August 28, 2016 A+D
St. Luke 17: 11-17
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The healing of the ten lepers is not a story about gratitude. It is about faith. The Samaritan’s faith impresses the Lord. It is the Samaritan’s faith that saves him. The ESV softens the verb “save” to “made well” here. I am not sure why. All 10 lepers were made well, but only this one is said to be saved.
This Samaritan’s faith is not a virtue in the conventional sense. It is not an exercise of will-power and positive thinking. It is not the sort of thing that Olympic Athletes have in their teams or that pop music icon George Michael urges us to have.
It is saving faith and the point of saving faith is what and who it trusts.
The Samaritan leper’s faith is the knowledge and trust that Jesus of Nazareth, who had healed him, is more than He appears. He is not simply a prophet who does miracles. If He was, then the Samaritan would have kept on to the temple in order to show himself to the priests. What the Samaritan leper rightly discerned, that which he believed, is that Jesus of Nazareth is our great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, He is the Temple built without hands where sinners are cleansed and reconciled to God, He is God in the Flesh come earth for lepers of every stripe.
It seems most likely that the 10 lepers did not know what they were really asking for when they asked the Lord for mercy. They probably weren’t even hoping for a miracle. They were just asking for some charity, some money or some food, but they got a miracle. The Lord told them to go and show themselves to the priests. They surely knew what this implied. The only reason for lepers to go to the Temple and show themselves to the priests was to prove they were disease free and then to be ritually cleansed and publicly proclaimed by the priest to be healthy and clean. Only then could lepers rejoin their families and community. And sure enough, as they went, they discovered that they were healed. They had something to show the priests. We might well expect that put a spring in their step and urged them all the more toward Jerusalem and away from Jesus.
Who can blame them? Isn’t this what Jesus demanded? And who can blame them for hurrying toward that happy reunion? They were healed. Their lives were given back to them. They were doing precisely what He said to do.
Jesus can blame them. And He does. He does not ask “Where are the nine?” because He is seeking information. He knows where they are. He knows what they are doing. And the problem is not that they lack gratitude. No doubt they are singing his praise all the way to Jerusalem. But Jesus says, in effect, their praise is in vain. Why? Because they are not giving praise to God. Jesus says that only the Samaritan was found to be giving praise to God.
The nine didn’t realize, or they refused to believe, that Jesus, the One who had healed them, is God. They didn’t realize, or they found it inconvenient, to see that He is the Temple and the great High Priest and that the only way a person can praise God is by praising Jesus because there is no other God. In dismissing Him as a mere prophet, as a mere rabbi, as a merely great man with a gift of the Spirit, a miracle worker, is to commit blasphemy – for He is God and the only way to praise God is to praise Him. The only way to pray to God is to pray to Him. The only way to thank God is to thank Him.
This is what the Samaritan leper understood, more, that is what he believed, what he trusted. That is what his soul, and all our souls, desperately needs: a priest who doesn’t pass on the other side. We have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. He comes to find us in our leprosy, half-dead and unclean. Let us then with confidence follow the example of this Samaritan, and draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. And there let us praise Jesus in order to praise God.
The time came then, and the Samaritan knew it, that Father is to be worshipped neither in Jerusalem nor on a mountain in Samaria but in Spirit and truth. The Father is worshiped in Christ by the Holy Spirit by Gentiles, by lepers, by Lutherans.
We should note that it is most unlikely that the Samaritan was ignorant of some parts of Scripture. He might even had held to some errors in his weakness. Yet Christ says clearly that he has saving faith. So faith cannot be simply the right doctrine or even the absence of error – though faith desires the full truth of God. Faith is open to and loves instruction.
The Samaritan had saving faith, that is he trusted that God had taken up flesh to be his priest and was to be worshipped in that flesh. The Samaritan’s heart relied upon the promise of grace implicit in the bestowal of mercy that healed him. As it always is, this faith was wrought by a supernatural power, by the Holy Spirit, and it came when he heard the word of Jesus, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
This gift was also offered to the nine. Why they missed it we do not know. They might have been afraid, superstitious, and not wanted to jinx their healing. They might have trusted in the Law of the Temple rather than the promise of the Temple and thought they could fulfill the healing in themselves by obedience. They might have idolized their families or their health and pushed the Spirit out. We don’t know. The reasons men reject God’s mercy in Christ are legion, whereas the reason men accept it is singular and unified. Those who accept it do so by grace, without any merit or strength in themselves, as a gift of the Spirit.
What we ought to learn from the nine is that there are ways to be religious, to fulfill the Law in external way, and yet to miss the essential reality that Christ the Man is God our Savior. It is possible to love gratitude and other good things to the exclusion of faith. We should remember that nothing has befallen us that is not common to man. That which the nine faced, and which they failed to overcome, you must also face. How then do we overcome that which they did not? As the Samaritan did: we ask for mercy, we fall on our faces in repentance and trust, we return to Jesus to give thanks and praise and to get more. That is a key element. Faith on this side of glory is never satisfied. It wants more of what Jesus gives, of who Jesus is. It wants to be with Jesus where He promises to be. It wants to go to the reward promised in Baptism and until such time as God deems is right for that transition, faith must live in this fallen flesh and among the Church Militant. There are disappoints galore. There are constant sorrows to endure. And that gives us plenty of opportunity for repentance. So also there is joy in this life. For the Lord has sparked hunger for the Bread that gives eternal life in us, and thirst for the Wine that makes glad the hearts of men. Blessed are we for He has made us hungry and thirsty for righteousness, for Him, that is, for the Holy Sacrament, for the Absolution, for the Gospel, for the Word, for the mutual consolation of the brethren, for the peace that passes all understanding.
Let us then keep on returning to the One who had mercy on us, who still has mercy on us, and let us there praise Him, coming before the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace to help in time of need.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.