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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 17:11-19
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 you.

         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’ and ‘Candace.’”

         “Abby’s” 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.”

         Jesus 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 faith.

         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 obeyed.

         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 be?

         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.

         Consider your 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
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated October 13, 2013