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He turned back

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.


Philip Brad­ford