Luke 17:11-19; Galatians 5:16-24; Proverbs 4:10-23
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
There were ten lepers. All ten were healed. But, one leper returned to give thanks to God. Now, you, go and do likewise. Amen. Have you heard that sermon before? I know I have. I’ve probably even preached that sermon before. And, to be sure, there’s a bit of that teaching in the story of the ten lepers. However, if that is all that you take away from Jesus’ teaching today, then what you will have received is but a nice lesson in morality, a teaching in the Law that says to you, “You, go and do likewise,” a command that you do not and cannot keep, but you will have missed out on the rich and profound Gospel that Jesus would lavish upon you today. For, the story of the ten lepers is about thanksgiving only in a secondary, or even a tertiary, way. But what the story of the ten lepers is truly about is finding life in death.
For, the ten lepers in the story were dead. Because of the disease which ravaged their skin and made them unclean, they were dead to their families, they were dead to their friends and their community, they were dead to all manner of livelihood and providence, and they were dead to worship and prayer and making the necessary sacrifices at the temple. In fact, their flesh was literally dead and dying, for leprosy is a disease caused by an infection which deadens the skin to feeling, particularly pain. Thus, lepers would accidentally cut, tear, and puncture their flesh without knowing and the wounds would become infected. In some severe cases, lepers became living, stinking, decaying, corpses of men.
But, what should get your attention immediately in this story is Jesus’ response to the lepers’ cry for mercy. Jesus doesn’t acknowledge their leprosy, He doesn’t wave His hands or touch them or do anything physical at all, He doesn’t even give them His typical “I am willing, be healed,” but He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Now, showing one’s self to the priests is what the law required after one had been healed from leprosy. A healed leper must show himself to the priests in order to be pronounced clean and thus restored to their families, communities, and the rites of the temple. But Jesus didn’t heal the lepers. Rather, He instructed them to go, in their leprosy and uncleanness, and present themselves to the priests. What must they have been thinking? What would happen when they appeared before the priests? Wouldn’t they be sent away in disgrace, maybe even arrested, or worse?
Nevertheless, away they went. What faith they must have had in Jesus to go, in their leprosy, to show themselves to the priests as He commanded? Yes, it appears that all ten lepers trusted in Jesus despite what their eyes and their ears told them. I posit to you, however, that these ten lepers could only place such faith in Jesus because they were effectively dead to this life and this world. That is to say, they had nothing to offer, they had nothing to boast of, they had nothing to fall back on, therefore they had nothing to lose. The ten lepers were so lost that they had nothing to lose by trusting in Jesus with all their heart, all their soul, and all their mind. They were brothers in faith with both the Good Samaritan of last week’s Gospel and the man left half-dead in the ditch. Did they know that they would be healed on the way? I don’t think so. But, you see, it didn’t matter! They couldn’t be any worse off by trusting Jesus and obeying His command. What, would they become even more leprous, more cut off, more dead than they already were? No, of course not.
But, then the story takes a turn. As the ten lepers journeyed to show themselves to the priests, all ten were cleansed and healed. Then, one leper, when he realized that he has healed, returned to Jesus and fell at His feet giving thanks and praising God. Presumably the other nine continued on their way to show themselves to the priests and return to their lives and livelihoods. And therein lies the crux of the story. Jesus doesn’t raise the dead so that they can return to their old way of life, living to themselves and to the flesh and the world, but Jesus raises the dead to live a new life in Him. All ten lepers believed and trusted in Jesus. All ten lepers went at Jesus’ command to show themselves to the priests despite what their own eyes and ears told them. But when they discovered that they were healed and clean once again, nine of the cleansed lepers thought to themselves “Hallelujah! I’m free! Now I can get back to living once again!” But, the one leper realized that, despite his healing and being made clean, he was still a leper – a cleansed leper, to be sure – but a leper nonetheless. That is to say that his cleanness and his healing was because of, and dependent upon, Jesus, even still. Alone, he knew that he was nothing, that he was dead in his sin and uncleanness. But in Jesus alone, and still, was he clean and whole. And, because of this, the cleansed leper returned to Jesus and laid down his life before Him, thanking Him and praising God. He would not return to his former life, for, there was no former life to return to. Only by confessing his deadness could he receive and live a new life, Jesus’ life, in the world but not of the world.
You see, to understand the story of the ten lepers as a story about giving thanks is really to miss Jesus’ point altogether. As wonderful and precious to God as thanksgiving is, thanksgiving is but a fruit and a response to the even greater and more precious thing that has happened, which God Himself has worked, faith itself, bringing life out of death. The thankful leper returned to Jesus because he knew that he was alive, in every way that you can understand that word, in, through, and only because of God’s Word in Jesus Christ. Now, I’m fairly certain that the other nine lepers were very thankful for their healing and cleansing too. But the difference is that they thought that they had been raised from death to live a life like their old life, to continue to love all the same things they used to love and to desire all the same things they used to desire, to live as if this life were our own to do with as we please in amassing possessions and pleasures and platitudes and power. In contrast, the thankful leper knew that he shouldn’t be alive at all, thus the life he lived, he lived to Christ, and his death was, and is, and will be, only gain.
But, are you not often more like the nine healed lepers who did not return to give thanks than you are like the one leper who returned and fell at Jesus’ feet? Do you not treat your forgiveness as the beginning of a new life, a second chance to go forward and live a better life in this world much like the life you had before you believed? Do you give thanks for the mercy and forgiveness shown to you, for the life given you, or do you take that for granted? How have you lived differently from when you first believed? How have you lived differently from when you last received absolution?
Do these questions make you uncomfortable? Good! They should, for that is the Law of God reflecting how far you fall short of what the He in His Law demands. That is why you should focus much less on the giving thanks in this story and much more upon the deadness of the leper who returned. For, the leper who returned was truly grateful because he realized how dead, how truly lost he was, and he realized how found, healed, and alive he was made to be. Likewise you are found lost sheep, healed and cleansed lepers, and raised dead. That is to say that you always live in Christ as forgiven sinners and that you carry your failings, even after mercy and forgiveness, as glorious scars. Along with the thankful leper at Jesus’ feet you may see yourself whole: dead and risen, an outcast and accepted, a leper and cleansed.
Ten lepers received life that day two thousand years ago, but only one recognized that the life He received was Jesus’ life. Nine of the lepers understood their new life as a second chance to try do better. Only that one leper was willing to confess that he was still dead, still a leper and an outcast, but that, despite this, by grace alone, he was blessed to live a new life that was not his own, not merely a second chance to better himself, but a chance to live to Christ and in Christ, and through Christ to his neighbor.
The Samaritan leper returned to give thanks to Jesus and to praise God. This was not the first work of his new life but it was the first fruit of his death. Only those who are truly dead to themselves can bear the fruit that the True Vine Jesus causes them to bear. One of those Christ-borne fruits is thankfulness, but the first fruit to be borne in death is faith itself. You are carried to Jesus as helpless infants. You are found by Jesus as lost sheep. You are raised by Jesus out of death. And you are restored by Jesus to sonship with the Father even though you are prodigal sons and daughters. And, as St. Paul teaches, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires and have died to themselves, for whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake will save it.
For you to live is Christ and to die is gain, for, Christ and His Word are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. And, your Jesus, who is Himself alive out of death is present for you now in His life-giving Word and healing Wounds for the forgiveness of your sins, the strengthening of your faith, and for your communion in His holy and perfect life. Return to your Great High Priest who has raised you from death to His most glorious life and has washed you clean in His precious blood. Give thanks to Him in this Holy Eucharist and live in Him who is life today, tomorrow, and forevermore.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.