Last week we heard Jesus telling the disciples that they did not need more faith, what they needed was action, and by that action the power present in faith would become visible. Today Jesus is presented with an opportunity to point out an illustration of that kind of faith.
Luke tells us that Jesus was headed to Jerusalem from the area of Samaria and Galilee when 10 lepers call out to him. To begin with, Luke is making a shocking and significant statement. Unlike Matthew and Mark who restrict Jesus’ activity to his own people, Luke makes clear on many occasions that Jesus reached out to everyone, crossing many racial barriers. Jesus heals the man possessed with a legion of demons in the Garasenes, an area inhabited primarily by Gentiles. The man made no request to be healed. He made no statement of faith. Jesus just took pity on him and healed him. Now Jesus has intentionally wandered into the land of the Samaritans, people who were considered heretics and outcasts. Jesus purposefully went to those with whom no one else would associate.
As they are journeying 10 men with leprosy see him at a distance and call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Leprosy was a term used for any number of skin diseases and perhaps because of the disfiguring results of the disease, the people were terrified of coming in contact with them. Think about small pox epidemics. Even if the people survived the disease, they were left with ugly red pock marks that took a long time to fade and caused people to shy away from them. Or more recently, think about people’s reaction when AIDS was first discovered. I had a very dear friend who was a hemophiliac. He contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion in the early days of the disease. He was afraid for anyone to know for fear that he might lose his job, or be ostracized. Later when he became too sick to continue working and word got out that he had AIDS, people would ask me if I had known, and wasn’t I afraid to touch him. COVID doesn’t leave any physical disfigurement, but think how fear of catching it has disrupted our lives and interrupted relationships for the last two years. The lepers were required to stay at a distance from other people, and shout Leper when anyone approached them. Social distancing is not new, and these lepers had little hope it would ever end for them. They banded together in their misery, even Jews and Samaritans who normally would not have anything to do with each other.
Jesus’ response to the men is to tell them to go and show themselves to the priest. If a leper believed he was healed, he had to go to the priest, be examined, and go through a series of purification rituals before they could be declared clean. They asked Jesus for mercy. Jesus gave them a task to demonstrate their faith. Behave as though you have been cured. And they all did it.
As they are making their way toward Jerusalem to show themselves to the priest, they receive the gift of physical healing. One man, stops in his tracks, turns around and comes back, falling at the feet of Jesus giving thanks. Jesus observes that out of 10 men who were healed, only one came back to give thanks, and this one was a Samaritan. This one, according to Jewish law, didn’t pray correctly, didn’t perform the correct liturgical rituals, and held a heretical theology. Jesus pronounces, “Your faith has made you well, made you whole, saved you,” depending upon the translation.
The Samaritan was “saved” not because he went to church. (Actually we don’t know if he ever made it to the priest, and if the priest would have accepted him if he did.) It was not because he held an orthodox understanding of Trinitarian theology. It was not because he recited some prayer of dedication after answering an invitation by the pastor. The Samaritan was saved because he called out to Jesus to have mercy upon him, he acted in faith by following Jesus’ commandment which in this case brought about his physical healing, and he responded in gratitude for the mercy Jesus had bestowed upon him.
It is both easier and harder than we try to make it to have faith. Thank goodness, faith is not about being good. Paul reminds us that all of us are sinners, no matter how hard we try to be perfect. It is not about understanding deep theological truths and affirming only the correct ones. If it was, heaven’s streets would be pretty empty. Jesus said “I am the truth.” Beyond that, most theology is speculation. This does not mean we do not try to be good or study scripture and try to understand as much as possible. These are virtuous acts and worthy to be done, but they do not save us.
Calling out for mercy requires that we admit we need God’s mercy. It means we must abandon our prideful self-sufficiency and admit we are little more than dust in the wind. When my sister and I were little, I can remember how staunchly my sister would refuse my help. She would get hurt on the playground and with tears streaming down her face she would set her face and sternly warn. “Don’t touch me.” And she would sit there until under her own strength she could get up and go get her own band-aid. Sometimes we are like that with God and with each other. We are scared or hurting deep inside, but we are too proud to call out, “have mercy on me.”
Following Jesus’ command requires us to get up out of our comfortable place and begin to act as though God’s kingdom is already here. We must reach out to people with the belief that God will provide even if we don’t see the resources yet. The Lepers began walking to Jerusalem to seek out the priest before they were healed. If you read or watch the news it is easy to believe the devil has won. The world is a dangerous and frightening place, but if you read history, you can see the hand of God at work and realize his kingdom does break through when we allow it. In the midst of the Black Plague, Julian of Norwich was able to say, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Finally, and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of faith is gratitude. The Samaritan came back to Jesus to thank him for the blessing he had received and he received even more. Jesus tells him, “your faith has made you whole.” His expression of gratitude was his demonstration that he did not chalk his healing up to a coincidence, but that he recognized it was the result of God’s mercy. Faith is not about correct liturgy, or correct theology, it is about a correct relationship with God.
We have been very blessed in this parish. God has used us to demonstrate his merciful presence in this community in many ways, but I want to point out one word of caution. Human beings are mortal. Every one of us will die at some point in time. We must never assume that because someone does not experience physical healing in the way that we expect that it is because they lacked adequate faith. Healing occurs on many different levels. Jesus healed 10 lepers. It was an act of compassion and an opportunity for him to demonstrate God’s mercy, but many others in Jesus’ lifetime died as lepers. We should continue to pray for healing, to hope in faith for healing, but to also give thanks to God for all his good gifts even when our prayers are not answered in the way we want. If God’s answer is not this time, it is neither a reason to doubt our own faith or accuse others of lack of faith. This holds true for all our prayer requests. God’s knowledge and mercy far exceed our understanding.
In many ways, we are all lepers standing on the side of the road, calling out to God to have mercy. In other ways, we are those who stand at a distance requiring others to announce their illness while we hide our own. God’s mercy is demonstrated through our mercy. We have the opportunity each day to be the presence of Jesus in the midst of a hurting humanity who calls out for mercy. Who are the lepers in your own life? How will you respond to their call for mercy?