October 13, 2013 - Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
“Dear Abby” gets a lot
of letters about writing thank-you notes. Last month, a reader said she
recently received two different thank-you notes which both mentioned the wrong
gift. A couple years ago there was an exchange of letters complaining on one
side and defending on the other side the practice of having guests at showers
self-address an envelope so the bride or mom-to-be can more easily send a thank
Taking the prize is a
note shared in a column on May 24 this year. The writer and her husband had
given a very nice monetary gift to the son of an old friend and his new wife. The
note they got read, “Dear ‘Loretta’ and ‘Evan,’ Thank you for the
generous donation. We really enjoyed spending that money. If ever you feel like
you have too much of it, we would gladly take it off your hands. Love, ‘Mason’
reply said she hoped that “Mason” and “Candace’s” note was an “unfortunate
attempt at humor,” but then she went on to say, “at least you received a
thank-you for your generosity. I hear from many people who complain their gifts
were not acknowledged at all.”
understands those folks writing to Dear Abby. His generosity was not
acknowledged at all by nine out of ten men in our text today. Verses 11
and 12 tell us the ten lepers lived outside a little border town between
Galilee and Samaria. Lepers then were like the homeless around us today. They
formed their own little camps or colonies and kept their distance from healthy
people, but like street folks now they positioned themselves along roads or
paths where folks would pass by so they could appeal for alms, for charity.
These ten guys were in
their usual begging location when Jesus came by. They stayed at a distance, but
verse 13 says they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” There is no
way to know what was in their minds, what they were asking for. It might have
simply been a handout of money or food they wanted. But they called out to
Jesus, naming Him as “Master.” That’s a title only used in Luke, and it’s
usually the disciples calling Jesus Master. In other ancient writings it means
something more like “commander” or “chief.” You might picture a group of street
people calling out to you, “Hey boss! A little help here?”
So their cry was just
a little flippant, a bit sarcastic. They had heard about Him, they knew Jesus’
name, that He had some “creds” as we might say. But they called out to Him and,
maybe by accident, asked for the exactly the right thing: “have mercy on us!”
Mercy was exactly what Jesus had to give. He had no money. He wasn’t going to
miraculously feed them. But our Master and Savior had mercy and to spare.
That cry of the lepers
has become one of the centerpieces of Christian worship. The word “Master” got
replaced with the word “Lord,” kyrie and then coupled with the very same
Greek word here, eleison. For centuries followers of Jesus have sung the
three phrases: Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy,” Christe eleison,
“Christ have mercy,” Kyrie eleison. We join these poor lepers calling
out to Jesus for His mercy on the disease and poverty of sin.
They were flippant,
they probably only expected money or food, but somehow when Jesus responded to
that cry for mercy they recognized that He was in fact their Master, their
Commander. He told them in verse 14 to go and show themselves to the priests.
And they went.
Luke doesn’t explain
this to us because he’s already explained it back in chapter 5 when Jesus
healed just one leper. There we learn that the Jewish people were still
practicing what Moses taught in the book of Leviticus. The law was very
particular about what people with leprosy did. Today it is almost impossible to
catch leprosy by coming in contact with someone who has it. It was not so
impossible then. In areas with a warm climate and poor sewage, the bacteria
that cause leprosy may be transmitted. So the law required lepers to avoid
physical contact with other people. That’s why they lived outside the town and
stayed at a distance.
Jesus’ order to go
show themselves to the priest was what Leviticus 14 commanded. If a person
thought himself to be healed of the disease, then a priest would confirm that,
cleansing rituals would be performed, and sacrifices would be offered to God.
That’s what Jesus sent the lepers off to do.
There is some genuine
faith here, in all ten of them. Jesus didn’t come near them. They didn’t see
themselves immediately healed, like the man in chapter 5, because Jesus touched
him. But Jesus told them to go and they went, as if the healing had already
happened. That was true faith.
