The text for our consideration is the gospel lesson just read. There is a dark side to this stop on the journey with our Lord as He makes His way to Jerusalem and the cross. In what would otherwise have been another beautiful movement in the symphony, there’s an ‘off-note’ here that causes us to wince. There’s something that is just ‘not right’ here.
But the truth of the matter is, this account cannot be ‘fixed’ simply by demanding more ‘thankfulness.’ “Gratitude” that is forced because the Law demands it is no “gratitude” at all. Aristotle had it wrong. Good and faithful habits to not make good and faithful hearts. Luther had it right. Good and faithful hearts produce good and faithful habits.
And so we dare not miss what is good, and so full of light and harmony and heart-breaking joy in this account. This stop on the journey to Jerusalem features a miracle of restoration that Jesus does, simply by the sound of His voice – that same voice that spoke all things into existence in the beginning – that voice that called to you and me in our wretched and pitiable condition – that voice that worked a ‘restoration’ in us and ‘restored’ the ‘wretched men and women that we are’ into the ‘beautiful’ and ‘very good’ people of God that He created us to be.
“On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’”
You’ve got to wonder what they expected Him to do. How many others had they lifted up their voices to who looked the other way as they walked right by them? Leprosy was a disfiguring disease that most civilized people don’t much like to see and they look away from.
I remember hearing the story about a Sunday School teacher who was trying to teach this story to her young class and after telling the story as best as she could, she asked the children, ‘so, what would you do if you saw 10 lepers along the road?’ One little boy raised his hand and answered, ‘teacher, if I saw 10 leopards along the road, I’d shoot them.’
Thankfully, that’s not how this encounter goes at all.
Luke writes, “When He saw them…” Just as the loving father SAW his prodigal son ‘while he was a long way off…,’ just as Jesus SAW you…, He SAW these 10 men and He came to them. Here is One who doesn’t turn His face away from them. Here is one who is willing to SEE their pathetic and wretched lives, and yours too.
“When He saw them” and did the UNEXPECTED THING. “Go show yourselves to the priests.”
Now there’s only one reason why a person with leprosy would ‘go show himself to the priests.’ The ‘priests’ at the temple were Israel’s health inspectors. After a thorough examination, the “priests” had the authority to issue a certificate of ‘cleanness’ which allowed the former-leper to return to his family and society and even to the Temple.
So, we wonder what these men thought when Jesus said, “go, show yourselves to the priest”? But whatever they thought, they went. All 10 of them went.
As we will later learn, one of them was a Samaritan – not a Jew. Samaritans do not worship the God of Israel nor do they attend the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. But for some strange reason, as the others set out to the Temple to see the Priest, this Samaritan, this outsider, follows. He walks in the footsteps of another outsider to the Jewish faith. “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
St. Paul writes, “Now faith comes from HEARING and HEARING through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17) And that’s just how it happened for these 10 men. All 10 heard the Word of God from the mouth of God incarnate. AND ALL 10 BELIEVED THE WORD THEY HEARD.
How do we know they believed? Because “THEY WENT…” All 10 did what Jesus told them to do. James writes, “Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18). “Faith” obeys the Word of God. ALL 10 WENT.
For those 10 on that day, all 10 Commandments were distilled down to one – “Go show yourselves to the priests.” For them, that was the only Commandment that mattered.
Luke writes, “as they went they were cleansed.” All 10 were cleansed. Their skin was all pink and smooth and wrinkle free. IT WAS A RESURRECTION OF THE BODY before their bodies were buried in the ground, and before the Last Day when Jesus will come again to raise our mortal bodies from the ground and unite them to our soul in heaven, where what God has joined together, no one will rend asunder ever again.
It happened, “as they went…” BEFORE THEY GOT TO THE PRIEST. And to us it’s obvious. The healing came from Jesus. He is our new HIGH PRIEST, who has not only declared us to be CLEAN – but MADE US CLEAN, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that YOU might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph.5:27)
Now nine of these men disappear from view. We have no idea what ever became of them. Were they reunited with their families? Did they have children and grandchildren? And did they tell the children and grandchildren the story of what happened to them that day along the border between Galilee and Samaria? We simply don’t know.
“But one of them, 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.”
One of them ‘SAW his leprosy’ and then ‘SAW his perfectly restored and healthy flesh.’ Surely the others ‘saw’ this too. But this one SAW something much more than just his skin. HE SAW more than just himself. His eyes were opened and he SAW the One who had first seen them.
And he could go no further with his new, non-leprous life until he “TURNED BACK,” (which is the word for “repentance.”) And as he “turns back” he is “praising God WITH A LOUD VOICE.”
It is for all 10 of these men that Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. For all 10, He will be cut off from His family, His friends, His world… and even His God. The sacrifice of atonement prescribed in the book of Leviticus for the cleansing of their leprosy would be carried out upon His skin and flesh.
Their cleansing and restoration was just a preview of the greater cleansing and restoration that He was on this journey to effect FOR YOU and ME. By His cross, all of our leprosy, both physical and spiritual, ATE HIM UP until He was unrecognizable. Isaiah saw it all. “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance and his form beyond that of the children of mankind… as one from whom men hide their faces.” (Is.52:14; 53:3)… ‘Hide their faces” from the One who ‘SAW US AND WOULD NOT HIDE HIS FACE.’ He took the leprosy of the world upon Himself for the sake of every single leper of body and soul.
And now, rather than sending you see the Priest, He invites you to come to Him, because He is the Priest. And you meet Him, not in Jerusalem but in your Baptism. And by this “washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” He declares you to be CLEAN, even HOLY AS HE IS HOLY.
But only one turned back to give thanks to Jesus. “And he was a Samaritan.” Isn’t that a ‘kicker’? We were expecting that it would be just the opposite, that the nine were Samaritans and the one who got it was a good Jew. “You know how it is with those ‘unbelievers.’ They just don’t get it.”
Jesus’ disappointment with the nine is the ‘off-key’ note that makes us cringe. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?
In his ‘house sermon’ on this text, Luther points to THE PAIN OF INGRATITUDE that our Lord feels and expresses here. But He doesn’t let the ingratitude of the nine deter Him from doing good and being happy on account of the one.
From this, Luther says, if we want to be disciples of Jesus, we should learn not only to be thankful, but also to develop the virtue of putting up with ingratitude. Luther writes, “Whoever wants to be a Christian must clearly understand the fact that all his good deeds, faithfulness, and service to others will only result in ingratitude, and he must guard against letting that fact move him to quit doing good deeds and helping others. For it is a Christian virtue and true fruit of faith that, when you have done your best and people reward your kindness by criticizing you, you remain patient and respond by saying, ‘No, I refuse to let you make me angry or surly. I shall simply put up with your ingratitude and keep right on helping people whenever I can. For I know someone in heaven above who will thank me in your stead. And that will be far more gratifying to me than your gratitude would be.” (The Complete Sermons of Luther: v.6; p.426f)
How every parent needs to hear these words and take them to heart.
We all stand in the shoes of these ten men. We all suffer the leprosy of our sin which eats away our body and soul. Yet, even before we knew enough to pray that most sensible of all prayers, “Lord have mercy on us,” the Lord made his way to us by traveling along this border between heaven and hell where we live.
He saw us from the ages of ages. And He came to us to speak his miraculous word to us. “Go and show yourselves to the priest.” And before you even depart from this place and begin your journey back home, the priest has already declared to you, in the stead and by the command of this same Jesus, “I forgive you all of your sins.” And with those words, THE MIRACLE OF RESTORATION happens for you just as it did for them.
How will we respond to this grace upon grace that continues to break over us like the waves break on the shore? How does the sinner say thank you to His Savior? It’s the question that the psalmist asks, and that we ask as we bring our offerings to the altar. “what shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?”
The answer is, “I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call on the name of the Lord.” We have nothing to offer our gracious Lord but thanksgiving. And we show our thankfulness to Him by calling upon him over and over again – “Lord have mercy upon us” – trusting that He sees us, and that He will not turn away from renewing us and healing us, over and over, and over again.
“I will take the cup of salvation and will call on the name of the Lord.” There is no greater way to say thank you to your Lord than to take the “cup of salvation.” And then to return again and again and agin, and each time saying, ‘MORE.’ ‘I WANT MORE.’
“Then Jesus said, “rise and go you way, your faith has made you well.”