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November 23, 2003
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 17, and follow along as I read verses 11-19. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,
13 they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
14 When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean.
15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.
16 He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
17 Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?
18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"
19 Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Tom Shadyac is the director of the movie Bruce Almighty. He is also a committed Christian. In an interview with David Bruce [May 2003, Hollywood Jesus Web Site, Hollywoodjesus.com.], Shadyac says, The film Bruce Almighty “is our love story in our dealing with God’s love. It must deal with imperfection .… There is a line in the movie that is significant to me — when Bruce tells God ‘I just gave everyone what they wanted.’ And God says, ‘Since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?’ We think we want the house, the car, this certain relationship. We have no idea what we really want. What we really need is freedom, to be loved, and to love. It is often quite a journey getting us to that point.”
Jim Carrey starred in Bruce Almighty. He was also in The Truman Show, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, and a number of other movies. Carrey is a rubbery-faced comedian who was in one of the worst films ever made—Dumb and Dumber. The film Bruce Almighty, however, is not that bad. It is the fulfillment of everyone’s fantasy: What would I do if I were God?
Bruce Almighty shows what happens when an ambitious TV reporter is temporarily given God powers. It is a funny movie, but in the end the movie delivers a serious message. It is all about “not seeing your blessings,” said Jim Carrey to USA Today, a problem, he adds, that is “a common thing for a lot of people.”
Carrey knows the power of counting his blessings. In fact, he reports that he is in the habit of making lists of things that he is grateful for. In words you would not expect from a Hollywood actor, Carrey says, “I would challenge anybody in their darkest moment to write what they’re grateful for, even stupid little things like the green grass that made them feel good, the friendly conversation they had with somebody on an elevator. You start to realize how rich you are.”
So let us take a lesson from Jim Carrey, and count our blessings. Remember to be grateful. Realize how rich we are. Take the time, especially at Thanksgiving, to give thanks for everything you have been given. Jim Carrey does it, and so does the tenth Leper.
Today’s passage, Luke 17:11-19, centers on the topic of gratitude. This is a concept that permeates the gospel of Luke from beginning to end. Joy and gladness and rejoicing surrounds the births of John the Baptist and Jesus (chapters 1 and 2), and at the very end of the gospel we learn that the apostles are in the temple praising God (24:53). From start to finish, “Luke gives the reasons for joy,” notes Mark Hillmer, a professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary; namely, that “God has appeared among us in Jesus.” We are summoned to praise by the appearance of Jesus, and are invited to grow closer to God through our acts of praise. “When God pays us a visit,” says Hillmer, “we do not have to remind ourselves to pray, we do not have to encourage our souls to be thankful. Praise gushes.” (Mark Hillmer, “Luke 1:46-55,” Interpretation, October 1994, 391-93).
That is what Hillmer says, but not everyone shows this kind of involuntary and spontaneous praise. That is the reality of the story of the ten lepers.
Jesus is on a road trip, moving between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. As he enters a village, ten lepers approach him and call out from a distance, raising their voices in unison, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13). They are desperate for healing, but as unclean people, they do not dare rush up to Jesus. They know that they are supposed to keep their distance, and live outside the community.
In the first century, lepers were ostracized from their families, their homes, their livelihoods, and their community. Lepers were banished to the boundaries of the village and were forced into beggary—relying on mercy and generosity for their survival.
The cry these ten lepers direct at Jesus from a distance addresses Jesus by name and calls him “Master,” a traditional title of respect and authority. Their plea is for mercy, which could be either a petition for healing or for money or food. Likewise, Jesus’ response is not a specific healing announcement. He tells them to “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” To us, these words sound odd, but in the time of Jesus, a leper who was fortunate enough to be healed had to show his body to a priest. Only a priest could certify that a person was truly healed and able to return to the community.
All of the lepers immediately began the journey Jesus has commanded. The “priests” they would go to were in Jerusalem. The temple was the only place where they could go through the necessary examinations and rituals that would make them “clean” again in the eyes of their people.
