At first glance, there may not seem to be a lot in common between the Old Testament reading and the Gospel for today. The Old Testament reading deals with the tragedies that struck a woman named Naomi and how her daughter-in-law Ruth remained faithful to her through thick and thin. The Gospel tells about ten lepers who asked Jesus for healing and then received that healing. What could possibly be the common theme between these two stories?
The Old Testament reading and the Gospel for today both deal with outcasts. Outcasts are people who don’t fit in, who don’t fit our expectations. Outcasts are people who make us feel uncomfortable, maybe even frightened. They might be loud or rude or obnoxious. They might even smell. Whatever it might be, there is something about an outcast that makes us want to forget that they too are one of God’s creations and loved by him.
It is pretty easy to see that the lepers of the Gospel are outcasts, but where is the outcast in the book of Ruth? In his last sermon before he died, Moses said, “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever, 4because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. (Deuteronomy 23:3–4) Today’s Old Testament reading tells us, “Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth.” (Ruth 1:3–4) Ruth was a Moabite. According to Moses, she should not be allowed to join the assembly of the Lord.
Not only was Ruth from Moab, but she was also a woman. The culture of the Old Testament was patriarchal … that is, men ran things and women had very few rights. Ruth really had two strikes against her. She was a Moabite and she was a woman. She was a true outcast.
The book of Ruth is a wonderful story about how God provided a redeemer for this outcast. The love story between Ruth and Boaz wonderfully foreshadows the relationship of Christ with His bride, the church. Ruth eventually became the great grandmother of King David and a distant ancestor of Jesus Christ.
As to the outcasts in today’s gospel, As I said before, they are very obvious. Perhaps no disease mentioned in the Bible is a better metaphor for sin than leprosy. Easton's Bible Dictionary describes the disease this way:
This disease “begins with specks on the eyelids and on the palms, gradually spreading over the body, bleaching the hair white wherever they appear, crusting the affected parts with white scales, and causing terrible sores and swellings. From the skin the disease eats inward to the bones, rotting the whole body piecemeal.”
Even today with all our modern technology, the word leper still strikes a note of fear. The lepers in our Gospel were literally dead men walking. It was almost as if the decay of death set in before the body was actually dead. Lepers were outcasts because of their medical condition.
Lepers were also legal outcasts. The law of Moses said, “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45–46) This is the reason that the lepers stood at a distance. By law, they were not allowed to get near to anyone.
Toward the end of today’s Gospel, we learned that one of the lepers was even more of an outcast than the others. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. (Luke 17:15–16) Samaritans were below the bottom rung of the social ladder among the Jews. Many years before Jesus walked on this earth, the Assyrians defeated the Northern tribes of Israel. They exiled the Israelites and brought pagans in to take their place. The Samaritans were the descendants of unions between these pagans and the few Israelites who managed to stay in the land. They represented people who did not keep themselves pure. Of all the outcasts who lived in the first century, Samaritans were at the bottom of the social list.
Both Ruth and the Samaritan leper had a third strike against them. They were both sinners. In this respect, they are like us and all other people in this world. We are all outcasts from the Garden of Eden.
There is a problem when everyone is an outcast. Because we are fallen people who live in a fallen world, there is no way for us to even know that we have fallen. Since the fallen world is all that we have ever known, we believe that we live in a perfectly healthy and normal world. There is nothing to indicate that anything is wrong.
It is not until the Holy Spirit shows us God’s law that we realize that we are outcasts. When the Holy Spirit shows us our reflection in the mirror of God’s law, we see that we have a serious disease. Even while we live physically, our spirits are rotten with sin. Just as a leper is a dead man walking so a sinner is a damned man walking. When the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and shows us the truth of God’s Law, we see that we are outcasts, sinners, spiritual lepers. As spiritual lepers we can’t enter the city of God and so we are doomed to spend our eternity in hell.
After the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the law and we finally begin to feel the guilt we have so richly earned, he opens our eyes and shows us the truth of the Gospel. When Jesus healed those ten lepers physically, he was making his way to Jerusalem to take their spiritual leprosy to the cross and not just their spiritual leprosy, but from the time he shed blood at his birth to the time his blood was poured out at his death, he carried the spiritual leprosy of the entire world. In Jerusalem he would offer himself and would become the cure for this disease by sacrificing himself on the cross. His resurrection from the dead offers this cure to the world.
The story of the Samaritan leper actually has three miracles. There is the obvious healing miracle; Jesus healed the leprosy. Then there is the miracle of breaking down the barrier between Jew and Samaritan; Jesus knew this man was a foreigner, but he healed him anyway. Finally, there is the miracle of conversion; the healed Samaritan worshiped Jesus with thanksgiving. God opened the kingdom of heaven to this double outcast, this Samaritan leper. He welcomed him into his city.
Most of us have heard this story many times during our lives, but have we thought about the outcasts in our lives?
During my teen years we lived next door to a very interesting family. I never saw the father of this family without a can of beer in his hand. Mostly he came outside to yell at his kids. The son was also interesting. He was an explosives expert. He mixed his own explosives from chemicals he had in his basement and set them off in the backyard. One time he let me drive his motorcycle around the block. He bragged about the deal he got on the motorcycle. I later learned that the reason he got the bike so cheaply was that the person who sold it to him didn’t really own it.
Many of us would be ready to label these people as outcasts, but God didn’t do that. Many years later, after my parents moved back to their farm in Iowa, they visited a camp in Michigan that is similar to Camp CILCA. Imagine my parents’ surprise when they met a few members of that outcast family. They are now members of a Missouri Synod congregation. We didn’t know it way back then, but they had been watching us. They watched and heard my father as he gathered us together for evening devotions after supper. They heard us sing hymns. The Holy Spirit used that experience in their lives to bring them into His church. Now they gather together with their children and sing hymns with them.
I don’t think my father was making any special effort to evangelize that family. He was just doing what the head of the house is supposed to do – teach the faith to his household. We had no idea that the Holy Spirit would use us in this way.
Who are the outcasts in your life? Who are the people who make your life challenging? Who might be watching the love of God at work in your life? When Jesus healed the Samaritan leper, he not only opened the Gospel to Samaritans, but he opened it to all people including those who live in Central Illinois in the year 2016. As God heals the leprosy of our sin, His love will fill us and overflow from us so that the lepers around us will learn about the savior who healed us. As people who were spiritual lepers, let us celebrate the love of God who healed us and share this good news with others. Let us recognize His goodness, give thanks for His compassion, and praise His holy name. We too can join with the Samaritan leper and praise God with a loud voice. Amen.
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