He turned back
Sermon preached at Enmore, 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 9th October 2016
Reading: Luke 17. 11–19.
I remember as a child the one down side of Christmas and birthdays was the little ritual that my mother forced upon me. I would be sat down at a table, given a pen and paper and told to write a nice thank you note to the grandparents, uncles and aunts who had given me presents. The difficulty I had with this task was knowing what to say after the standard opening line, “Dear Aunty /Uncle/Grandad, thank you for the lovely toy you gave me for my birthday.” At that point my mind went blank and I would stare at the paper for hours. (I’ve occasionally had the same problem with writing sermons.) While I struggled with the task as a child, looking back I am glad my mother insisted on this exercise because it taught me the importance of saying thank you. In our fast paced, busy society giving thanks is one of those things easily overlooked. Today’s Gospel tells the story of a man who was healed of a terrible skin disease and who came back to Jesus to say thank you. However, it would be a mistake to read this story simply as a lesson in the importance of saying thank you. Luke is a wonderful story teller and this story is worthy of close attention.
The account of the healing of the ten lepers is found only in the third Gospel, and it opens the final stage in Luke’s narrative of the final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples are moving south away from Galilee but they avoid traveling directly through Samaritan territory having already encountered some opposition there. As they enter a village they are met by a group of ten lepers, who, mindful of the Mosaic law keep a safe distance (literally ‘afar off’) from the travelers. They call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” The prayer they uttered is similar to the prayer much loved by the Orthodox Church and frequently used by Orthodox Christians in their devotions, known as the Jesus Prayer or the prayer of the heart. In its most common form it is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The shortened version of the prayer is the Kyrie Eleison, ‘Lord have mercy’, the prayer we sometimes use in our liturgy. Certainly the prayer voiced by the lepers was a prayer from the heart. Leprosy covered a variety of skin disorders as well as what we now call Hansen’s disease but the effect on the sufferer was always the same-you became an outcast from your community and if the disease went into remission the only way back into society was to have a priest inspect every part of your body and to declare you to be clean. The healing miracles of Jesus are never formulaic –everyone is different. The difference on this occasion is that Jesus simply calls to the diseased men and instructs them to go immediately and show themselves to the priests.
Remarkably, the ten men obey the word of Jesus and start to make their way to the nearest priest. It is while they are going that they discover they are healed, their skin restored to normal. Luke uses words carefully and in describing the healing of the ten uses three different words. The first word he uses for healed is ‘cleansed’ or ‘made clean’ a word which carries religious overtones. There were many ways to become unclean in first century Jewish society- leprosy was just one of them. All ten lepers discover they are now ritually clean and can approach their priests confident that they will be accepted back into their communities. But one of them, having made the dramatic discovery that he is cured, (Luke’s second word) is prompted to turn back, praising God loudly and enthusiastically. Turning back is an important New Testament concept usually described with the more complicated and heavy word, repentance. When the prodigal son away in the far country comes to his senses he decides to turn around and return home. The Good Samaritan breaks his journey and turns aside to help the wounded man. Hearing the voice of God or the voice of the needy sometimes leads to a change of mind and a change of direction. I remember some years ago listening to the debates that took place in the Synod called to elect a previous Archbishop and hearing a speaker describe one of the candidates as being unsuitable for the job because he declared ‘this man has been known to change his mind!’ A mind unwilling to consider the possibility of change is a closed mind. The Samaritan man who was healed was open to the possibility that what had happened to him was nothing less than the work of God. He returned to Jesus, prostrated himself at his feet and thanked him. He alone openly acknowledged that God was the healer and as Jesus was the one through whom the healing had come, then this man, Jesus, was from God. It has been said that the miracles of Jesus do not reward faith but they invite faith. The foreigner, the outsider responds to his healing not just with gratitude but with faith.
Jesus says to the man who turned back, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has saved you (made you well).” The word for ‘get up’ is the same word from which we get resurrection. For this Samaritan here was a new beginning, a new life. For those with eyes to see that otherwise insignificant village had been visited by the new life of the age to come. The Kingdom of God had come among them but only one out of ten had seen it. ‘Your faith has saved you’-here Luke uses his third word and it is one of his favourites. The word can mean physical healing but it has often a broader meaning of ‘wholeness’ or life in all its fullness. Four times in this Gospel, Jesus says ‘Your faith has saved you’ and on each occasion it is addressed to an outcast. The first is in Luke 7 where Jesus is having lunch in the home of a Pharisee when a woman from the street comes in and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipe them with her hair and anoint them with expensive ointment. Her behaviour is scandalous in the eyes of the Pharisee but welcomed and praised by Jesus.
The second is the woman with the chronic haemorrhage who comes up behind him in the crowd, touches the fringe of his garment and finds she is healed (Luke 8); the third is the Samaritan who turned back and the fourth is found in Luke 18, the blind beggar in Jericho named Bartimaeus who has his sight restored. Four outcasts who discovered that, they too, were included in God’s embrace and heard the words, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”
We are not told but we suspect that the Samaritan who set out to find his priest never arrived. There is no hint in the text that he eventually reported to a priest in Jerusalem or in his own capital Samaria. The priests were the gatekeepers, the mediators between God and his people but the Samaritan found one who is greater. As Paul puts it there is now ‘one mediator between God and humankind, the man Christ Jesus.’ The other nine went to their priests and received their certificate of cleansing and returned to their homes and communities and normal life resumed. But for the Samaritan who turned back to praise God, life would never be normal again. He was now a disciple, a follower of Jesus.
Saying thank you is important but even more important is to understand all that God has done for us and to live a life of praise to him. A now forgotten Scottish theologian of the 19th century, Thomas Erskine, once wrote, “Until we know the love of our Father’s heart to us as manifested in Christ, the future must always be to us at best a dark and doubtful wilderness.” He also said, “In the New Testament religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” That sums up what this Gospel passage is really about.