Note this, it is only when they have set out on this journey that all ten lepers are miraculously “made clean.” In other words, when they demonstrate that they believe Jesus, they are healed. So let us say what good we can of the nine lepers. They did believe Jesus, and they demonstrated that belief by obeying Jesus. Jesus said, Go to the priests; They started on the journey. So up to a certain level, they were faithful disciples of Christ. I suspect that they thought of Jesus as some sort of shaman. They thought he was an itinerant faithhealer who was passing through the region. They believed that he had the power to heal. That is pretty much what many Christians today still believe about Jesus, but Jesus wants disciples who will break through to a higher level of faith. Jesus wants us to have the kind of faith that the tenth leper had.
The Tenth Leper
Everything about this healed leper is surprising. In verse 15, while all ten lepers are pronounced cured, only this one “sees” that he is healed. Presumably, this is more than simple physical sight, for if all ten were cured, then they all could have “seen” this much. What this one leper “sees,” then, is something more.
In New Testament Greek, the same term is used for “healing” as is used for “salvation.” To the ancient Greeks, if you were healed from a physical disease, you were saved from that disease, and if you were healed of your sins, your were saved from your sins. It was the same word. This leper’s eyes are opened to the fact that he is not only “healed” physically but spiritually as well. He realized that Christ not only saved him from leprosy but also saved him from his sins. Accordingly, he “returns” to Jesus and begins “praising” or “glorifying” God.
In verse 16, this healed leper’s actions continue to startle us. He “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” The prostrate posture of this man suggests nothing less than worship, as though he were worshiping at Jesus’ feet. Furthermore, the term Luke uses for expressing this man’s thanks to Jesus is everywhere else in the New Testament found in relation to giving thanks to God in prayer. This healed leper bowing before Jesus in thankfulness symbolizes worship and thankfulness to God through Jesus. The reason for joy is that God has appeared among us in Jesus.
As a final shock, Luke now reveals the most surprising thing about this healed leper. He is a Samaritan. This was certainly a blow to most of Jesus’ followers, because they saw Samaritans as low-life losers, second-class citizens, members of the wrong race, wrong nation, and the wrong religion. But the healing of this Samaritan reminds us of another healing of a non-Jewish leper. In 2 Kings 5, the mighty warrior Naaman, who is also a leper, receives a miraculous healing from his disease under the instruction and guidance of the prophet Elisha. In 5:15, Naaman responds to his experience of healing with faithfulness and gratitude, just as the Samaritan does in Luke 17. The lesson is that real faith is a thankful faith.
In Luke 17, Jesus responds to this leper by asking a series of rhetorical questions. His first question implies that all ten of the lepers should have returned and given thanks, while his second question separates out the one who has returned from the rest. Not until his third question does Jesus focus on the “foreigner”—that is the term that is used—at his feet. The term “foreigner” is somewhat derogatory. By using a harsh term to describe the man, Jesus highlights the fact that this Samaritan, who was outside the family of God, has through his faithfulness become one of the “saved.” Through his faithful praise, the Samaritan has received God’s blessing and Jesus declares to him “your faith has made you well.”
Obviously we are all the Samaritan. We are all outside the family of God, and we are brought into that family by faith in Christ. The question for us on this Thanksgiving Sabbath is: Do we have the kind of faith that the Samaritan had?
Of the lepers in our scripture, only one had that kind of faith. Only one gives thanks—one out of ten. “Were not ten made clean?” asks Jesus, sounding miffed. “But the other nine, where are they?” (v. 17). Only one takes the time to count his blessings. Only one bothers to come back to Jesus and say thanks, which is a ten percent return, which is pretty pathetic, but are we doing any better today?
Keep in mind that the nine lepers did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They were obedient. They followed instructions. They were doing the will of God. They show us what we might call a standard, acceptable, ordinary reaction to Christ. We cannot fault them for that, but it is not enough. We need to move beyond the faith of the nine lepers to the thanksgiving faith of the tenth leper. Gratitude moves us beyond the standard, the acceptable, the ordinary into a new realm of discipleship. A thankful faith makes us extraordinary, unusual, and blessed.
