This healing story of the ten lepers seems pretty straightforward. The point is clear, isn’t it? Be grateful, say thank you, especially to God. Luke the Gospel writer could have easily ended this story the same way as he did the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Go and do likewise.”
So, this ought to be a short sermon. The Tenth Leper came back to say “thank you” to Jesus, Jesus was clearly pleased. Go and do likewise.
But wait. This is more than a morality tale about being appropriately grateful to God for his many mercies and blessings. It is, in fact, another step on the journey to Jerusalem and the undoing of a world—and a religion—built on fear.
A group of lepers had sought each others’ company, the company of misery. They are the walking dead, cut off from society, allowed to beg only if they keep their distance.
Begging was probably their intention in their shout to Jesus. “Master, have mercy.” He gives them a strange command. “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” Yet, the priests were part of the system which condemned them to this life of misery. They were also the only ones who could get them out of it; but what good could they do now? But they obeyed because that is what lepers did.
On the way, they notice their skin has mysteriously cleared up and suddenly their obedience to Jesus’ command has real purpose. The priests can now restore them to the life they had lost. Let us not judge the nine who continued on their way. They were simply doing what they were told and exercising the only option they had to reclaim their lives.
One of them, however, was different. He was a Samaritan, a despised foreigner. The priests would do nothing for him. When he had been a leper, it had not much mattered that he was also a Samaritan. In a world where everything was either clean or unclean it was one strike and you’re out. The second one did not much matter, which means it also did not much matter if only one of the strikes went away.
So the tenth leper had nowhere to go. But he was clean and he was grateful and he was drawn to the man who had given them the strange command. Maybe if he cared about lepers he would also care about Samaritans.
So he expresses his deep gratitude as one who has nothing to lose. He falls at Jesus’ feet and declares not only his gratitude but acknowledges the presence of God. Jesus says to him, “Your faith has made you well,” which from the Greek could just as easily be translated, “Your faith has saved you.”
Full stop. What was the act of faith that saved the tenth leper? Is the implication that the other nine were not made well, not saved? As tempting as it is to say, “Yes,” I don’t think that is the right answer. They were, in fact, healed, and despite his asking where they were, Jesus knew where they were. They were doing what he told them to do and what their religion told them to do if they were to be restored to the community as clean.
So what was the tenth leper’s act of faith? Saying, “Thank you?” Yes, surely that is a part of it. Gratitude and faith are inseparable. We people of the Eucharist—that word which in Greek means “Thanksgiving”—know that.
Was his act of faith believing and declaring that in encountering Jesus he had encountered God? Yes, that is part of it also.
But there is one more part, and it is the one that came first. There was a moment when he and the other nine realized they were clean, and he stopped, realizing that it didn’t matter, at least not to the priests to which they were heading. And he must have thought to himself, “Where can I go?” And then came the act of faith. “I can go back to Jesus.” He knew not only that he ought to say thank you. He not only knew that he had encountered the presence of God. He dared to believe he would be accepted.
This story is for all of us who have been led to believe that we were not acceptable to God, and have dared to believe otherwise. We who have staked our lives on the conviction born in our experience that the religion of Jesus Christ is not a religion of division and fear, but faith and gratitude.
And this is our song.
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
full of mercy, love, and power.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
he will embrace me in his arms;
in the arms of my dear Savior,
oh, there are ten thousand charms.
Let not conscience make you linger,
not of fitness fondly dream;
all the fitness he requireth
is to feel your need of him.
Let us arise and go to Jesus,
he will embrace us in his arms;
In the arms of our dear Savior,
oh, there are ten thousand charms.