Would you consider ten percent to be a good return on an investment? Of course, it depends a lot on the investment doesn’t it? Investing in a fast food franchise will look different from a certificate of deposit at the local bank. Even in an uncertain economy, if you put something in, it’s usually with the expectation that you will get back something more.
By now, you have read the sermon title, and you may be thinking that you’re in for the annual stewardship sermon, that sermon you never like to hear because it makes you feel guilty about the amount of money you contribute – or don’t – to the church budget. If you’re looking for an easy way to sneak out of the sanctuary about now, you can relax. I already preached the stewardship sermon for today. It’s sitting over there in that apple core. No, in today’s gospel lesson, Luke tells us of a kind of investment that goes beyond money. Luke isn’t talking about finances here, but about faith. While it might seem that Jesus sees only a ten per cent return on his investment in an outcast’s life, the actual return cannot be measured as easily as a savings account balance. Here’s the Good News, as recorded in the 17th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, verses 11-19.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Luke reminds us that Jesus is on the march toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. But there’s a slight problem with Luke’s geography: Samaria isn’t really “on the way” to Jerusalem. Maybe Luke isn’t talking about geography as much as he’s giving us a time frame for this story. Though Jesus has been traveling to Jerusalem for several chapters, he’s still nearer the beginning of his journey than the end. Luke doesn’t want us to lose sight of the final destination, however. Jesus may be taking the scenic route, but Jerusalem is where he will eventually go.
We have our first hint that something unusual is about to happen when Luke tells us that these ten lepers approached Jesus. Leprosy could mean any of a number of skin diseases, but whatever the disease, being “unclean” meant being an outcast, unable to participate in normal society. By law, lepers were supposed to maintain a safe distance from others, warning people away with shouts of “Unclean! Unclean!” But these lepers draw near to Jesus, at least near enough to call out to him.
So here we have ten lepers outside a village. But instead of warning Jesus to stay away, the lepers do something that is highly remarkable. Not only do they call out to Jesus to have mercy on them, they call him “Master” – a title that no one else uses to address Jesus in all the gospel accounts, except for the twelve disciples. It’s worth pondering how these ten outcasts, who have been excluded from social interaction with the general population, could possibly know who Jesus was, or that he had the authority to help them. But they readily appeal to that authority. Instead of warning Jesus to keep his distance, they put themselves at his mercy.
This particular healing story appears only here, in Luke’s gospel. These ten lepers don’t get as much publicity as the one in chapter 5, whose story also gets told by Mark and Matthew. But this is a much more dramatic healing, because Jesus doesn’t even have to touch these lepers in order for them to be cleansed. He simply sees them.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man passed right by Lazarus, day after day, and never saw him until it was too late. His wealth and his self-centeredness did not allow him to really see Lazarus. It is so easy to ignore the needs around us as we go through our daily routines. It’s easy to look the other way whenever we see a beggar on the street corner, or a single parent struggling with young children and no support network, or a person facing physical or mental health challenges. How often do we turn away from people who make us uncomfortable, only because they are different from us?
But Jesus sees these ten lepers, and immediately tells them to go show themselves to the priests. This must have sounded a little strange to these lepers. Showing yourself to the priest was something you did after your skin disease had run its course and you were well again. Jesus was acknowledging the faith these lepers had shown when they called him “Master.” The lepers had already demonstrated their willingness to submit to Jesus’ spiritual authority. When he sends them off to the priests, they don’t ask questions. They just go.
And as they went, they were made clean.
But only one of them seems to notice what has happened. Only one of them saw that he had been healed, just as Jesus saw him to heal his disease. Only this one turned back toward Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. The same loud voice that, moments before, should have been yelling “Unclean! Unclean!” had called out “Have mercy!” instead. Now, this very same loud voice was whooping and hollering in praise to God. He knew that it wasn’t some magic trick or the number of steps he had taken toward the priests that had healed him. He knew it was God’s work, accomplished through Jesus. The leper saw. And the leper’s awareness is, quite literally, the turning point in the story.
The leper turned back. What a beautiful picture of repentance Luke paints for us here! The leper turned away from mindless obedience to empty rules, as he turned toward the Source and Giver of Life. The leper’s response was spontaneous and authentic. The leper praised God, but he also prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The leper’s faith had shown itself in action as he headed for the priests, but the glory he gave to God showed itself in humility and thanksgiving.
Then we get to the punchline: And he was a Samaritan.
Luke loves to remind his readers that Jesus came to reverse the status quo, and one of his favorite ways of doing this is to call attention to Gentiles whose faith brings them into the family of God. First century Jews thought they had exclusive rights to God’s love and goodness. Luke, who was Greek and addressed his writing to a Gentile audience, delighted in pointing out that God had promised salvation to all nations, that God loved all people, and that Israel had no more claim to God’s grace than any other nation.
But there is more at work here than the theme of reversal that threads its way throughout Luke’s writing. Luke carefully sets up the story so that one might assume all ten lepers, though they may be outcasts, are acceptable outcasts. Their leprosy at least has the potential of disappearing after a time of quarantine, and they therefore have the potential to become acceptable again, welcomed back into society. But to a first-century Jew, Samaritans were a particularly distasteful type of outcast. Samaritans were un-redeemable because they refused to acknowledge the Temple in Jerusalem as the only appropriate place to worship God. No Jew in his right mind would ever welcome a Samaritan into fellowship.
Like a good mystery writer, Luke has planted a tiny detail at the beginning of his story that seems unimportant at first. Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. We don’t know exactly where the village is located. We don’t know if the lepers are Jewish or Samaritan, or some unusual combination of outcasts from both nations. When they head for the priests, we don’t know which direction they go.