Jesus tells us that is the only way to live. Science tells us the same thing. New research is showing that people who count their blessings may find themselves sleeping better, exercising more and caring more about others. People who remind themselves of the things they are grateful for — people who count their blessings one by one, consciously, every day — show significant improvements in mental health, and even in some aspects of physical health. And these results appear to be true whether you are a healthy college student or an older person with an incurable disease. At least that is what research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says.
Here is how the study worked: College students were asked to fill out a weekly report of five things for which they were thankful. They listed such things as “the generosity of friends” and “the Rolling Stones.” Another group, made up of adults with incurable diseases such as polio, were asked to write down a list of things that made them thankful.
Still other groups were asked to count their hassles, instead of their blessings. They listed aggravations such as “hard to find parking” and “finances depleting quickly.” Instead of focusing on how rich they were, members of these groups focused on their poverty.
The grateful groups felt better about their lives and more optimistic about their prospects. The thankful college students exercised more; the chronically ill adults who focused on blessings reported sleeping longer and waking up refreshed. The members of the grateful groups were also nicer to neighbors and more willing to help people with personal problems, leading the researchers to conclude that gratitude can serve as a “moral motivator.”
So the point is: Being thankful is good for your physical, mental and moral health. It does not seem to matter what you are grateful for, as long as you count your blessings. You can be appreciative of green grass, or generous friends, or loving family members, or pleasant elevator conversations. You can even thank God for the Rolling Stones.
A Whole Thanksgiving Faith
In our text today, the Tenth Leper was the only one to count his blessings—which, according to Jesus, made all the difference. It showed Jesus that while the others had experienced healing for their bodies, this fellow had found healing for his soul.
“Your faith has made you well,” says Jesus to the tenth Leper. The faith that Jesus is talking about is not just a faith that asked for healing, but for the faith that returned to give thanks. It is not a gimme faith that saves us. It is a grateful faith that saves us.
The tenth leper needed soul-healing, and that is what most of us need today, but we are not going to find it until we are able to count our blessings. So, what have you forgotten to say “thank-you” for today?
In this time of Thanksgiving, our challenge is to count our blessings — large and small, significant and insignificant — and to be grateful to the One who is the source of every good and gracious gift. We do not deserve a thing, whether it’s green grass or mischievous kids or caring co-workers or healthy hearts, so our attitude toward each day should be absolutely thick with thanksgiving.
A recent Barna Research poll revealed that despite international tensions and domestic economic problems, nine out of ten Americans are happy with their lives and say that their religious faith has a lot to do with it. Nine out of ten Americans are happy, and they credit their faith. That is an impressive statistic, but does it mean that nine out of ten regularly turn to God and give thanks? Probably not. We may feel good about our lives, but we do not always give credit where credit is due. When things go well for us, we often give ourselves the credit.
There was a character like this in the Old Testament, a man named Nabal. He was a rich man. He had 3,000 sheep and a 1,000 goats. Even though there was war in Israel, Nabal’s flocks were protected by a young man named David. David camped in the area and no one dared harm Nabal’s sheep or goats. When David was in need of food, he went to Nabal, but Nabal said, “No way. “Shall I then take my bread and my water and my meat that I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men whose origin I do not know?” (1 Samuel 25:11). He said, “It’s my bread, my water, my meat.” David almost killed him for that.
But we are all a lot like Nabal. We say, “Look how smart I am that I did so well.” It is only when things go bad that we turn back to God and pray desperately for help. Now it is all right to pray to God for help, but that is only half a faith. We need a whole thanksgiving faith.
When we are grateful, we find ourselves healthier in body, mind, and spirit. We feel better about our lives, more optimistic about our prospects, and more helpful toward people around us. Jesus proclaimed it, modern research confirms it; a grateful faith makes us well. A grateful faith enables us to feel more deeply, love more extravagantly, live more fully. It is time for us then to practice our gratitude. Amen.
Brown, David. “Counting blessings is healthful.” The Washington Post, March 10, 2003, A11.
Puig, Claudia. “Spiritual Carrey still mighty funny.” USA Today, May 21, 2003, 1D.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/28/04