The Healing of Ten Lepers

A sermon by Justin Clavet for the Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Rockton, Illinois, 2 Timothy 2:1-13 and Luke 17:11-19, October 13, 2019

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We know that our righteousness before God and our salvation relies not upon what we have done or what we will do, but only upon what God has already done for us. But this is easy to forget. Especially because the world we live in today is populated by fallen sinners who have created gods in their own image, after their own likeness, and – even more worrying – to their own liking. We live in a time that prizes individuality and identity above all else. We are told that each person is entitled to his or her own reality. If we do not like the truth, or if it offends our sensibilities, there is no need to worry. Another truth awaits on the horizon, yours for the making. This is why, at first, the Gospel seems foolish, dangerous, and offensive; and Christ, who frees the faithful from the works of the Law, reckless. But God has made foolish the wisdom of the world. He has chosen what is foolish in the world to bring shame upon the wise and chosen what is weak in the world to bring the strong to their knees (1 Co 1:27).

In Leviticus 13 and 14 the Lord, speaking to Moses in the tent of meeting in the wilderness of Sinai in about 1445 BC, exhaustively prescribes the treatment and cleansing of the skin-diseased or leprous. In today’s Gospel reading, St. Luke records an account of Jesus’s meeting with ten lepers in a village on his way to Jerusalem about fifteen centuries after Moses’s writing. From afar, they shouted towards him: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Lk 17:13). Whenever we hear the request “have mercy,” we should understand this to mean ‘do not treat us fairly.’ To have mercy on someone means that you are withholding from that person proper treatment. One who is merciful treats people unworthily, unfairly.

Leprosy and related skin diseases, like all disease, injury, and even death itself, are symptoms of the Fall. When Adam and Eve chose to listen to their tempter rather than their Creator, they plunged the world into a state of sin and evil, one where nature is often unpredictable and cruel. And so, the affliction suffered by these ten lepers – the one which made them ritually unclean and unfit from normal societal inclusion – is just one indicator of the sin to which all of humankind is guilty. All of humankind that is, except for the one who was not begotten by a human father.

It is their affliction, however, that brought these ten lepers together. Nine were Jews and one was a Samaritan. Under normal circumstances the nine would want nothing to do with the other. The Samaritans were disliked by the Jews; they were seen as heretics and betrayers. But when society throws you away, you take the company you can get.

So when they yell to Jesus, “have mercy on us,” they are asking him for more than they know. First, the obvious. They are asking Christ, a renowned healer, to cure them of this disease which is causing them to literally waste away. They have done nothing to earn this life-changing service. They cannot, in all likelihood, afford to pay him a physician’s fee. But they ask anyways: ‘Chief, commander, please, give us this thing which we know you have, this thing which we do not deserve, this thing which we know we need.’ And Christ obliges. He says “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (Lk 17:14). And when they obey, when they turn to heed his word, they are miraculously healed. But second, in addition to the supplication for healing that comes with their simple request, “have mercy on us,” the outcasts are also unwittingly asking for that thing which only Christ can give – life. The forgiveness of sins, salvation, and life itself has also been given to these ten people.

And with this pure, no-strings attached, free gift from God which we call the Gospel, comes something extra: freedom. But sadly, this freedom which accompanies the Gospel wherever it may go, is the thing which is most infrequently perceived and embraced by those who have it.

In this sample population of ten recipients of the Gospel, it can be observed that only one of them – the Samaritan – perceives this bonus gift of freedom. And so, when he sees that he has been cleansed and senses his newfound freedom, he alone returns to Jesus. While the others march to the priests to be inspected and to make the required Levitical sacrifice before they can re-enter their community, this Samaritan turns around to meet his maker – in the flesh! And this time, he dares to come a little bit closer. “[H]e fell on his face at Jesus’ feet” (Lk 17:16) and thanked him. And it is here that Luke takes the opportunity to inform his reader of the incredible fact that this one was a Samaritan. The one who was shunned by the Jews is here at the feet of their king! And what does his Lord, the King of the Jews, say to this Samaritan in return? “Rise and go your way, your faith has made you well” (Lk 17:19). Not only has his faith in the Word of God, this man Jesus Christ, healed him but it has also saved him from sin, death, and the devil. And not only has it healed him of his leprosy, saved him from eternal damnation, and made him righteous in God’s eyes, it has also made him free.

The Gospel has freed him from the curse and the obligation of the Law. Therefore, he does not have to march with the others back to the priests who derive their righteousness from within themselves, even though the law of Leviticus prescribes it. No, he is a part of the new creation, made righteous by his faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone.

St. Paul in his last known letter – his second to Timothy, a fellow preacher of the Gospel – from which we read today, speaks of this Christian freedom. Though Paul dictates his letter to a coworker while he sits, “suffering, bound with chains” (2 Tm 2:9), he is a free man. Why? Because “the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tm 2:9). [It is not bound to the whims and fancies of this world. It is not bound to the strengths or weaknesses, the riches or destitution of either its preachers or its hearers. No, it is not even bound to God’s own Law.] The Gospel has free reign. It accomplishes what it says and never fails. For Christ will not be made a liar.

Like the Samaritan, you too are now freed from the works of the Law by the Gospel. The Law, fulfilled by Christ on the cross, is eternally behind you. With this Word from God you are free to go and live as he has called you. You are freed to serve your parents, children, brothers, sisters, spouse, and all your neighbors as a living sacrifice. You are freed from chasing your righteousness and salvation, for Christ has already delivered it to you. And through Christ – with whom we have died in baptism and in whom we now live in faith – we will bear good fruit for the benefit of our neighbors in need. The same Word from God which was the Samaritan’s is now yours too: all your sins are forgiven on account of Jesus Christ. Rise and go your way. Your faith has made you well.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Image: The Healing of Ten Lepers by James Tissot, 1886-1894, France. From the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, New York, New York.