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.
Today is one of two days each year in which you will hear the story of The Cleansing of the Ten Lepers; the other is Thanksgiving Day. Now, the selection of this text for Thanksgiving Day may seem obvious, since Jesus commends the one leper who, upon seeing that he had been cleansed of his leprosy, returned to Jesus to give thanks to God. However, while thanksgiving to God is surely a part of Jesus’ teaching in this story, we should be thankful that we are also able to hear it on this late Summer day in September, which is not recognized as a National Day of Thanksgiving, for this story is first and foremost not about giving thanks to God, but the story of The Cleansing of the Ten Lepers is first and foremost about recognizing that Jesus is God come in human flesh to save us from sin and death, and the fact that we are cleansed and forgiven, not that we might return to our ordinary work-a-day lives, but that we live as cleansed lepers, that we live as forgiven sinners, and that we live as raised dead, always, always living in praise and thanksgiving to God in and through Jesus Christ.
King Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, His necessary and final destination, to ascend His throne, the cross, and be crowned with thorns, robed in purple, beaten, scourged, and crucified until dead, that He might rise from the dead, victorious over sin, death, and the devil, and lead His people, those who believe, the New Israel, out of death and into eternal life. That’s what Jesus was doing on the road between Samaria and Galilee! He walked that path to Jerusalem straight and true, never wavering, taking the shorter route through Samaria and Galilee, which most Jews would walk around because the Galileans were seen as second-class citizens, and the Samaritans, well, they were considered detestable and unclean. Interestingly, Jesus selected all of His disciples, with the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, from the Galileans, and repeatedly in His parables He held up a Samaritan as the protagonist and example of true faith, even as He does in this story of The Cleansing of the Ten Lepers.
This seemingly insignificant detail of Jesus’ path to Jerusalem is in truth exceedingly significant. When the ten lepers approach Jesus, where have they come from but from the outcasts and losers, the Galileans, and from the doubly outcast and losers, the Samaritans? The Galilean lepers were like dead ducks to the Jews, cut off from both society and temple, but the Samaritan leper, he was a duck twice dead! The broader point, here, is that these are the folks Jesus was going to Jerusalem to save. They are the “lost sheep of the House of Israel”, they are the Prodigal Son, they are the Pearl of Great Price, they are you, they are me, they are all of humanity that recognizes and confesses our lost condition and helplessness and cry out to the Lord “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord, have mercy!”
Yes! You must see yourself as one of the Galilean lepers, or, better yet, you must see yourself as the Samaritan! For, the fact that there were ten lepers who approached Jesus is no minor detail either, but ten is a symbolic number meant to communicate the totality of the Lord’s people, all those who will repent and believe and thus receive the cleansing forgiveness Jesus went to the cross in Jerusalem to secure for you by His innocent suffering and death. The path that Jesus walks to Jerusalem is straight through the midst of the dead, who confess their deadness and their desire to live. As the ‘70s am radio classic so eloquently expresses it, “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” And, your Lord Jesus, your God, would have it no other way.
All ten lepers cried to Jesus for mercy, and Jesus cleansed them all without exception. In fact, He ordered them to go and show themselves to the priests, for this was what the Levitical law required for a cleansed leper to be declared clean once again. For, they were clean already, because of their faith in Jesus, all they needed, and solely for the sake of human sensitivity, was the declaration of the same from the priests. This is very much like the paralytic whom Jesus cleansed. Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven you,” and the man was healed. However, the scribes and the Pharisees took issue with Jesus’ pronouncing forgiveness, therefore, because of the weakness of their faith, Jesus told the man, “Rise, take up your mat and walk,” and he did. The point is, the true healing is absolution, forgiveness; anything and everything else is secondary, gravy, icing on the cake.
But, then, Jesus takes the story a different direction in order to make a distinction for the purpose of teaching. One of the ten lepers, when he saw that he was healed, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.” All ten lepers were cleansed, but only this one returned to give thanks. Then, to boot, Jesus tells us that that one was a Samaritan. What is Jesus’ point? Well, as I indicated earlier, all of the lepers, who represent all humanity, were already despised, cut-off, dead to both society and temple, and the Samaritan was even worse off than that. Therefore, Jesus’ point is two-fold: First, no one should think himself to be better than another in terms of righteousness before God Whether you are a Galilean leper or a Samaritan leper, you’re still a leper, and there’s nothing that you can do to change that, but you must be cleansed and healed, you must be forgiven by Jesus. Second, the deader you realize you are, the deader you confess yourself to be, the more receptive you will be to Jesus’ mercy, love, and forgiveness; or, in the words of St. Dylan, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I cannot stress to you enough that Jesus wants you to see yourself in this way. You must see yourself in this way, for only lepers can be cleansed, only sinners can be forgiven, and only the dead can be raised to new and eternal life. This is why Jesus then turns and asks, not the Samaritan leper, but His disciples, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Thanksgiving and praise are just two of the fruits of faith. They, along with good works, are, as Paul Speratus, paraphrasing St. James, writes, “The proof that faith is living.” The thing about fruit, however, is that it will come, naturally, of its own accord, if there is true and living faith. Where was the fruit of faith, where was the proof of faith in the other nine equally cleansed lepers?
Moreover, we must pay close attention to the words of Jesus in describing the cleansed Samaritan leper’s response: He “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.” The cleansed Samaritan leper praised God with his voice, and he also praised God by falling down at Jesus’ feet and giving Him thanks. He worshipped Jesus, and believed that he was praising God! Just who did the cleansed Samaritan leper confess Jesus to be? God in the flesh. Emmanuel, God with us. Abraham’s Son of Promise. The Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. David’s Son and David’s Lord. Jesus, God’s Salvation for all men, of all times, and in all places.
“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Now that you have been cleansed, healed, and forgiven, what’s next? What way will you go? Presumably the other nine lepers whom Jesus’ cleansed returned to some semblance of their former lives. However, the cleansed Samaritan leper, I believe that he took up his cross and followed Jesus. Indeed, this way and path is described in both our Old Testament and Epistle lessons today. King Solomon writes in Proverbs: “I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness. […] Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evil. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on.” Likewise, St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “Walk by the spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
As leprosy is a disease of the flesh, what better figure could Jesus use to exemplify that, once cleansed from the sins of your flesh through His gracious absolution, you must not return to sinful, fleshly living, but walk in the way of righteousness and holiness, in the way of Christ? And, a key component of that kind of righteous living is the confession that you are always, always, a forgiven sinner, a man, once dead, but now raised to new life in Jesus Christ. Therefore, may you live every day like the thankful cleansed Samaritan leper, remaining clean, forgiven, holy, and righteous by returning to Jesus, by trusting in Jesus alone for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Today Jesus is passing through Galilee and Samaria, even Pawling, New York. He has heard your cry for mercy and He has answered. Come, then, and fall at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving, praising God for His gracious visitation. Receive Him who will not leave you as orphans, but who communes with you in flesh and blood, that He may walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death, that you might fear no evil, nor be swayed to the path of evil, but walk in holiness and righteousness all the days of your life. Remain in Him, and He will remain in you, and you will be fruitful with the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – to the glory of God the Father.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.