Trinity 14, 2017
Text: Luke 17:11-19
Grace and mercy to you from God our Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ
Imagine life as a leper in Israel. The Word of God is clear on the matter: those with leprosy are ceremonially unclean. They cannot reside inside the city. They must live outside, by themselves so that they do not infect others and so that their rotting flesh does not disrupt the pure and holy worship of God. Imagine that that day when the first white spot of skin appears. You try to cover it up – but someone notices; they haul you to the priest in the Temple and he pronounces you unclean. Out you go. Out of your home, away from your family, to be alone and cut off.
Beloved: make no mistake, there is a reason that the Lord did this in the Old Testament, a reason that he singled out leprosy. He chose leprosy and dealt with it in this way as a living sign of your sin. For what leprosy does on the outside, sin does on the inside. Rotting flesh is nothing compared to the rotten stink of a soul being eaten up by lust. The physical separation of the leper from his family is nothing compared to the spiritual and emotional separation caused by careless and cruel words. The lingering death caused by this disease is nothing compared with the eternally lingering death in hell of the soul cut of from God by unholiness.
So make no mistake, beloved, you and every man, woman, and child who has ever lived are a leper – a leper on the inside, spotted and rotted with the terminal illness of sin.
So rejoice to turn toward Jesus and see his response to these ten lepers. They cry out to him from afar: Jesus, master, have mercy on us. This is the beginning of salvation: repenting, turning to Jesus to seek mercy. But for these lepers it is only the beginning. Note well that they call him Master but not Lord. They are looking for mercy – but they are not yet looking for the One Who Is Merciful. This is seen in what happens next: they are healed, and Jesus tells them to hasten off to show themselves to the priests; to demonstrate that they are healed.
And then the nine do not return. Why not? They are sometimes called unthankful, but that is ridiculous. No one could be unthankful after being freed from such a hideous disease as leprosy. Surely they prayed a prayer of thanks at the Temple when the met the priests and showed them that they were clean. No, they failed to return not because they were unthankful, but because they had gotten all that they had come to get. Remember, they called Jesus, Master and not Lord. They came to Jesus as the master over nature, as a powerful prophet who could heal them: they came looking for a miraculous handout and that was it. They wanted no further strings attached. They got what they wanted and they moved on.
Jesus says that the other nine lepers did not “return and give praise to God” even though they had gone to the Temple as he had said. Jesus' meaning is that the Temple is not good enough anymore. That God is to be found in the New Temple of Jesus own flesh. Jesus is God incarnate – that was the point of his miracle and yet the nine missed it, they did not return to give praise to him, the true God in the flesh, because they did not believe in him. The nine lepers are not unthankful, they are unbelieving. There is no coming to the Father except through this Jesus – and this is what the nine lepers miss.
Only the one leper, the Samaritan, understands what this healing really means: that he has encountered God face to face and returns to give praise to his Lord. Only this leper understands that to receive physical healing without receiving spiritual well-being is worthless. For every blind eye that Jesus healed in his earthly ministry is blind again today – shut tight in the grave. Every lame limb that Jesus made to run and leap again lies idle six feet under. The healings Jesus performed in his ministry were nothing but tricks unless they pointed to something deeper.
And what they pointed to was this: Jesus is the Lord of death and life who bore the sins of the world in his body on the tree, died for them there and rose again from the dead. That is what Jesus is doing on the cross: bearing the leprosy of sin for the whole world. For behold: who was ever cast out like Jesus? Tossed outside the city gates he is crucified and bears the full weight of God's wrath against sin – even though he himself is God himself in the flesh. In the mystery of who Jesus is as God and man, sin itself dies never to rise in power again. With Jesus' resurrection, Life itself now reigns.
Those words, those thoughts, that truth of what Jesus has done for us is so familiar to us that we are in constant danger of letting it become just words, just thoughts, just truths on the page. Beloved in the Lord, look to this healed leper, this living sign of your salvation, to again reawaken in yourself the wonder and joy of just what Jesus has done for you. Imagine the release and the relief of being freed from leprosy, of being reunited to family, of being welcomed home. What this man received in a merely earthly way, you possess, even now, in eternal realms. For you too have been healed – washed of your sin-leprosy in Holy Baptism. You are, in God's sight, forgiven and fresh and new and clean. You too are welcomed home by the Father in Holy Absolution as he speaks his word to you, calling you his beloved and forgiven child. You too are gathered to your family once again as you join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, all those who rest with the Lord, as you come to receive and praise and honor Jesus who gives you all he has to give, who gives you himself in his Body and Blood. This is truly the medicine that heals every spiritual leper: for this is the living Body and Blood of Jesus himself. Receive this and be made whole in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.