Scripture: Luke 17:11-19
Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe
“…Was none found to return and give glory to God, except this foreigner?”
I was six years old when I first encountered a man with leprosy. We were living in Mansa in the northern region of Zambia, where it shares a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire. We had just bought some mangoes at the market and were heading home, when, suddenly along the roadside, I heard a rusty old man’s voice asking for some mangoes. I did not hesitate to give one. However, as I was handing it to him, I panicked and got scared. The man had no fingers. His whole body was covered in disfiguring sores and had paralysis in one arm. He had a dirty bedsheet that wrapped around him.
Later, I learned from my mom that the man was suffering from leprosy. In addition, the common belief was that God was punishing him for his terrible past sin. Leprosy is an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms and legs. A patient can place their hand in fire and not know they are burning. People with leprosy often experience shunning and stigma rather than help. I also learned that there was a leper colony — a community of people suffering from leprosy, often-hopeless people, joined together by a bond of common misery.
Luke’s story of Jesus healing ten lepers takes me back to when I was six years. When I had that first encounter. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, the city where he would be finally revealed as the messiah, the master. Passing through the back roads on the border between Samaria and Galilee, perhaps avoiding detection from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, or maybe hiding from the Conservative Christians who would report him to the religious authorities.
As he entered a certain village, he wandered into a leper colony. A community of ten men banished from the rest of society because of their skin disease. As society had conditioned them to act, before Jesus and his disciples got closer, they announced themselves. We are here! Please do not come closer. We are unclean. – Once they get Jesus’ attention, they raise their voices in unison, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Somehow, they knew of Jesus and his prophetic and healing ministry. What an opportunity for them for Jesus to show up in their camp. Lepers were prohibited from places of worship or marketplaces, where Jesus frequently held his town-hall style meetings. They were required to live outside the village. This was their moment of salvation. Jesus represented one more shot at life, a possible reentry into society.
“Have mercy on us!” Jesus responds, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” This was a requirement in Jewish law. Anyone with a skin disease needed to clearance by a priest. Priests were trained public health experts, and thus served as physicians (Lev. 14). At once, they all responded in faith and headed towards the temple to have the priest examine them. If declared healed and clean, they would be welcomed into society.
I wonder what was on their minds and their conversations, seeing they still had leprosy at this point. Could it be that we must simply trust God’s Word and act in faith before we see any change in our lives? Does faith begin with simple obedience even if it does not logically make sense? After all, this could be a suicide mission. They could be stoned to death for violating Jewish law. Faith is often risky.
On their way to the priest, something peculiar happens. All the ten discover their skin disease is healed. They now have more confidence to go boldly before the priest. Surprisingly, one of them, after seeing his healing, begins to glorify God and returns to Jesus to tell him thank you. “Thank you for changing my life. Thank you for restoring my family. Thank you for showing me God’s mercy! I could have died. I was homeless, but not anymore because of God’s mercy.” The other nine never came back to thank Jesus; perhaps busy reuniting with their Jewish families. Visiting their favorite Kosha or Mediterranean restaurant. Cava, or maybe Chipotle, Ruby Tuesdays, or Olive Gardens. A very different reaction to a similar situation. How can only one out of ten healed men come back to say thank you lord?
The point of the story is not to praise the one who came back, but to rebuke the ungrateful. To address spiritual pride. Notice that Jesus did not directly speak to the one who came back. In fact, he seems disappointed. “Were not ten made clean? Where are the nine? Was none found to return and give glory to God, except this foreigner?” A Samaritan? Jews saw Samaritans as enemies, as violators of Jewish laws and customs. Second class citizens. People of mixed races or cultural backgrounds.
Luke’s gospel aims to demonstrate God’s mercy as boundary breaking. God’s mercy is not restricted to a particular group of people – race, gender, nationality, or cultural background. God’s mercy is for all. This can be seen in three perspectives of Jesus’ ministry: (a) His healings and miracles were restoring people to communion with others, (b) His gospel through table-fellowship and crossing religious and social barriers, and (c) His teaching on reaching out to one’s enemies.