Like we heard last
week in that small parable of the dutiful servant, faith is demonstrated, faith
is completed in obedience. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost
of Discipleship, it’s only real faith when it comes together with
obedience. Bonhoeffer said, “Only the believer obeys and only the obedient
believe.” Like we saw last Sunday, faith produces obedience, but it is also
true that obedience produces faith. When we start to obey, to do what we are
commanded, our faith grows stronger. The lepers obeyed, and while on the path
of obedience their faith healed them.
Walking around in this
therapeutic boot on my left foot reminds me that fifteen years ago when I preached
on this text at this time of year I was wearing a brace on my left arm. Two
months before I was trying to teach my five-year-old daughter to ride a bike. I
was running along behind trying to keep her balanced when my feet got tangled
and I went over the top of the bike with my arms out. She landed fine, but I
cracked both elbows. The left one took quite awhile to heal.
About three weeks
later I was lying on the couch feeling sorry for myself, when Joanna came in
and said, “Come watch! I can ride!” So I went out with arm still in a cast,
dangling in a sling, to see her pedal up and down the street like a pro. The
boy who lived a block over had come along and taught her. And when she pulled
up in front of the porch where I was standing, she recited his lesson to me,
“It’s all speed and balance, Daddy, speed and balance.”
That’s right. Speed
and balance. You need both. Moving faster generates the momentum which helps
stabilize and balance you. But the more balanced you feel, the more confidence
you have to crank the pedals quicker and move a little faster. Speed and
balance, balance and speed, it’s a delicate dance.
Faith and obedience,
obedience and faith. That’s also a delicate dance. A little faith lets you push
off to be obedient, but as you obey your faith grows. As speed and balance grow
together on a bicycle, faith and obedience grow together in Christian life.
Jesus command the ten lepers to obedience to get them rolling toward more
When you start
learning to ride, almost everyone pedals too slow, afraid of falling. But it’s
only by moving a little faster that you gain the balance to keep from falling.
As disciples, we hold back on our obedience, fearful that we do not have enough
faith in what God can do. But it’s only by further obedience that we gain the
faith we need to continue with Jesus.
The first half of this
story is the same message as last Sunday. Get the wheels of obedience moving a
little faster. If you want the Lord to give you more faith, then give Him more
obedience. Find those areas where you hold back from doing what God asks. Obey
and then just like He did for those amazed lepers, God will heal and strengthen
you “on the way.”
This story has a
second half, though. It goes beyond “trust and obey.” Verse 15 tells how only one
out of the ten men learned the next lesson. He discovered he was healed, and he
realized something else. His obedience gave him a greater faith than just that
needed for a miracle. His obedience made him trust and love the person He
Jesus wants to know
us, to hear our needs, and to hear our thanks for the needs being met. Our Lord
is not a cosmic vending machine, and our acts of obedience are not coins to
stick in the slot so that what we want in life pops out. Jesus Christ is a
person who wants to be loved and thanked as much as any aunt or grandparent who
sends a birthday gift.
True gratitude is not
paying back what you were given. That’s how we often handle gifts. You receive
a present, calculate its cost, and then give back another item of the same value.
But that’s not thanks. It’s just paying a debt. It does not matter if it is a
Christmas gift or a dinner invitation or a little help painting the house. If
our first thought is how we can repay what was given, then there is no real
gratitude. Our concern is merely to be unencumbered by personal obligation. But
that is not the same as being thankful.
The Roman philosopher
Seneca said, “One who is anxious to make speedy repayment is unwilling to be
under obligation to another, and this is to be ungrateful.” The truly grateful
person is the one who knows she has been given something she cannot repay.
Gratitude is a willingness to be in someone else’s debt. The only way you can
respond is by saying thank you. Thanks is all you can offer in return. That is
our relationship to Jesus. That was the one leper’s relationship to Jesus.
We can see his deep
debt to Jesus in the little surprise at the end of verse 16. We’re told he
praised God. It says he fell down at Jesus’ feet to thank him. Only then does
Luke spring the news, “And he was a Samaritan.” This was not one of the chosen,
not one of God’s people. He was from a country, a race, and a religion despised
by Jewish people. Of all the ten, he was the one who could most realize that he
didn’t deserve what he received.
