St Christopher’s, Rantoul—Luke 17:11–19
We’re in the section of Luke’s gospel now, from sometime this past summer up until the beginning of Advent, that is sometimes referred to as the “travelogue.” Today’s reading is from Chapter 17, but back in Chapter 9 is the incident at Caesarea Philippi—which is way in the extreme north of the territory that Jesus walked around in with his followers—an incident that you’re probably familiar with, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter finally gives the correct answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Shortly after that, the text tells us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” which is way in the south, and where he would, of course, suffer and die. So Jesus and his disciples are on a long and slow journey toward Jerusalem. Today his route takes him through an unnamed village. Just like any other traveler, Jesus and company are subject to the random events that travelers are subject to; you never know in advance the details of what’s going to happen on any given day of travel. As I drive through the diocese, I have no certain knowledge concerning the details of traffic or weather or construction or reckless drivers or … whatever.
In Jesus’ case, one of these random events is an encounter with ten lepers, who hailed him from a distance. Now leprosy is surely the single disease most frequently mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. In any given instance, it may or may not be what we now know as Hansen’s Disease, which is where flesh gets gradually eaten away, causing some awful disfigurements. It may, sometimes, be something more like eczema or a really bad skin rash; we just don’t know. What we do know is that, under Jewish law, anyone who had what might look like leprosy was commanded to self-exile, to stay away from normal society, and hang out only with other lepers. So these ten lepers were a sort of roving band of outcasts, on a rather more aimless journey than Jesus, and their random event on a day of travel was to run into Jesus, which they probably thought was a huge stroke of good luck because, by that time, Jesus had a widespread reputation as a healer
If we pause to reflect, we can recognize brief, or sometimes not so brief, encounters with God—with the Father, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit—in the midst of the randomness of our lives: from the beauty of a sunset to a hoped-for outcome from surgery to circumstances just lining up the right way—you know, those moments when we say, “It’s got to be a God thing”—particularly when there’s a clear answer to prayer. We approach God in prayer just as the ten lepers called out to Jesus, because we know he is able to deliver us from our afflictions, and to give us the strength to endure them with grace.
Jesus heals the lepers, as is his custom whenever anybody asks for healing, but, in this case, he does so rather indirectly. Instead of some dramatic gesture, like spitting on the ground or crying out with a loud voice, he simply assumes the outcome of his action without saying anything about it. He tells the lepers: Go and show yourself to the priest—that is, the legally authorized judge of whether they are, in fact, lepers. In the course of obeying Jesus, the lepers notice that they are healed.
There are two lessons to be drawn here, I think—one lesser and one greater. The lesser lesson is that bit about “in the course of obeying Jesus”: the lepers didn’t just stand there and get healed; they had to start moving, in obedience, before they experienced healing. Just as the proverbial “watched pot never boils,” it behooves us to attend to whether we are so fixated on our faithful petitions to God that we fail to see his presence and activity already among us and within us, and forget to act in his name. We can get so caught up in our awareness of our own needs that we miss seeing how God is already beginning to act to meet those needs.
The greater lesson is visible to us in the behavior of the one leper who, when he notices that his skin has cleared up, turns around and comes back to Jesus, falling at his feet in gratitude. I cannot help but imagine a subtle grin on Jesus’ face as he asks, in mock sarcasm, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Indeed, the one grateful leper was a Samaritan, an ethnic group that were considered “half-breeds” by the Jews, and were very much looked down-upon. Yet, this half-breed, this foreigner, was the one whose eyes were open to what he had experienced. He had been healed from leprosy, his defining condition, and his new defining condition was the result of his interaction with Jesus, the Anointed One of God.
When you and I were baptized, we had an encounter with that same Jesus, the Anointed One of God. We were brought to him as lepers, under the power of sin and death, marked as not worthy of existing in the community of the Kingdom of God. Then, we were given a new defining condition, that of being “in Christ,” sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. The appropriate response, just as it was for the leper, is thanksgiving. For this reason, we come together on the first day of every week, the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection, to offer eucharist, to offer thanks, to offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a living sacrifice to the God who has healed and forgiven and redeemed us. It is not for no reason that the part of the Mass to which we will come in a few minutes is called the Great Thanksgiving.
One of the commentaries that I consulted in preparing this homily said that “Gratitude may be the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition. The absence of the ability to be grateful reveals self-centeredness or the attitude that ‘I deserve more than I ever get, so I do not need to be grateful.’” Indeed, gratitude is the fundamental disposition of a disciple. Gratitude begins when we truly see that God is present and active with us and in the world, just as the healed Samaritan did in the course of obeying Jesus and going to show himself to the priest. And gratitude is expressed as we begin to recognize how much God’s mercy has touched our lives, when we cultivate the habit of seeing and acting on the needs of those whose lives intersect with ours. We follow the example of the grateful Samaritan leper as we get out of ourselves and our own needs and open our eyes to Jesus. Amen.