By Rev. Canon David B. Tabo-oy
v11As Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he went along the border between Samaria and Galilee. v12He was going into a village when he was met by ten men suffering from a dreaded skin disease. They stood at a distance v13and shouted, “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!”
v14Jesus saw them and said to them, “Go and let the priests examine you.”
On the way they were made clean.a v15When one of them saw that he was healed, he came back, praising God in a loud voice. v16He threw himself to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan. v17Jesus spoke up, “There were ten who were healed; where are the other nine? v18Why is this foreigner the only one who came back to give thanks to God?” v19And Jesus said to him, “Get up and go; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-19
If you ever doubted the importance of saying, ‘thank you’ to someone when a ‘thank you’ is due, consider the story which is our text for this sermon. Luke tells us that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem and as he passed near Galilee and Samaria, He was met by ten lepers. They called to him, ‘Jesus, master, have mercy on us!’ Jesus sent them on to the priests and as they went there , the lepers were healed.
Most people focus on the healing part of this episode. Jesus said, ‘your faith has made you well,’ and certainly, whole sermons could be preached on the relationship between faith and healing, the relationship between body and spirit which makes for a healthy person, ‘Rise and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
Let us focus on another part of the story, which has to do with gratitude, of giving thanks. There were ten lepers healed that day, yet only once came back to say, ‘thank you’ to Jesus. Only one out of ten! The other nine lepers were healed, but they still weren’t healthy in the whole sense, since none of them had a thankful heart. Lest we miss the drama involved, it might help to recall what kind of disease we are talking about.
Leprosy. This disease is still a problem in India where Mother Theresa worked and associated with people who were afflicted of the disease. It still stalks parts of Africa and Asia. But leprosy has largely disappeared from the Western world, so we tend to forget what a terrible and terrifying disease it really is. You can carry the disease for years before the symptoms appear, but leprosy first appears as nodules on your skin which grow larger and larger, until they force deep wrinkles all over your body. Then your lips, nose, and ear lobes grow thicker, until your face begins to resemble an animal’s. You get ulcerations everywhere, which cause your arms and legs to be horribly mutilated. You start losing your fingers and toes as the disease continues to progress, you are left blinded.
As if the disease is itself wasn’t cruel enough, there was also the social ostracism. Even in the Bible, there were strict rules given for dealing with lepers (see Leviticus 13:14); their situation was even worse than what happens to many HIV-AIDS victims today.
When you were diagnosed a leper, you were completely cut off from the community. You had to wear mourning clothes, as if you were dead. You kept you head uncovered, you lips veiled and everywhere you went, you had to cry, ‘unclean, unclean!’ in order to warn others from getting near you. You lived outside the village, in caves or open pits reserved for lepers. You spent your days begging for food and your nights waiting to die. That is why it is hard to understand why all ten lepers didn’t come running back to search Jesus out and thank him. I should think they’d have spent years looking for him, if that’s how long it took, until they found the Man who had freed them from this merciless disease and thanked Him face to face.
We like to be thanked for the things we do for other people. Even Jesus himself wanted to be thanked! He said to the one leper who did return. ‘There were ten men who were healed, where are the other nine? Why is this foreigner the only one who came back to give thanks to God?” (Good News Bible) Even if our own problems aren’t as severe as a leper’s, our text makes us think about the ways we are not as thankful as we should be. We can even be thankful during the most difficult of circumstances in life. We can see an especially inspiring example of a brave and thankful heart in the story of one of the church’s most popular hymns, “Now Thank We All Our God.” This particular hymn was written during the Thirty Years War in Germany, in the early 1600s. Its author was Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor in the town of Eilenburg in Saxony. Now, Eilenburg was a walled city, so it became a haven for refugees seeking safety from the fighting. But soon the city became too crowded and food was in short supply. Then, a famine hit and a terrible plague and Eilenburg became a giant morgue.
In one year alone, Pastor Rinkart conducted funerals for 4,500 people including his own wife. The war dragged on; the suffering continued. Yet through it all, he never lost courage or faith and even during the darkest days of Eilenburg’s agony, he was able to write this hymn:
‘Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom the world rejoices
So keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed
And free us from all ill, in this world and the next.’
Even when he was waist deep in destruction, Pastor Rinkart was able to lift his sights to a higher plane. He kept his mind on God’s love when the world was filled with hate. He kept his mind on God’s promises of heaven when the earth was a living hell. Can we not do the same – we whose lives are almost trouble-free, compared with the man who wrote that hymn?
Whom can you say ‘thank you’ to? As you look back on your life, who are the people who helped you along the way? Who are the people near and dear to you who are helping you today, the people in your own home or family, the very people you might be taking for granted? I tell you there is no such thing as a ‘self-made-man’ or ‘self-made-woman’. Everyone has people to thank for helping them in their living day-to-day. We do have a lot to be thankful for and a lot of ‘thank yous’ to give away, when we think about our lives that. We also have a larger lesson to remember – a larger reason to give thanks – because every time we receive a gift of caring or concern from someone else, we receive that gift from God.
The friendly smile from the stranger, the cheerful service at the checkout counter, he doctor who goes out of her way to make you feel at ease, the loved one who makes an important sacrifice for you; these and a hundred other kindness are all examples of the love and kindness of God. They are all reasons for us to “Thank We All Our God,” because God expresses His love to us through the love of others. God also expresses His love and care directly to us, without any help from anyone else, solely by the Presence of the Spirit of His Son, Jesus Christ. Can we not also be thankful for that? It’s easy to take our Lord’s goodness for granted. That’s what happened with the nine lepers who met Jesus as He walked to Jerusalem that day. They received a priceless miracle, yet they went on their way without giving thanks.
We don’t want to be that way. We want to be like the one leper who came back to Jesus. Like that leper, our minds are set on our Lord, our eyes have beheld His love. We won’t be satisfied until we can find him and praise him to his face, but in the meantime, he has given us the grace to live the rest of our lives in the fullness of joy with thankful hearts.
Let us pray.
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (ECP-BCP p137)