The book I am currently reading by Pope Francis appropriately titled “The Name of God is Mercy” is an excellent little book In it, Pope Francis recognizes that everything that God does is motivated by mercy. Mercy, the pope says, is divine and has to do with judgment of sin. Mercy is what leads God to forgive us. Compassion, which is often confused with mercy, has a human face. It means to suffer with, non-indifferent to the pain and suffering of others. It is what Jesus saw when the huge crowds followed him like sheep without a shepherd. “The Christian message is transmitted by embracing those in difficulty.” Those often dismissed and closed out.
Leprosy in the bible often draws parallels to sin. Sin, like leprosy, causes separation. Our sin separates us from God, and one another. Sin makes us think of ourselves as better than others, or make us feel inferior. Sin brings isolation, and often causes us to seek other people’s approval. Sin diminishes our confidence to approach God. Sin is what leads to self-seeking and greed. Not caring about the health of everyone as long as you and your family are covered.
Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers exemplifies God’s model of healthcare. The whole hospital treated at once without health insurance. Ten lepers all healed at once and given a chance at life. Those of you who argue against the principle of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) must read this passage. Here we see an all-inclusive access to healthcare. Jesus does not ask for their immigration papers. Everyone is welcome. God cares about the sick, the broken, and the immigrant, those physically and spiritually wounded.
Instead, only one came back praising God and to say thank you. Moreover, because of it, Jesus declared that his faith made him well or saved. Here, the Greek word for “made well” is “Sozo,” which is used in reference to salvation or spiritual healing. It is the same word used when Jesus told Zacchaeus “today, sozo or salvation has come to your house.” The other nine only received physical healing tharidzo – (to be made clean or healed of physical disease), but did not receive sozo. Same situation but completely different result. What made the difference?
Gratitude! His gratitude made the difference. Jesus recognized that the man appreciated not only the gift, but also the giver. His gratitude was shown in publicly praising God and coming back to bow before Jesus and tell him thank you. He was no ashamed to show his appreciation. Notice what Jesus says to him, “your faith has made you whole.” Other translations say your faith has saved you.
Personal faith plays a role in our salvation. Though salvation is God’s gift to us, we must receive it by faith. Our cooperation is necessary. Moreover, we show faith by our gratitude. Acknowledging our brokenness and being thankful for Christ’s work on the cross and in our lives. All ten received healing, but the one who was grateful received far more than just physical healing. He also received salvation.
The more I reflected on this passage the more I am convinced that faith and gratitude are two sides of the same coin. By being grateful to God, we demonstrate faith. Mature faith is a combination of trust and gratitude. Faith alone leads to healing. Faith plus gratitude leads to salvation. I am even inclined to say that without gratitude there is no salvation. Mature faith enables us to acknowledge that life is a gift from God. That humanity is broken and in need of God’s help. Our attitudes must reflect our thankfulness to God.
Are you waiting on God to move in your life, while God is also waiting on you to move? I remember once praying, “God increase my faith so that I can do more for your ministry. I even fasted. Besides, the waiting was hard and frustrating. Later I learned that faith increases by doing what you have heard God say you should do, no matter how small or illogical, and being grateful that you have even heard from God in the first place. Being humble enough to say thank you is a demonstration of faith. It is by God’s grace that you and I have what we have and are where we are in life.
Ingratitude is a sin, and we all need to repent of it. Ingratitude is refusing or neglecting to be thankful. Is there someone you need to thank? Ingratitude shows itself in feelings of entitlement. You do not see the need to say thanks because you think you deserve it. Overlooking your own sin while demanding to hold others to a higher standard, thus closing church doors on those seeking an audience with God. Do you need to send a thank you letter or a postcard to someone? Even better, call them or meet them for coffee or lunch. Sometimes we find it easy to thank God, but hard to thank those we live with, those who have stood by us in difficult times. Being grateful to God and others brings wholeness. Therefore, let us cultivate an attitude of gratitude. As individuals and as a church. This week may you be grateful to God for the many gifts and blessings you have received. And, like the healed Samaritan, may we come back to God and say thank you Lord.