Luke 17: 11-19
There was no ‘santoosh’, in Telegu, ‘joy or contentment’ that day at the leper village outside of Hyderbad in the Khamman area of India. There were only elderly faces with blank stares and children with leprosy whose sweet eyes were filled with the inquisitive look of young explorers. Except they were not able to explore because they were confined to the village.
We talked with them through a translator and the most that we could do that day was to let them know that they are not forgotten. That, there are people in the United States who know they exist and hold them in prayer. That, by our very presence we see them and are with them in spirit and that they are not alone. The children walked us to the edge of the village, begging us to take their photos. We waved goodbye. But that was not the last time that I have seen their faces or thought about their illness, their isolation, or the stigma that these ostracized people face. All I need do is to close my eyes and in my mind’s eye, I see them. But what can one person do to help these people? If you are Jesus, a lot.
Let us now hear the sacred words of our text from the Gospel of Luke the 17th chapter.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
Living with leprosy, or what we now know as Hanson’s disease, in the first century of the Common Era was not easy nor was it pleasant. It still isn’t in some parts of the world as I experienced. Today there are roughly 4 million people who live with the disease. It carries the stigma of shame and disgrace because of the deformities to which it can lead. A person with leprosy back then was forced to live in exile, isolated from community and family not to mention the physical discomfort of this disease that affects the nerves near the skin.
It’s understandable that these ten men in our Gospel today would do anything to be healed from this devastating disease – even approach, against all odds, some guy who just arrived from the northern parts of Galilee, who made pretty outrageous claims about Torah, who performed miracles and healings just like all the other miracle makers of the day.
Remember this is not the post-Easter Jesus, the risen Christ we all know and love. This is that man Jesus, from Nazareth and the men with leprosy could not have known the events that were about to happen, his death and resurrection. All they knew was that Jesus, this Jew from the north could heal and they didn’t want to be lepers any longer.
So they cry out, “have mercy on us!”. And, through the power of God, Jesus heals them. Their scarred and disfigured bodies were made whole once again as they ran to the temple priests for examination and certification that they were clean and pure. But that one leper, he turns back. He was a Samaritan you see, not a Jew. Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem through the region between Samaria and Galilee which was a fairly dangerous route because the Samaritans and the Jews didn’t see eye to eye. So the tenth leper was a despised foreigner, who, by all accounts really shouldn’t have been the one to turn back, but he does so.
Not only does he turn back but he makes a public demonstration of his thankfulness, he prostrates himself in front of Jesus. We’re not sure how Jesus received this man’s outburst of gratitude but we do know that he makes note that the other nine lepers are not at his feet.
The nine lepers were physically healed but the tenth leper was wholly healed, both physical and spiritually. Healing is secondary in this story but faith is not. All were healed. In this passage Jesus points us to a more profound understanding of faith. Jesus acknowledges the one leper’s gratitude and says, “Get up! Go! Be on your way, your faith has made you well.”
Let us remember that faith is not a cause and effect sort of thing. You know, you pray for something and it either happens or not. And it’s not about the amount of faith you have because we recall that Jesus tells us if we have the faith of a tiny mustard seed we can move mountains. Our prayers don’t ‘work’ or not’ depending on the amount of faith we have, or where we are on our spiritual journeys.
Here Jesus is teaching us about how to live our faith, “To have faith is to live it, and to live it is to give thanks”[i] as scholar Kimberly Bracken Long says, and that is what ultimately makes the man well. He is living his faith. When we live in faith and practice a life of faith we cannot help but be grateful for each and every day, each and every encounter of healing, spiritual, physically or mental. Mercy and gratitude abound in this story and we can learn from this foreigner’s actions as he recognizes the source of all healing and then gives thanks.
How can we possibly not practice gratitude when we know that God is the healer and giver of life? It is in the turning back and thanking that the one grateful leper is saved. Gratitude is available to every one of us. That is one of the tree essential prayers that Anne Lamott talks about, ‘Help, Thanks and Wow!’[ii]
Saying thanks acknowledges our helplessness in situations beyond our control. It recognizes that there is something, some ONE much larger than ourselves who ‘has our back’. Saying thanks takes us out of ourselves and our self pity and into a deeper relationship with God. Thank you God for this day!
Thank you God for letting me get that parking space. Thank you God for my neighbor who did not loose their home. Thank you God that I made it through today unscathed by the storm that just passed through my life. And even if my body creaks, thank you God for another day of my life on this earth. Just…thank you God!
Practicing gratitude changes us. It changes our hearts. It has the ability to change us as a congregation too. Thanking God together can transform us and grow us in the spirit of gratitude and love. Let us be that one leper who turns around and give God all the glory.