St. John, Galveston 10/9/16
Pentecost 21 C
In Nomine Jesu +
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are not many passages in the Bible that are read as frequently in the Divine Service as this passage from Luke 17, the story of the ten lepers. Besides it being read here today as the appointed Gospel reading for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, it is also the appointed Gospel reading each year for the observance of our National Day of Thanksgiving.
The story appears to be pretty straight forward. Ten lepers were cleansed by Jesus as they made their way to the Priest. However, only one of them, a Samaritan, returned to give thanks to Jesus and to praise God. Seeing that the other nine did not return, Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
While the story seems to offer a basic lesson in giving thanks there is actually more to it than that. It’s also rich in Old Testament imagery and in Sacramental implications. To see and appreciate those images, as well as, their New Testament fulfillment in Jesus, we first need to get past the typical moralistic interpretation of the story. If the moral of the story is simply that we should be like the Samaritan, the one who returned to give thanks to God, and not like the other nine, then there isn’t a whole lot more that needs to be said. If, however, the story is about the fundamental transition between the Temple sacrifices and obligations of the Old Testament and Jesus’ coming as both our Great High Priest, as well as, the Temple’s final sacrifice, then the parable opens up with Gospel images that fill our hearts with hope and joy.
At the root of the story is the Old Testament distinction between the “clean” and the “unclean.” Things that were “clean” were acceptable and were to be received and celebrated with thanksgiving, while things that were “unclean” were seen as unacceptable and were to be rejected. The distinction was true for the community of faith, as well as, for God. The Jews, for instance, saw themselves as “clean” because they were God’s chosen people. As Paul would later say, “they were entrusted with the oracles (or the writings) of God.” Thus, in their minds and presumably in the mind of God, they were “clean” and therefore, acceptable. Everyone else though, the Gentiles, the masses, which included the Samaritans, were “unclean,” and thus, unacceptable. The distinction between “clean” and “unclean” is really no more complex.
A Jewish person, however, could be declared “unclean” for various reasons. One of those reasons was if he, or, she should contract leprosy. It was a disease whose physical effects mirrored it’s spiritual dimension. The person was seen as diseased inside and out. He was confined to a colony with other lepers. The colony was separated from the life of Israel. All of the people in the colony were outcasts! St. Paul, writing later about the Gentiles, said of them, “remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” What Paul would later say of the Gentiles, could also be said of those hapless souls known simply as lepers, who were confined to live out their lives separated from the community of faith.
For the leper to be restored to the community, he, or, she, would have to be cured and then ceremonially declared “clean” by the Temple Priest. Already then we have in the story of the ten lepers this sort of imagery of our sin and forgiveness in Christ. Sin is the essence of our “uncleanness,” our leprosy, if you will, before God. Sin separates us from Him. It alienates us too from the community of faith. It has the power, not only to destroy the body, the flesh, but to destroy the soul too.
Only Jesus, our Great High Priest, can declare us “clean!” Only He can rescue us from sin and death. Only He can restore us to fellowship with the Almighty. Again, if we go back to that section where Paul talked about the Gentiles (those who were notoriously “unclean”) being separated from God, we’ll hear how Jesus brought the Gentiles into the community of faith, the realm of the clean, by His grace. “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” In essence, at least in application to this passage before us this morning, Paul is saying, upon the cross Jesus became the despised and rejected leper, the most “unclean” of all men, that you and I might be declared “clean,” and thus, acceptable and accepted by God.
So, He sent the ten lepers to the Priest with the implication that, as they went, they would be healed. The Priest would then do his duty by declaring them “clean,” and thus, they would be restored to the community of faith. One of them, however, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, and “praising God with a loud voice (he) fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Oh, and by the way, he was a Samaritan, someone seen by the Jews as the most “unclean” and “unrighteous” of all.
The story though isn’t so much about thankfulness and unthankfulness as it is about the coming of the Kingdom of God and the change that took place when Jesus entered the world in human flesh! While the other nine lepers eagerly reported to the Temple Priest to be declared “clean,” the Samaritan, by faith, turned back to Jesus knowing full well that He was the embodiment of everything foreshadowed and represented in the Temple. The High Priest of the New Covenant had come! “The former priests (we are told) were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but (Jesus) holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
This story of the ten lepers essentially deals with the age old question of “who do you say Jesus is?” Evidently, to the nine, He was a miracle worker and perhaps nothing more. To the one, the Samaritan, he was God in the flesh, the very One who could cleanse him even of the leprosy of his sin.
Like the Samaritan, you’ve all gathered here today to you sing praises to God and you fall down, as it were, before Jesus. More than that though, you’ve gathered here to receive from Him what only He can give. The High Priest of the New Covenant declares to you, here and now, that you are “clean,” “forgiven,” “righteous and holy.” As such, you are not only acceptable to God, you have been accepted!
God’s kingdom has been opened to you! You enter in by way of the flesh of Jesus! “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” And those who had been declared “clean” fell down before Jesus and gave praise to God! In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
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