Sermon: Luke 17:11-19, “And he was a Samaritan”
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
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As many of you know, our family is being fruitful and multiplying. Recently, we had our fifth grandchild when we welcomed a little boy into the family, and in the spring we are anticipating our sixth from our other daughter and her husband.
We’re probably having the most fun right now with our granddaughter, who will turn two in January. Those of you with children know that when they begin to learn their first words, parents are eager to teach them manner words, like “please” and “thank you.” So, they’ll hold up a piece of food before the little one, the child will reach for it, and the parent will pull it back and say, “Now, what do you say?” After a bit of training like this, the toddler will say, “Please” or some variation thereof, and the parent will reward him or her with the food. And afterwards, “Now, what do you say?” After some time, the child will learn to say, “Thank you.”
We want our children to have good manners. We know instinctively that manners are designed to show respect to others, and we delight when our kids show kindness and respect.
On one level, our Gospel story this morning might sound like a simple lesson in good manners. Ten lepers approach Jesus and request healing. Jesus gives them instructions about what to do, and when they follow those instructions, they find themselves healed and made ceremonially clean. They continue on their way to do what Jesus told them to do. All except for one, who is so overwhelmed by Jesus’ gift of healing that he turns around, runs back to Jesus, falls at his feet, and says, “Thank you.” Jesus then makes the point that only one out of the ten did this. Only one said thanks.
The lesson most of us would probably draw from the surface of this narrative is that it’s a good thing to say “thank you” to God for the benefits he gives us, that many of us forget to do that, but that God delights when we remember to pause, turn around, and express our gratitude for his grace and mercy.
It’s as though Jesus heals these people, then waits. Then he says, “Now, what do you say? What do you say?” But only one of them has good enough manners to say “Thank you.”
I guess you might draw that lesson from this text, and I have before when I’ve studied it and taught it. However, there are some problems with this interpretation.
First of all, before the one leper turned back, all ten lepers who were healed were doing what Jesus had instructed them to do. What did he say to them, in response to their appeal for mercy? He told them to go and show themselves to the priest, right? That’s exactly what they did. They were obeying, following Jesus’ command. The fact is that nine of them kept going, doing what Jesus said to do. It seems to me that this is not something the text is criticizing.
Second, the story implies that the nine lepers who did not turn back were Jewish. That means they could go to the Jewish priest and show themselves to be clean. But the tenth man was a Samaritan. Even if he had continued in the company of the other lepers when they went to the priest, he would not have been welcomed there. So in reality, he had nowhere to go.
I don’t think this story is simply about the fact that Jesus healed ten people and nine of them failed to turn around and say thank you, while one of them did. The lesson for us is not “give thanks like the one, don’t be like the nine.”
So if that is not the lesson of this story about Jesus, what is? Well, let’s first remember that this is a story about Jesus, it is not first of all a story designed to give a moral lesson to us. It was written to tell us something about him. Let’s try to figure that out first, and then maybe we can draw some lessons for our own lives.
The first thing we read here is that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem. This journey began back in Luke 9:51. Turn there with me. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We know, therefore, that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, the time when he would be arrested, tried, convicted, crucified, buried, raised from the dead, and taken up into heaven at the ascension.
The next verse, Luke 9:52, tells us that he sent messengers into a village of what kind of people? That’s right, Samaritans. Right at the beginning of the journey, Jesus was dealing with Samaritans. In this case, the Samaritans rejected him and this is the time when James and John asked the Lord if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven on the village like Elijah did in the Old Testament. In response, Jesus rebuked his disciples for their attitude toward the Samaritans.
They journeyed on from there, and after a few other stories we come to a story that begins at Luke 10:25. In this event, a teacher of the law came to Jesus with a question about eternal life. In response, Jesus told him a parable. Do you recall which parable it was? That’s right. We call it the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans show up again! In this case, Jesus uses the Samaritan as a positive role model of what it means to love your neighbor. That was a real slap in the face to this Jewish lawyer and the other Jews who might have been listening. It would have been like a member of the KKK praising a member of the NAACP.
So, on this final journey of Jesus, we have two occasions when he had occasion to talk about Samaritan people, and in both cases he showed a spirit of inclusiveness and generosity toward them.
Oh, there is one other passage in Luke that we should look at: Luke 4:16 and following. This was Jesus’ inaugural sermon at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. He reads from Isaiah about how he came to set the captives free and give the blind sight. Then he closes the scroll and begins to tell them about what this kind of ministry will look like. Beginning in verse 23, we read:
He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
I want you to note particularly the section here about Elisha and Naaman. That story, when Elisha healed Naaman, took place in the vicinity of Samaria. Naaman was a foreigner and a leper, who washed in the river and was made clean.
In other words, right from the beginning, according to Luke, Jesus said his ministry was going to include people like foreigners and he would impact places like Samaria, and he would heal people like lepers.
What did his hometown friends think of that? They didn’t like it, did they? In fact they tried to kill him by forming a mob and attempting to throw him off a cliff!
And now, in today’s text and the others we have looked at from Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, these things come back into view again. Foreigners, lepers, the region of Samaria. Our Gospel reading today says that Jesus found himself, as he traveled to Jerusalem, in a region between Samaria and Galilee. It goes on to say that he was approached by lepers. It tells us that among them was a Samaritan. Jesus healed them all, and most of them went on their way, going to the priest as Jesus had instructed them, but it was the Samaritan that responded by turning back, falling at Jesus’ feet, and expressing his gratitude. And, as if we didn’t get the point by that point, the text says plainly, “And he was a Samaritan.”
This is not a story about thanksgiving as much as it is a story about how Jesus intentionally and relentlessly broke down boundaries about who is welcome in the kingdom of God. The Jews and the Samaritans were bitter enemies, not unlike the Jews and Palestinians of today. They stayed away from each other whenever possible. They did not have dealings with each other. They did not think kindly of each other. At times they acted with hostility and violence toward one another.
Jesus apparently didn’t care a fig for any of that. He sought outsiders and even enemies on purpose. He put himself in their world and in close proximity to them. He extended mercy and grace to them. He listened to them and talked to them, touched them and healed them, forgave their sins and welcomed them with kindness into his kingdom.
When others lived in a spirit of fear and distrust, when others thought the best way to stay holy and righteous was to separate themselves from the unclean and maintain strict limits and boundaries, Jesus exhibited an entirely different spirit and mode of operation. From the separationists’ point of view, he went to all the wrong places, engaged all the wrong kinds of people, and said outlandish things like, “Your sins are forgiven” and “Go in peace, your faith has saved you.”
This Gospel story is first of all about Jesus, and this is what Jesus is like.
But there’s a second point here, and this was even more radical to those who first witnessed it. In this story, Jesus praises the Samaritan for returning and praising God and uses him as an example of faith to his disciples. Verse 17:
Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
I think Jesus’ point is not to disparage the other nine lepers, who after all, just did what he told them to do. I think his point is to lift up the extraordinary act of the Samaritan leper, who displayed a unique understanding of what had happened. He recognized God working through Jesus. His faith was exemplary. He got it, he really got it, and Jesus wanted to point out the extraordinary fact that it was a foreigner who displayed this kind of faith.
This is akin to what happens in the parable of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus intentionally draws a contrast between the priest and the Levite on the one hand, and the Samaritan on the other hand. The Samaritan, of all people, turned out to be a better neighbor to the man by the side of the road than the religious leaders who passed by!
So, I think the other point in this story is for us to recognize that God is working in the world in ways we cannot even imagine, and that we must not automatically think that because our neighbors are not church-goers or devout people, that God is not active in their lives and that they have nothing to teach us.
It may very well be that one day we’ll find out that they far outshine us in the kingdom of heaven. We may find ourselves dancing down the road one day on the way to church, happy for what God has done for us. And then we might catch a glimpse of our neighbor in the rear view mirror, running back to Jesus, falling on his face, and giving praise to God in a way that far surpasses our ordinary piety. We might see that person we deem ungodly acting as a good neighbor in ways that shame us as we scurry on to participate in our religious activities.
There were ten lepers, after all, on that day. Nine of them went on their way, doing what they had been told to do. But one of them surprised everyone with his actions.
And he was a Samaritan.