On Wednesday night I listened as Abby Pena and Stephen Estes shared their testimonies. Abby spoke of her journey through the dark night of cancer and how God, her doctor, her family, her church family and her friends walked beside her. I do not think I will ever forget when she pronounced for us that Christ was the big C in her life, and cancer was the little c. Her story of healing and thanksgiving touched my heart.
When Stephen stepped to the platform he told us that he did not have any notes; that he just wanted to speak from his heart. He offered testimony of thankfulness spoken with power and humility. He spoke of the way people came beside him and his family and loved and cared for them. He told us that he hoped that there would be a time when he could be a blessing to others like people had blessed him. Stephen, apparently what you did not realize is that as you spoke you were already blessing others. As you expressed your heart of thankfulness you called us to be thankful too.
Our focal passage is a story much like these others. It is a story of thankfulness that can both encourage and challenge us. We listened as Steven McConnell read our passage earlier in our worship service. This is a familiar passage, but one I have never preached. It is the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers and only one returning to give thanks and praise to Jesus. But this is more than just another healing story and more than just a call to be thankful for what God has done in our life. It is a story that invites us into an encounter with Jesus that can shape our understanding of what it means to be thankful. It invites us to a heart of profound thanks.
Let’s take a closer look. The story begins; 11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When Kristin saw that I was going to preach on this text she showed me something from a book from our church library that she is using as a part of her personal devotional life. It is G. Campbell Morgan’s commentary on Luke. Morgan wrote and preached in the 20s and 30s and was a contemporary of another great British preacher, Charles Spurgeon. I really like how Morgan sees these ten men. He writes; “It is arresting to see these ten men, not daring to come near Jesus, standing away off and reduced by leprosy, to the common consciousness of humanity. There were ten of them, and one of them was a Samaritan. ‘Jews had no dealings with Samaritans’, and it was equally true that Samaritans had no dealings with Jews. But we see them here united by common misery. They were reduced to the consciousness of them common humanity by that misery. Under such condition men forget the things that hold them apart. It would almost seem as though there may be occasions when trouble and misery are beneficent if they reduce men to the consciousness of their common humanity, and make them forget the things that divide.”[i] Fredrick Geiser offers simply but clearly; “Misery loves company. Although cut off from society, they had a society of their own.”[ii]
These ten needed to find community with one another because their leprosy made then unclean and untouchable. People would have kept their distance to avoid contracting this contagious and visually disturbing disease. Leprosy was a physically, socially, and religiously debilitating disease. These ten stood at a distance because that is the only place they would have been allowed to be. They stood at a distance, crying out for mercy. They stood at a distance, forced to rely on the benevolence of others; they would not have been allowed to work so they were reduced to beggars. They stood at a distance wondering and waiting; hoping and praying. They stood at a distanced pitiful and pleading for pity. They stood at a distance and Jesus responded. 14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
Did you hear what happened? Jesus did not go over and lay hands on them. He did not pronounce some special healing words over them. According to religious law he sent them to the priests, the only ones that could tell the community that the lepers were truly healed. He sent them to the priests, and they were healed as they went.
Can you imagine the joy they must have felt when the priests pronounced them clean? They could go back to their homes and families. They could work again. They could walk the streets again as an equal. They could go to the temple and the synagogue again. They had life again. What would you do if you had been one of them? Would you run home shouting the good news? Would you throw a party and invite all of your family and friends? We do not know what nine of them did. But there was this one…our passage tells us; 15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. One who had called to Jesus from a distance now threw himself at Jesus’ feet. One who had been an outsider among outsiders – the one whom most in the crowd would have rejected – the one whom those closest to Jesus would have found unworthy was the one at Jesus’ feet offering a heart of profound thanks. He did not even wait for the “official” pronouncement he was healed. As soon as he saw he was healed he turned and headed back to Jesus. He turned to go back and thank Jesus for working in his life. This Samaritan was the least likely to respond because he was on the wrong side of the cultural divide. This Samaritan understood that Jesus did not have to heal him. It was unmerited and undeserved. It was an act of grace that merited profound thanks. The scene of a Samaritan humbling himself in thanksgiving at the feet of a Jewish teacher would have taken the breath away from all those who stood by as witnesses.
Jesus breaks the moment with a question. 17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? The nine would have grown up proud that they were a part of God’s chosen people. They would have practiced their faith as expected by the law. They should have been in this picture. They should have been here showing thanks. The nine should have realized that without the healing act of Jesus they would have spent the rest of their lives pitiful and crying for pity. But they are missing in action, absent from a history shaping moment. Jesus question speaks volumes. Morgan observes; “What a revelation of the fact that Christ values gratitude, and misses it when it is not expressed.”[iii]
I believe the reason this passage speaks so deeply to me is that I fear that if we are not careful we can become one of the nine. We can become so comfortable in the status we claim as the children of God that we take for granted God’s work in our lives. It seems that we come to expect God’s provision and somehow feel entitled to all that God does in us and for us. But this is about more than a passing and passive annual word of thanksgiving. It is about living a life that demonstrates profound thanks. Hear again how the Samaritan came to Jesus. “He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. This is a picture of one who comes with a heart of deep humility understanding that his healing – his life – his future – was totally and completely dependent on God’s work in his life. He was not too proud to dive down on his hands and knees to show Jesus the depths of his gratitude. Do we have this same heart of deep humility? Do we remember that without the cross, the death and the resurrection of Jesus we would stand outside of a relationship with God? Do we remember that God has made the way for us to be called the children of God? Does our sense of accomplishment or our pride get in the way of understand that our life and our future are totally and completely dependent on God’s work in our lives?
In a few days we will sit around our tables for a day of thanksgiving. Will the feature be the food or the football games, our will we call our families to a heart of profound thanks to God? In a few minutes we will together as a church family to consider our individual and corporate covenant walk with God. Do you come to this moment with a sense of burden, guilt and responsibility or with a heart of profound thanks? I invite us to come to God with the understanding that we totally and completely dependent on God’s work in our lives. I invite us to let go of our pride and humbly and grateful rush to Jesus’ feet to thank him.
God is at work in your life. God is at work in the life of our church family. Will we be a part of the nine that move on with life like nothing has happened, or will we respond like the one, with a heart of profound thanks? The choice is yours and mine to make. How will we respond?
[i] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Luke, (Flemng H Revell Company: New York/London, 1931) p. 198.
[ii] Frederick J. Gaiser, “Healing and Salvation in Luke 17:12-19,” referenced through textweekcom, available online at http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/16-3_Forgiveness/16-3_Gaiser.pdf on November 17, 2012.
[iii] Morgan, p.199