And then Luke drops an atomic bomb into the middle of the story. “Oh, by the way,” he says, “did I mention that that one leper was a Samaritan?”
In a sermon on this Samaritan leper’s return to praise God and thank Jesus, Martin Luther comments, “the true worship is to return and praise God with a loud voice. This is our greatest work in heaven and on earth.” Worship is what we were created to be and to do, and to stifle gratitude — which is the motivation for our worship — is as unnatural as holding one’s breath.
All ten lepers received an unmerited gift of love from Jesus. Not one of them failed to be cleansed of their disease; presumably, all of them were declared clean by the Temple priests. So what about the other nine? Were they bad people? No, I don’t think we can assume that. After all, they obeyed Jesus, right? He said “Go,” and they went! I imagine them going to the Temple, receiving a good word from the priests, and then returning home to live their lives. All ten were healed; all ten got a new lease on life. But something else happened to the tenth leper.
Maybe it’s because on top of being a leper — and all of the social exclusion that entailed — this fellow was also a Samaritan. Maybe in a crowd of outcasts made to feel unworthy of God’s mercy, he was the least expectant of all that Jesus would do him any good. And yet Jesus’ word of grace to him was, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole.” Jesus essentially pronounces a second, more profound healing and blessing upon the leper who returned — one that was more than skin deep, you might say. While all ten lepers had trust enough to obey Jesus’ orders, only one had faith sufficient to return thanks. It was the acts of praise and returning thanks — doxology and Eucharist — that made him whole.
“The New Wilmington Presbyterian Church seeks generosity with Christ.” That is the final point of my congregation’s newly adopted vision statement. You may have read that and wondered, “Why does it say generosity with Christ, instead of generosity for Christ?” Generosity for Christ implies that somehow God needs what we have in order to accomplish God’s will. But does God really need anything from us in order to accomplish his will? Can God’s will somehow be thwarted by our refusal to open our checkbooks? Of course not! And more importantly, it is foolishness to believe that we’re the ones being generous with our resources because we have nothing apart from that which God gives us by his grace. King David knew this, when in First Chronicles he prayed,
“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you” (1 Chron. 29:14-16, NIV).
It is God who is generous — and extravagantly so, at that! God is generous in every material and spiritual gift we receive, and extravagantly generous in his gift of grace through Jesus Christ. God’s generosity manifests itself in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, and as we have been entrusted with that ministry, so our undertaking it becomes not an act of our generosity, but our participation in God’s generosity to the world. That is why our vision statement says that we are to see “generosity with Christ”: because it is Christ who is being generous through our hands and feet, through our acts of kindness and neighborliness, and even through the opening of our checkbooks in order to provide ministries of mercy.
The act of seeing plays an important role in this scripture reading. First, Jesus sees the lepers. Then, the one leper sees that he has been healed. Neither of these instances is necessary to tell the story, and yet Luke includes the word twice. Each instance of seeing represents a challenge for us. What do we see, and how do we respond? Jesus sees and recognizes the need of the ten lepers. Isn’t it all too common for us not even to see the needs of others? We get so caught up in our own concerns, that we don’t have our eyes open to the needs of others — particularly those who “approach” while simultaneously standing at a distance. That irritable co-worker that drives you crazy at work may be facing a health problem or struggling with a difficult family situation. An international student who is far from home and struggling with language barriers may go unnoticed or unheeded on campus. Who sees?
Jesus saw, and he responded to the needs of ten lepers. That is the first lesson that we must take from this story: that as we serve as Christ’s hands and feet in the world, we must meet the needs of others as we see them. And the other lesson comes by observing the actions of the Samaritan leper. He also saw — he saw that he had been healed — and in seeing this, recognized God’s deliverance and grace. All ten were healed, but only one recognized it for what it was — and he was the outsider among the outsiders! A Samaritan among lepers! Just as the woman who bathed her Lord’s feet with her tears was said to have loved much because she had been forgiven much, so, perhaps, this Samaritan leper expressed the greatest gratitude (or any at all), because Jesus reached the farthest in order to reach him. A grateful person is one who, in a spirit of humility, receives life as a gift, friendship as a gift, love as a gift, grace as a gift, security as a gift, health as a gift, financial stability as a gift — and the list goes on forever, because all good gifts come to us from God’s own hand.
As we seek generosity with Christ, let us constantly ask ourselves: What do we see; and what do we do? Jesus said to the Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you whole.” Not the faith that led him to cry out for mercy — but the faith that opened his eye to see God’s grace working in his life, and that led to acts of gratitude. I ask you: what do you see God doing in your life; what do you see God doing through the mission and ministry of His people? And having seen, what will you do in response to God’s extravagant generosity?
 http://www.martinluthersermons.com/Luther_Lenker_Vol_5.pdf. Page 74. Accessed 10/14/2016.