Sermon audio here.
In the ancient world there was hardly a greater threat to society than leprosy. You might say leprosy was the ISIS of Jesus’ day. It dominated the headlines (so to speak) and people lived in daily fear of an outbreak. Leprosy was such a preoccupation that scribes actually identified no fewer than 72 different varieties of the disease.
As bad as something like leprosy can make you feel, its physical effects on the skin were nothing compared to its social implications. Leviticus 13 says:
“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.'”
People treated lepers the way Chicagoans treat New York Style pizza: avoid at all costs! Leviticus continues:
“He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp,” (Lev 13:45–46).
If you got leprosy, you would lose your job, be taken away from your family, and be quarantined with all the other lepers. You might as well have been captured by ISIS.
So you can understand why, in today’s Holy Gospel, the ten lepers cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” But Jesus doesn’t heal them on the spot. Instead, He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. In order for lepers to get back into society, they had to be certified as clean.
The remarkable thing in today’s text is that they all left before they were healed. They were cleansed as they went, but it’s easy to gloss over the fact that they were still lepers when they set out for the priests. It probably didn’t make a ton of sense when Jesus told them to go, with their leprosy, and show themselves to the priests to be declared clean, but they took Him at His Word and did what He said.
All ten lepers believed Jesus even though they didn’t have any logical reason to do so. Instead, they trusted His Word despite all evidence to the contrary. In going back to the priests while they were still lepers, they displayed extraordinary faith. Reason says a trip like that would have been a massive waste of time.
This just goes to show that faith and reason aren’t always compatible. Oftentimes they are, but there are certainly times when the worst thing you could do is trust your reason. Ultimately, reason must recognize its own limitations and bow before God’s throne. The “Good News” of a God who suffers and dies and the Gospel of a Man who rose from the dead are at the heart of the Christian faith, but to reason, this is complete folly. Reason “knows” that no god worth his salt will die and that dead men don’t sit up and walk out of the coffin. This is why St. Paul says,
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” (1 Cor. 1:21–25).
Leprosy helps us understand the scandal of the cross. There was nothing people worked harder to avoid in the ancient world than leprosy. Who, then, would ever imagine that the Almighty God would willingly become a leper to save a bunch of lepers?
Christ was a leper to all. His friends wanted nothing to do with him. The religious leaders—always concerned for their precious ritual purity—wouldn’t stand for a public crucifixion in the middle of the holy city. Apparently it was okay to put an innocent man to death so long as you didn’t do the dirty work yourself and made sure to get the corpses down by the Sabbath. So they crucified Him outside of the city gates.
But our Lord’s crucifixion wasn’t just about death and destruction. As backward as it may seem, God used death to work life and salvation. You remember how vehemently Peter opposed our Lord’s talk about going to cross, who went so far as to rebuke Jesus for even mentioning such a thing! But what looked like poison actually turned out, in God’s reason-defying wisdom, to be the cure for our illness.
God has raised up Christ from the dead, and it’s the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection that creates faith, gives comfort and peace, and leads to eternal healing—much as the Word of Christ once created faith and brought healing to the lepers.
As remarkable as it was that all ten lepers believed the Word of Christ and went back to the priests, not all of them were Christians. Only one of the lepers, when he saw that he was healed, came back and praised God. He fell at Jesus’ feet and worshipped the Incarnate God in the person of Christ.
Notice Jesus didn’t say, “What are you doing worshipping me? I’m just a wise teacher, and all that nonsense about me being God was made up by misguided Christians in the 2nd century.” No, Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Here our Lord shows us that Christianity is more than just believing in the truth of His Word and obeying His commands. All ten lepers took Christ at His Word and did what He said, but only one of them was a Christian.
Too many people think Christianity is all about trying to be a good person and maybe believing some stuff about God. It’s not. The devil knows that Jesus is God. Gandhi’s life looked a lot more Christ-like than most Christians’. But neither the devil, nor Gandhi, nor the nine who believed Jesus’ Word and obeyed His command are Christians.
They aren’t Christians because they never bothered to give praise to God. If Christ is your Savior, it’s impossible not to praise Him. The faithful couldn’t withhold praise if they wanted to. Unlike the devil, Gandhi, and the nine, the Samaritan leper gave praise to God by worshipping Jesus. Only he received our Lord’s benediction, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Being in the presence of Christ is what keeps faith living and active. Faith cannot survive apart from its Author and Perfecter.
It’s true that God is present everywhere, but apart from His saving presence in Word and Sacrament, His presence is hidden to us. God is always working, but we can’t figure out what He’s up to—why He does what He does, or doesn’t do what He doesn’t do. This is why there are so many atheists: apart from Christ’s saving presence in Word and Sacrament, God usually looks like an absentee Father or one we wish were absent.
Is He too weak to do anything useful? How can He sit back and do nothing when police are murdered, babies are aborted, and sin is celebrated under the banner “love wins”? Maybe God is indifferent or evil. Or maybe He’s not there at all. Why doesn’t He intervene and fix this mess?
That’s exactly what He’s done in Christ, but it’s not a solution that satisfies our reason. We want everything fixed now, and in this, even the non-Christian lepers put us to shame.
Christ hasn’t just told you, like he told the lepers, to go to the temple and not worry about the details because He’s got it covered so just trust Him and it’ll all work out. He gives you His Body and Blood along with a promise: “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
Remembering the Sabbath—coming to Church to receive Christ’s saving gifts and giving praise to God—is the most essential activity of the Christian faith. Christ cured all ten and died for the sin of the whole world, but not everyone wants to receive what Jesus has to give.
If you want the Lord’s benediction, you have to be in the place where He gives it, just like you have to be in Chicago if you want real pizza. The odds of finding salvation apart from Word and Sacrament are even worse than the odds of finding good pizza in New York City![i] Christ doesn’t put His benediction just anywhere.
It’s like the psalmist asks: “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?” (Psalm 119:112). What good works shall I do in response to the Lord’s goodness and love?
The psalm’s surprising answer is, “I will go to communion and pray.” That’s what it means to “lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the Name of the Lord.”
The proper response to God for all of His benefits, then, is coming to receive them even more![ii] The chief good work of the Christian is to come to Church to receive Christ’s gifts and give Him praise. As the psalm says:
“From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear Him,” (22:25).
Here Christ heals you. Here He feeds you and blesses you. What Christ once told the lepers, He says also to you today: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 17:11–19: On Salvation & Deep Dish Pizza
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2015
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[i] I actually love New York Style pizza; this is shameless pandering.