Proper 23C-1 Luke 17: 11-19
It isn’t a parable, though it sure sounds like one. Luke has spent the last few chapters of his gospel presenting this extended scene—beginning with Jesus leaving the Sabbath Table of the prominent religious official to mingle with the crowds, to preach, teach, heal and bless. And then when he is criticized for conduct unbecoming a rabbi—consorting with sinners and working on the Sabbath--he strikes back with a series of pointed parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward, Lazarus and Dives. Each presenting a vivid contrast between the comfortable, materialistic, secure, compromising, fearful, and ultimately hypocritical values evident in the lives of the establishment religious officials, and a vision of God’s kingdom: a kingdom of extravagant mercy, generosity, joy, humility, hospitality, modesty, unselfish holiness and obedience. A vivid contrast that certainly made the officials more and more intent on getting Jesus off stage, by any means necessary.
Luke decides that this is the time to tell about something that happened maybe a few weeks earlier. We will remember back in Luke chapter 9, as the journey from the Galilee to Jerusalem was just beginning, the first place Jesus and his disciples passed through was a village of Samaritans. (I preached a sermon on this text when it was appointed back on June 26th, so I’m sure it’s still going to be fresh in your minds!) Jesus had sent someone on ahead to see if they might find somewhere to spend the night, but the Samaritans, who were hostile to the Jews, shut the door in their faces. (If the tables had been turned, of course, the residents of a Jewish village would for sure have refused a similar request from a group of traveling Samaritans.) In any event, the disciples wanted to punish the Samaritan villagers by praying that God would send down a storm of fire to consume them, but Jesus rebuked the disciples, and had them continue traveling. Now here in chapter 17 we have this flashback.
It seems that soon after this event, while they were in the same region, they came across some lepers at the entrance to another small village. (We’re reminded that the word “leprosy” in the gospels doesn’t necessarily refer to the specific condition modern medicine calls Hansen’s Disease. It’s what they would call any kind of disfiguring skin condition, whether chronic or transient. We would probably have a number of diagnostic categories. But those who suffered from these conditions were all considered ritually unclean and socially untouchable. They were not permitted to work, to pray in the synagogue, to live at home with their families, to participate in any aspect of community life. They became outcasts and pariahs out on the farthest margins of the community. Their wives and husbands and parents and children could have nothing to do with them. In the deeply family-centered and communal near-eastern culture this was pretty much like a sentence of death.)
So now Jesus and his disciples come along. The lepers call out, “have mercy on us.” Spare change? You don’t even have to come close. Just toss us a few coins! But Jesus responds dramatically. He stops, approaches them, speaks directly to them. Eye contact and physical proximity. He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Which is what would need to happen for them before they could be restored to their families and community. To get an official health department certificate to show that they are no longer suffering from their condition and can return to ordinary life. And Luke says that that’s what they did, right away. They heard Jesus, and immediately they got up and headed to the synagogue. No questions asked. The gospels sometimes comment Jesus spoke as one “with authority.” In any event, the Ten Lepers don’t respond in a skeptical way. “Thanks very much, but how about a couple of dollars instead?” Even before they can see any evidence of change, they do what he says. Hebrews 11 calls faith “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And as they stepped out in faith, a miracle happened: “As they went,” Luke says, “they were cleansed.”
So, another great work of power, as we have seen again and again in Luke and all the gospels. Jesus exercising his authority over the powers and principalities of this world. But then the further twist, which seems to be why Luke is telling the story. He sees in what happens next in the story as another example of the moral and spiritual contrast that Jesus has been setting out in this series of parables. The point isn’t only about the healing miracle. That just sets the table for what follows. Which is that one of the lepers stops when he sees what has happened. He turns, even before he gets to the synagogue for his certificate. He returns to find Jesus, and to thank him, to fall at his feet in tearful appreciation--to thank him and to worship. A perfect illustration of metanoia, repentance: a change of mind, a change of life-direction. And interestingly Luke tells us it turns out that of the ten in the group, this one happened to be a Samaritan. Maybe originally from that village we heard about in chapter 9. Maybe he himself or members of his family were some of the Samaritans who had turned Jesus away just a short while ago. But now he is kneeling before him, overflowing with thanks. And Jesus offers this grateful Samaritan a personal benediction, in verse 19: “Go your way; you faith has made you well.”
The key point of this story comes home when we notice the contrast between two words, and different translators try to communicate this in different ways. In verse 14 we are told here in the RSV that as all 10 of the lepers were headed to the local priest to show themselves, they were “cleansed.” But then in verse 19, again, Jesus tells the one thankful Samaritan leper, “your faith has made you well.” In Greek the word Luke uses in verse 14 is katharizo, literally to purge, or scour, or clean, and certainly seems to refer to the evidence of disease, removing the presenting symptoms. But then in verse 19, sozo, literally to save, rescue, restore. To heal. To make whole. Your faith has saved you.
All ten obey. All ten are cured. But it is in the change of heart, metanoia, repentance, in and through the response of thankfulness and worship, the heart overflowing with gratitude, that this deeper wholeness and restoration and salvation comes to the one who returned to the source, to the giver of the gift. Years ago Lloyd Ogilvie, the pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, had a famous sermon on the character of faithful Christian life called the “Attitude of Gratitude.” A life of Thanksgiving. The Greek word for an expression of thanks is “eucharist.” And the fact that the one who is saved here in this “eucharistic moment” is a Samaritan is a delicious irony. “Who you are” obviously has nothing to do with it, because he’s a complete nobody. You can’t get farther outside the circle of Jewish life than by being a Samaritan leper. You can’t get farther from the top of the ladder where those Scribes and Pharisees were living, among the Jerusalem elites. All ten obeyed Jesus, just as those Scribes and Pharisees are great at the details of external obedience. Yet of the ten, only one is saved. The one who stopped and returned to Jesus. The Samaritan.
To make a pun, what Jesus the Great Diagnostician has been saying through this section of the gospel is that these Scribes and Pharisees suffer from a kind of “heart disease.” It’s not a question of their credentials or their outward observance, but of their character. Not about who they are, but about whose they are. And so Luke’s invitation in recalling this story for us. Where are we in this story? Who are we? About stepping back, taking a deep breath, looking deeper, turning around. We do have choices to make. And one choice in particular. We may think we’re doing just fine, as the Nine Lepers must have felt as they rushed to the priest for their documents and then returned to their old lives, their work, their families, their communities. But for the one who comes back to Jesus, a conversion and transformation, his heart is full and changed his life is made new. For him it wasn’t about going back to his old life, but about moving on forward to one that would be new and fresh in Jesus. Where are we in this story? Who are we?
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.