Sermon for 19 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Lk. 17:11-19
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
In today’s gospel, Jesus is at it again. Jesus refuses to travel where it’s safe. He also refuses to keep company with only those people who are safe and respectable—thus highlighting two of doctor Luke’s favourite gospel themes: that Jesus’ ministry was one of healing and that he came to befriend and invite into his realm outcasts, sinners and Gentiles. Jesus traveled in an unpopular and dangerous region; he also associated with equally unpopular and outcast people by showing his compassion towards ten lepers. At that time in history, Jews and Samaritans were, at best, rivals and at worst, bitter enemies, having no desire to associate with each other.
However, Jesus was not prepared to allow this age-old rivalry and even hatred between Jew and Samaritan from traveling in the region of Samaria and ministering to their people. For Jesus, as well as for Luke who tells this story, the love of God is all-inclusive, reaching out to both Jews and Gentiles.
One of the social customs of that day was to avoid lepers; to keep them away from normal healthy people; to regard them as sinful and unclean. In some places, they may even have been required to wear signs on their person with the word unclean; and/or they were supposed to yell out in warning to non-lepers: “Unclean!” This ostracism of lepers was also likely based on the belief at the time that one was sick and suffering from diseases because of the sins of one’s ancestors or/and because one was possessed with evil spirits. However, all of this does not prevent Jesus from going beyond the boundaries of these social customs in order to bring God’s love and healing power to outcast, forbidden lepers. Once again, Jesus sees the needs of people taking priority over the confines of popular customs of his day. He came to earth to bring the love of God to all people by ministering to the needs of all people.
The ten lepers all had a common need, which united them due to their leprosy. Through suffering from their leprosy they were united in their common need of God’s healing, cleansing power. Since Jesus “was passing along between Samaria and Galilee;” it is quite possible that the ten lepers were a mixed group of Jews and Samaritans—especially in light of Jesus’ words of instruction in verse 14: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Such words indicate that Jesus wanted his fellow Jewish citizens and spiritual leaders to recognize the legitimacy of his healing work; so that the Jewish lepers in the group who were healed could be restored as legitimate members of society and no longer outcasts. The priest would officially declare them clean and cured of their leprosy. It is even more possible, when Luke tells us specifically that the one leper who returns to thank Jesus was a Samaritan. This may very well imply that the other lepers—or a least some of them—were Jews.
At any rate, what is so beautiful about this healing story is that in suffering these lepers were united in their need of God’s healing. Is this not the case for us as well? Often is it not when people of diverse backgrounds face suffering that they all are united in their need of God; that their differences, bickering, and divisions are set aside and pale in comparison to their common needs and goals?
For example, in a World War Two concentration camp, there were a number of Christians; some were Baptists, some Roman Catholics, some Lutherans. All of them wanted to have their own worship services at first. However, they found that this was not working out so the Baptists, Roman Catholics and Lutherans all got together to organize one worship service for everyone. They agreed that if they were going to worship together then, they should all have a common confession—which became Jesus Christ is Saviour and Lord. It was because of their imprisonment that they all were united in their common need to worship God together; giving God thanks and praise, even while they were in a prisoner of war camp.
In today’s gospel, all ten lepers had the common need of God’s healing, cleansing power. All of them ask Jesus for healing and cleansing and all of them were granted it. Yet, only one out of ten showed Jesus any gratitude for what he had done. This one was a Samaritan at that; a foreigner and outcast; maybe even a potential enemy. The question arises: why did the Samaritan give praise and thanks to God when the other nine didn’t? Could it, once again, be related to their needs? The Samaritan not only recognized that his need for healing and cleansing was met—he also recognized WHO it was that healed him. For this Samaritan, offering praise and thanks to God who healed him was equally—if not more—important as receiving the actual healing. However, it seems—one can never see into and judge their hearts and deepest motives!—that for the other nine it was more important to receive the healing than to recognize Jesus who healed them. Did they not think of God enough to praise and thank him for their healing? Or did they do so only after they had gone to the priest and were restored officially as legitimate, clean members of their society? We don’t know for certain, since we are not told. Or, in the worst case scenario, did they only need God when they were stricken with leprosy? Now that they were healed and things were going well for them, did they forget their constant need for God?
A prosperous business man was lying on a bed of pain. One day while the pastor was visiting, this successful business man promised that if God would put him back on his feet, he would take an active part in the work of the church and would give generously to its benevolences. God healed him, but the man gave no thanks. The pastor became concerned about his neglect of spiritual things and his poor church attendance and his lack of interest in the work of the church at large. One day, when the opportunity presented itself, he asked this rich business man if he did not remember his promise to God. The man with a shrug of his shoulders simply passed off his resolution with the hollow words: “Oh, that goes to show how really sick I was.” 1
Have there been times in our lives too when we were very ill, down-and-out, and then received healing from Jesus; but like the rich business man in the story, forgot about God when we became healthy again? Have there been opportunities that we missed to praise and thank God; to show our gratitude to God for healing us? Or perhaps we think that we can do things on our own, without God’s help. Or maybe we place more value in the gift than we do in God the gift’s Giver.
When we fail to express our gratitude to God; we need to be reminded once again of the importance of worship. It’s in our worship that we express our thanks and praise to God. Worship helps us to acknowledge that God is Lord and Master of our lives. It’s in worship that we express our deepest thoughts and feelings to God. Likewise, it’s often in worship that God speaks to us. In worship, we’re connected with God, our Source of life. Worship not only reminds us from whence we’ve come; where we are today; but also shows us where we are going by connecting us with eternity. Our worship cannot be limited to a church building every Sunday. We worship God every day of the week too. Like the Samaritan in our gospel today; we worship God whenever and wherever it’s appropriate to do so. That’s the meaning of gratitude. To recognize God the Giver of all gifts; to acknowledge that there is much more to life than our physical and mental needs; to come into God’s Holy Presence with our spiritual needs too.
It is vital to our total well-being that we, like the Samaritan, come to Jesus with all of our needs, whatever they may be; to request healing and to show our gratitude for what Jesus has done for us. In sickness or in health; when we are angry or joyful; if we are rich or poor; if we are popular or rejected by society as an outcast; whatever our situation might be; we, like the Samaritan need to praise and thank our God each and every day of our life.
Martin Rinckart, whose paean of praise “Now Thank We All Our God” is sung in thousands of churches, penned this hymn during an epidemic in which the number of the dead was so great that they had to be buried in trenches. His own wife was taken away; he lost his property and was driven to desperate extremes in finding food and clothes for his children. Yet he triumphed over despair to sing:
All Praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given. 2
May our gratitude be like that of Martin Rinckart’s and the Samaritan’s. May we worship God each day of our lives—offering our praise and thanks for all that we have been given in every situation. Jesus is with us always to care for our deepest needs and offer us healing, health and wholeness.
1 Cited from: Emphasis Vol. 13, No. 5, October 1, 1983 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 1983), p. 21.