That’s how we all,
whether Jewish or Gentile, come to Jesus. Undeserving. They had leprosy. Our
disease is sin. The wrong we do to others, to God, and to ourselves eats away
at our souls like the bacteria harbored by leprosy eat away at flesh. Yet when
we cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” Jesus forgives our sins, renews our souls. It’s
a gift we can’t afford, a gift we can’t pay back. All we can do is give thanks.
Verse 17 shows us
Jesus being ironic. “Weren’t there ten made clean? Where are the other nine?”
Then a greater irony in verse 18, “Was none of them found to return and praise
God except this foreigner?” It was the God of the Jews who healed them, but it
was a Samaritan who came back. All the others took the gift and didn’t bother
to return, nor even send a thank you note.
The second half of the
story, then, is about gratitude, about saying thanks as an essential part of
the Christian life. It’s not enough to have faith and obedience. The song we
sang last Sunday is not quite right when the last verse ends, “Never fear, only
trust and obey.” Yes, trust and obey, and give thanks.
That’s what we’re
about here on Sunday mornings, you know. Our relationship with our God is not
just all faith and duty, trust and obey. As an absolutely essential part of
knowing Jesus Christ, we come to worship and praise Him, to give thanks. Martin
Luther was once asked what was the essence, the heart of Christian worship. He
said, “It’s the tenth leper turning back.”
And there’s just a
little more to it, yet. Saying thank you for a wedding present or a neighbor’s
help fixing a fence is a way of demonstrating that you appreciated the gift,
that it was valued, that it was accepted. Saying thanks in Christian
worship is our way of continuing to say, week by week, year after year, that we
have accepted God’s gift to us of salvation through Jesus Christ.
We evangelicals often
talk about accepting Jesus Christ as Savior as though it’s something we do once
and then it’s done. But a Christian spirit of thanks and praise is a constant
and regular acceptance of what Jesus has done for us. And it’s accepting that
gift which saves us.
That’s why in verse
19, Jesus looked down at that grateful man on his knees, pouring out his
thanks, and said, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.” Except
He didn’t say, “your faith has made you well.” That’s not what the word
means, despite several translations putting it that way. It’s the word Jesus
used when He said He had come “to seek and to save the lost.” It’s the word
Paul used when he told the Philippian jailor, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and
you will be saved.” So Jesus told that leper to get up and go, “your faith has saved you.”
In coming back to say
thank you, the single Samaritan leper took a step none of the others did. He
appreciated and accepted the gift, the whole gift of Jesus Christ. He welcomed
and honored Jesus as His Lord and Savior. His thanks was the completion and
seal of his faith. The others only had their bodies made well. This man’s soul
was made right. Ten men got healed. Only one got saved.
If you haven’t yet
truly and honestly said thank you for the forgiving and healing grace of Jesus
Christ for you, then I invite you to turn around from wherever else you are
headed and offer that saving prayer of thanks today. I’d love to talk with you
about it and help you learn more about being a follower of Jesus, someone who
lives in thanksgiving to Him.
For the rest of us who
have already said our first thanks to Jesus and have been saved, let me suggest
another way to look at this lesson. Perhaps that one man in ten is the average
of our own gratitude to Jesus. For every ten occasions on which we ought to
offer God praise and thanks, how many times do we actually remember to do it.
Once, twice? Are we only grateful about ten percent of the times we ought to
A quiet prayer of
thanks in your heart is good, but look at the Samaritan. He was praising God
out loud. He knelt down before Jesus in a way everyone could see. Maybe our
thanks to Jesus could be more visible, more apparent like that.
opportunities. Offer thanks out loud in worship when we have those times. Tell
a friend how grateful you are for what God has done. Offer thanks before you
eat—even in restaurant with everyone looking. Put your children to bed with a
story about what God has done for you. Make a quiet gift to God of some extra
service, not paying Him back, but showing Him gratitude. Find a way, find
several ways to demonstrate your thanks.
As Luther said, as we
worship here we are all lepers, turning around to say thanks to Jesus. We are
all sinners, giving thanks for our forgiveness. May you and I never forget to
turn back and say thank you to our Savior.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj