13 October 2013

A Grateful Heart

Luke 17: 11-19

21st Sunday after Pentecost/ 13th October 2013

You never know what you’re going to encounter on the way to Jerusalem.  You never know what you’re going to encounter on the way.  You never know what you’re going to encounter when you walk with Jesus. For he takes you from where you are to where you need to be. 

            On the way, along the way, the journey leads out beyond “home” to a place new, a different place.  And it’s there, at a point between “home” and one’s destination, in this “region between Samaria and Galilee,” something happens.  Galilee is home, it’s Jewish territory, it’s a familiar place, the place of origins.  Samaria is definitely not home. It’s an unfamiliar place for Jesus and his followers, it’s not safe, it’s “unclean,” disturbing, alienating, unnerving.  Yet, it’s here on the margins, in this “region between,” out there in a kind of religious No Man’s Land, where clean and unclean mix, out there on the margins of society, where the excluded and feared are sent to live and die, that something holy occurs. 

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They saw him approaching the village.  Forced to live in a ghetto, ostracized, cut off, they’re the first to see him.  Keeping their distance they cried out from the shadows, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  They knew who he was.  Word spreads.  Miracle workers and faith healers were a dime-a-dozen in their day, but Jesus was different.  What he offered women and men was different.  His way was unique. 

According to Luke, when Jesus “saw them,” he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  Taking him at his word, trusting in the authority of his word, they go, even before they’re cleansed, and on the way, “as they went, they were made clean.”
Luke tells us they were lepers, which could refer to a variety of contagious skin diseases.  They were sick, a threat to the well-being of society, and so they were rejected, forced to live in isolation, cut off from their family and friends, alone.  Out there in No Man’s Land it didn’t matter if one was Jew or Samaritan, they shared a different stigma, a common stigma: they were unclean, not worthy of life in community.  They would be welcomed back if they could prove that they were cured, no longer a threat, and then ritually cleaned, certified by the religious authorities, by the priest, declared safe.  That’s why Jesus tells them to go to the priests for the priests were the gatekeepers. The only way home for lepers was through the approval of the priests.

            Without even doubting Jesus’ skills as healer, they head straight for the priests.  The sooner they satisfy the priests the sooner they’ll be home to their loved ones. And so they go.  From the way Luke tells the story it looks as if the lepers don’t discover their changed condition until they’re on the way. “And as they went, they were made clean.”  Trusting and obeying Jesus’ commands they go. And then something happens, the healing occurs, and then they’re cleansed.

            How do we know this?  Because Luke tells us, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back,….”  They were healed en route, on the way, their healing discovered en route

            Ten are cleansed, one turns back to offer thanks and praise. We don’t want to be too hard on the other nine.  What would you have done?  Eager, desperate to return home, back to loved ones, family, eager to leave the margins and enter back into the heart of society, return to normalcy, you’re just grateful to be out of No Man’s Land.  We don’t hear what happens to them or what their reception at home was like. 

            It does look as if they were ungrateful, that they just used Jesus, took advantage of his power, took advantage of his mercy.  You can appreciate Jesus’ frustration and disappointment.  He gives and gives and gives and look what he gets in return.  ‘Twas ever so.

            Ten are cleansed, one returns thanks and praise.  And that one was a Samaritan, this “foreign-born,” as Jesus describes him.  He turns back.  He’s grateful.  While Jesus would have liked all of them to return thanks, he’s grateful that at least one person responded this way. 

            Give thanks.  That seems to be the point here.  Remember to say “thank-you.”  Be grateful for what the Lord had done for us.  Remembering to say “thank-you” is good, appropriate.  It’s the polite thing to say. We could call do better about being thankful for what God has done and is doing for us.  We get aught up in the busy-ness of our lives, earning a living, working hard, eager to get on to the next thing that we forget to stop and remember and give thanks and praise to God.  On the surface, the story seems straightforward enough.

            But there’s something else going on here. We can go deeper.  “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.”  The Samaritan.  He disobeys Jesus and he disobeys the Jewish Law.  He doesn’t go to the priests.  He doesn’t go to the religious authorities.  He’s a Samaritan; he’s not like the others.  He’ll always remain unclean in the eyes of Jews.  He turns back.  I wonder, at what point along the way did he realize that his heart was guiding him back the other way?

At one point he decides, he turns around, breaks free from the nine, and turns back to the source of his healing.  And he didn’t go quietly.  He goes with “a loud voice” praising God for what happened to him.  He doesn’t need the validation of the religious community.  He doesn’t need their imprimatur to be cleansed.  He doesn’t want to go with them.  He wants to go to Jesus, to be with Jesus.  He wants to complete the circle and return thanks to the giver of this gift.  The gift—the healing and the cleansing—are not complete, are not real until he returns thanks to the giver.  That he must do. 

            And so when he finally catches up with Jesus he falls at his feet, prostrate, down and flat at Jesus’ feet, offering praise and offering thanks.  Thanks! Thanks to the man who gave his life back to him.  Yes, Jesus healed his leprosy, but more than that, he gave him his life back, he gave him a future.  The healing of the leprosy was one thing; we might even say it was secondary. Because with this healing he gained something else, he was “seen” as a human being again and then welcomed back into society.  He was seen. He was noticed.  He was recognized.   And so he returns thanks to Jesus, returning praise to God.

            But there’s even more going on here and it’s easy to miss.  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.”

            Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.  You might be asking, I thought he was already healed?  I thought Jesus healed them all “on the way” to the priests? Should the Samaritan take credit for his healing?        

            Ten were healed, but only one was declared “well”—the one who returned thanks and praise to God.  It’s a subtle distinction being made here, but it’s important.  It’s there in the text, in the Greek, however it gets lost in English.  The word Jesus uses here for “well” is the Greek word sozo (sozo) meaning “whole” or “saved.” It’s the only time “well” is used in the story.

Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you whole.  What did he do to obtain this wholeness?  His faith and trust, his praise and thanks demonstrated to Jesus that he knew the true source of his life.  The Samaritan is not whole until Jesus declares that he is. The Samaritan might have been healed, on the way to being cleansed, even welcomed back into society, but unless there is gratitude rooted and grounded in God and who God is, then one is not whole, one is not well, but still sick.  We could say, then, that one can be sick and still whole because one’s identity, one’s being is rooted and grounded in God’s generosity and faithfulness. The presence of illness and disease are no barriers to feeling a sense of wholeness and completeness, because this sense of wholeness is rooted in one’s relationship with God.  The reverse is also true; it means that one can have physical health, but not be well or whole, because the source of your life is not flowing from the one who is life and gives it freely, abundantly.  It’s means you can appear healthy, but still have a sick soul, because you’re not grounded in the One who gives you life. 

We are whole, are becoming whole when our hearts are filled with gratitude for who God is toward us. 

We are whole, are becoming whole when the meaning of our lives is rooted and grounded in God’s mercy toward us. 

His gratitude saves him.  Gratitude makes him whole.

And with our wholeness, Jesus sends us on our way.  Get up and go!  The Samaritan then goes with his wholeness, his wellness, back home, to his family, his community, his village, his life.  Healed in body, yes, but more than that, whole in mind and body and spirit, with a grateful heart he’s sent. 

Gratitude saved him; now gratitude sends him.  Gratitude made him whole; now gratitude allows him to help others become whole. 

As a result, this story provides for us a far more expansive understanding of sin.  Instead of seeing sin at acts of omission or commission in need of forgiveness, one at a time, sin is anything that undermines or inhibits the wholeness that Jesus now tells us belongs to the Samaritan.  If you want to know where sin is at work in your life, then pay attention to what hampers and hinders your sense of wholeness.  Sin is anything that destroys individual life or community, anything that keeps us from being whole. This is the deep healing that Jesus offers us. 

And we miss the point if we think it’s only about physical healing.  What Jesus is “seeing” and “healing” is the division in society and within people caused by disease and illness and even ignorance.  He doesn’t see a disease—leprosy—he sees people, women and men, who are trapped, caught, suffering, and alienated from God.  He can free them from their disease, but what matters more is the deep societal, systemic healing required for a people. This is what makes him a unique healer. This is why he was different. What matters more, deeper than the physical healing, is the spiritual well being, the psychological, emotional, spiritual wholeness of God’s people.

And that wholeness comes in and through praise and thanksgiving, with and through a grateful heart. It’s gratitude that sends the Samaritan back to Jesus with a loud voice praising God.  Praise is what makes us whole.  The German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) said, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."  Enough, indeed. 

Image: Cleansing of the Ten Lepers, Codex Aureus of Echternach (11th century, Germany).

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