The Unlikely Thank-You

A sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 17:11-19


I can’t tell you how glad I was to sit down with the lessons for today and not find myself confronted with a prophetic downer from the Hebrew scriptures, a scolding from Paul or yet another of the difficult sayings of Jesus.

Instead we read of God instructing the nation of Israel, taken into captivity, to seek the welfare of their captors, which is indeed their welfare as well.  We hear Paul encouraging Timothy in his faith, calling him to be a workman with no need to be ashamed.  And now, this story of Jesus and the ten lepers.

This is one of the many stories I recall hearing taught to me as a child growing up in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School.  And what, of course, was the point of this story when teaching it to children – be sure to say “Thank you”!  A lesson in etiquette – my, how timely!

Well I hate to disappoint you this morning, but I’m not going to preach about the loss of politeness in our society, though I certainly could.  Nor am I going to turn this into a sermon about tithing, with apologies to the wardens and Vestry, even though we are in the height of what is traditionally “stewardship season.”

Rather, I want to look at what is going on both in and behind the text of the Gospel lesson this morning.  No surprise there – it’s a bad habit of mine.

There was perhaps no more dread disease in the Biblical world than that of leprosy.  There is much debate over whether this was what we have come to call “Hansen’s Disease” today.  Many scholars suggest the term may have simply been a catchall for many different kinds of skin diseases, such as fungus and eczema.  Regardless of what is exactly being described, a skin disease was not only painful and often life threatening, it was first and foremost isolating.

Do you remember the scene in the later version of Ben Hur when he visits the leper colony and other Biblical epics with similar scenes – lepers from a distance shouting out, “Unclean!  Unclean!”  The purity codes of Jewish Law pronounced those with all kinds of skin diseases to be ritually “unclean.”  Based on Jewish and even Roman civil law, lepers were forced to leave their families and their towns and live in isolation, often without benefit of sanitation or shelter.  Even if the disease itself didn’t kill you, the treatment of the community might prove even more fatal.

Jewish Law went on to instruct that to even touch a leper would render that previously clean person “unclean” and force her to undergo the ritual libations and washings that would make her once again clean, fit for society, unless of course she were unfortunate enough to contract the disease herself.   To my mind this would have been among of the worst aspects of the disease – isolation.  Can we even begin to imagine what it would be like to live with the fact that no one could touch you?  What could be worse? 

Some of you are old enough to remember the early days of the AIDS crisis in this country.  Do you remember how back then people with AIDS were treated very much like lepers.  There was palpable fear when someone with AIDS was around.  Some churches stopped using the common cup for fear that HIV could be spread through drinking after an infected person.  And yes, sadly, people were afraid even to touch those who were HIV+

I can only imagine how devastating this isolation must have been for those who most needed the embrace of friends and loved ones.

Keeping their distance, they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

The ten lepers Jesus encounters in the gospel lesson seem to have formed their own group, their own community, banding together – a smart move, if you ask me.  Jesus meets them as he enters this unnamed village, the implication is that they are outside, removed from the life of the village by their status as unclean.

Isn’t it interesting that they don’t ask Jesus to heal them; they ask Jesus for mercy.  Had they asked for healing from God and others for so long they had given up?  Did they realize that before a rabbi or other religious official would approach them, he would have to be merciful?  It would be so easy to pass them by, leave them at a distance in their isolation.

I find it interesting that Jesus does not individually heal each one with dramatic, Hollywood friendly scenes with loud music and gasps from the onlookers.  No, Jesus simply says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  These men have been cast out of the community.  They are looking to be restored, to be welcomed back.  And who could do that?  Who could restore these men to their families, to their homes?  Only a priest could.  A priest had to declare a leper clean before he or she could return to the community.

As they went they were made clean.  The writer of Luke doesn’t say, “they were healed,” but rather, “they were made clean.”  Now, if you’ve heard me preach more than once or twice over the last few months, especially during the difficult sayings of Jesus, you won’t be surprised the subtext I hear in this passage.  Luke’s Jesus is constantly confronting the religious establishment, challenging them to welcome back in the unclean, the outcast.

They were made clean.  I don’t to put too fine a point on the choice of words here, but it does strike me that it might be that these men needed less healing than those who had rejected them – that would certainly fit in with Luke’s Jesus.

John Dominic Crossan points out that by making these men clean, Jesus is asking for the priests to acknowledge Jesus’ power, setting himself up as equal to the power of the Temple, thus heightening the tensions between them.

Regardless, the ten lepers are made clean and rush to show themselves to the priest.  Wonderful reunions are coming – these men will be restored to their families, to their religious community, perhaps even to their professions.  An occasion of much rejoicing and rightly so!

It is at this point that the writer of Luke turns the tables yet again.  One of the lepers stops and takes time both to praise God and to thank Jesus.  And not just thank, but he prostrates himself before Jesus.

And guess it, it was a Samaritan.  Luke’s Gospel has featured Samaritans in some interesting roles.  Remember a few months ago when the disciples wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village?  And then, of course, the parable Jesus tells of the Samaritan neighbor who alone stops to help the Jewish man who had been mugged on the road to Jericho.  And now this lone thankful leper turns out to be a Samaritan.  Can you hear the crowd murmuring in response to this unlikely turn in the story?  Did the Pharisees stop murmuring and start grumbling?

Luke’s Jesus makes the point very clear as he asks aloud, “The other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

And the writer of Luke isn’t done yet – this man, this Samaritan, alone is “made well” and he is done so on account of his faith.  Where they were all made clean by Jesus mercy, this man’s faith has made him well.  Is it the fact that he is a Samaritan that makes him more thankful?  A Jewish rabbi has healed him.  Is this man hedging his bets, thanking this rabbi who has shown him mercy even when he technically didn’t deserve it?  Will the priest be as welcoming and merciful?  Jesus has changed his physical condition, but will he still be rejected by the community because he is a Samaritan?

Luke’s Gospel loves to leave some questions open ended.  It leaves us all room to ponder.

The Eucharist is a moment in the life of our community where we discover ourselves accepted.  All are welcome at the Lord’s Table.  We are declared clean, restored.  We receive grace and mercy, freely offered to us.  The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving.  In the post-communion prayer, which ever rite you choose, we, like the leper in today’s Gospel give thanks to God.

The question we face is “now what”?  With hearts full of thanks for the mercy shown to us, we can either keep that mercy and kindness to ourselves, or we can extend it to others.  We can rejoice that we are forgiven, restored, a community reconciled with God and with each other.  So what?  Are we the kind of community that then makes room for more of the unclean and the outcast, or do we keep certain “unclean” people waiting on the doorstep to be shown a little mercy?

Let us go forth from this place with grateful hearts, declaring God’s goodness and mercy, and let us let these realities shape us as people that through us other outcasts can experience that very same goodness and mercy.  Amen.

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