But this tiny detail sets the scene for Luke to shock his readers with the punch line: oh by the way, the guy that showed the right response to God’s grace? The only one who came back to glorify God and give thanks? That guy? Yeah, HE was a Samaritan! He was someone you would avoid at all costs on at least two counts: a leper and a Samaritan. A double outcast! And yet, Jesus saw him and healed him. What’s more, this Samaritan leper was the only one of ten who saw Jesus for who he really was, the only one who returned to thank Jesus and give glory to God.
Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?
For the first time, we get a hint that Jesus is not traveling alone. The disciples have not been mentioned in this story. But now Jesus begins to teach by asking a series of questions, so we get the feeling that the disciples have been nearby all along, watching the story unfold before them. Interestingly, the word given to us in the New Revised Standard Version as “asked” really means “answered” in the Greek. Jesus is answering, or responding to, what has just happened, and he grabs this teachable moment to show his disciples again that the Kingdom of God is not what they expect it to be.
All ten of the lepers had faith enough to call on Jesus, submit to his authority, and ask for his mercy. All ten responded to Jesus in obedience, and all ten received physical healing. But where are the other nine? The obvious answer is that they are still headed toward the priests. Whether this is because of their blind obedience to the Law, or simply their eagerness to be restored to society, they are still going the other way. They may have recognized Jesus’ power to heal, but they have missed the point. They have not seen, as the Samaritan has seen, that faith means more than blind obedience.
Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” The word “foreigner” is used only in this one instance in the New Testament. Jesus calls attention to the fact that this one, born outside the people of God, is the only one who behaves in a manner appropriate to a true child of Abraham. Only this foreigner, who could not enter the inner courts of the Jewish temple, has shown the kind of faith that responds in gratitude to God’s grace.
Jesus restores the one at his feet by telling him to get up. As he has done before, and will do again before he finally reaches Jerusalem, Jesus announces, “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus is talking about more than leprosy here. He is proclaiming the Samaritan’s salvation as well as his physical health. Another pastor friend once commented, “All ten lepers were saved from leprosy, but only one is saved from despair.” Only the one who came back to give thanks, praising and glorifying God, showed the kind of faith that leads to salvation.
The lesson Jesus teaches is clear: The only authentic response to God’s saving grace is faith shown in action, and gratitude that erupts in praising God. So what keeps us from showing our faith by acting on it? What prevents us from being so grateful we can’t help but give God our praise?
I find that I’m a lot like the nine lepers who disappear down the road: it’s a lot easier for me to simply act on my faith than it is for me to praise God out loud for all the world to hear. I’d like to think I remember to be grateful for God’s goodness to me. I do say prayers of thanksgiving every day, but, if I’m honest, I also know that I’m a little embarrassed when I hear someone praising God for the traffic light staying green until they are through the intersection, or for the price on the gas pump going up just after they’ve pumped a tank-full of gasoline. “How nice for you” I think. “What about the person right behind you?”
But the truth is that, while I am judging others for being self-centered in their gratitude, I’m not giving God very much glory in my day-to-day life. I can’t honestly say that praise erupts from my lips whenever I notice how good God has been to me. I’m a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth. What kind of weirdo would people think I am?
Luke gives us Jesus’ answer over and over: the kind of weirdo who turns away from the status quo and worships shamelessly at Jesus’ feet. It is no accident that the one who gets it right in this story is the Samaritan, the double outcast. The truth is that we don’t like to identify ourselves as outcasts, as undesirables. But that is what Jesus does time and again throughout the gospel story. He not only reaches out to the dregs of society, he identifies with them, eats with them, walks with them.
Luke often describes society’s “undesirable” people as models of faith and examples of Kingdom living, and the Samaritan leper is a prime example. Luke forces us, along with his first century readers, to recognize that God loves every single person ever born, and God wants every single person ever born to participate in Kingdom joy and fellowship. Luke reminds us that everyone is eligible to participate in the Kingdom of God.
Luke uses the theme of reversal to keep us on our toes, to keep us from falling into the trap of thinking we’ve made it into the “desirable” club. The truth is that God doesn’t care how “desirable” we are by the world’s standards. In fact, if we take Scripture seriously, God loves the ones we consider ‘undesirable’ at least as much as He loves anyone else. And he calls us to love them, too. Not judge them. Not scold them. Not ignore them. Love them.
God wants each of us to become the full person we were created to be, so that we can enjoy God’s fellowship. That transformation can only take place when we put our complete trust in God, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so, just as the ten lepers started walking toward the priests before there was any evidence that their leprosy was gone.
To be fully transformed, however, means that we not only let our faith show in what we do, we express our thanks in ways that give glory to God. As we repent of our sin and turn toward Christ, God continues to transform us and we become people who, like the Samaritan leper, spontaneously give glory to God. Through the power of his Holy Spirit, God changes us into the more and more perfect image of God we were created to be. And it is this image that God uses to attract others – outcasts like us – into the Kingdom of God.
So how does this fit with stewardship? It’s simple, really. As God continues to work in us, and as we continue to trust him, we become more and more like Christ. As we see with the eyes of Jesus, our hearts are moved to compassion just has Christ’s heart is moved. We may not have the gift of healing that lets us say, “Go your way, your faith has made you well.” But we do have gifts we can share. Trusting God to use them for his glory, we offer them as our own act of worship. When we begin to see the other outcasts around us, and we admit that we are outcasts, too, we become free. We’re free to give God thanks and praise for the work he is doing here. And God calls us to be part of that work, sharing our gifts, meeting the needs we see, contributing whatever we can to the ministry God has given us to do in this time and place.