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.’ — Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV)
Our gospel reading is an appropriate one for the occasion of Thanksgiving Sunday, which Canadians will be celebrating this week. It also just happens to be the Revised Common Lectionary reading for Proper 23, Year C—and so it’s a text about which many of our American cousins will be hearing sermons.
In it, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and they are passing between Samaria and Galilee. Peter, at this point, had already declared that Jesus was “the Messiah of God.” 1 So the disciples knew that Jesus was the Messiah. But I doubt they fully understood what that meant. They also knew that they were going to Jerusalem, but they probably had no idea that Jesus was actually going to die there. Sure, Jesus had warned them that he would be killed and that he would rise on the third day.2 But even Peter, who was the first to acknowledge him as the Messiah, could not accept it.3 So they obediently followed their Master as he made his way to the cross.
At this point in their journey the disciples were likely more worried about where they were at than where they were going. They were probably concerned about which side of the border they were on between Samaria and Galilee. I can imagine that as they entered each village they wanted to know if it was a Samaritan or a Galilean village.
You see, Samaritans and Jews just did not mix. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be the opposite of themselves. The Jews were the chosen people of God. The Samaritans, however … well, they were not just another nation of unchosen people; worse than that, they were heretics who claimed Moses as their guide but refused to worship in Jerusalem.
The disciples may have been so intent on limiting their contact with any Samaritans that they missed the significance of where they were. They knew that the Messiah had come to save the Jewish nation. But what they did not understand was that he had come to save the rest of the world, too.
So there they were, headed for Jerusalem and the cross of Christ. On the one side were the children of Israel, the people of God, who would reject their King. And on the other side were the lost nations of the world who would be offered salvation from God through what a Son of David was about to do.
As Jesus and the disciples traveled this road to the cross, they came to a village. As they approached it, a group of 10 people cried out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 4
They called from a distance, because they were lepers. Now, lepers in the ancient world were required to stay away from towns; they were forbidden to enter lest people come into contact with their uncleanness. They were isolated from society and were required to beg for their food because they could not carry on a trade of their own.
As if the ravages of their awful disease were not bad enough, they were also separated from their family and friends and way of life. They couldn’t earn a living. They couldn’t go home for any reason—not even to attend the funeral of a loved one.
Now, this particular group of 10 lepers included not only Jews, but also at least one Samaritan. In a way, that was remarkable, for—as I said—Samaritans and Jews, as a rule, had nothing to do with one another. But you know, it’s a true statement: misery loves company. This group was excluded from both sides of the border, so they roamed around together, keeping one another company.
Somehow they knew that Jesus was in the area—and they knew that he was a healer. Maybe they had heard how he had healed lepers in the past. They hoped that Jesus could heal them, too. Then they could return to their families, and start their lives over again. So they went to see Jesus and they raised their voices together and cried out for help.
In other instances when Jesus healed lepers, he actually touched them and healed them on the spot. This group obviously didn’t want to impose on the good teacher by coming too close, but they probably did expect him to heal them right then and there. But instead, Jesus told them to go to the temple to be examined by the priests.
They were probably taken aback by that. They must have wondered what Jesus was doing. I imagine they even wondered if Jesus was playing a dirty trick on them. What if they went all the way to the temple just to be told once again that they were unclean? That would he awful. But they left for Jerusalem anyway.
It must have been a surprise to them when it happened. There they were on their way to Jerusalem, and all of a sudden they were healed! Some of the group probably pinched themselves to see if it was a dream. Then most of them started running to Jerusalem—running as fast as they could, so that they could be declared clean by the priests and could return to their families and their lives. But one of them turned around and ran back to Jesus.
The one who turned back was a Samaritan. When Jesus saw this he said, “Weren’t there ten of you who were cleansed? But only one has returned. Where are the other nine? How come none of God’s people wanted to return and give thanks?”
As I said, this makes a good text for a Thanksgiving message.
I believe the picture this story paints is true. Too often, we fail to give credit where credit is due. We are not the authors of our salvation. We are not the creators of our wealth. Yet how many of us remember to give thanks to God, who gave us all these things?
As Canadians, we enjoy freedoms that people in other parts of the world can only dream of. We can choose the people who govern us. If we are sick or injured, we can expect to receive excellent health care without having to worry about how we’ll pay for it. And of course, there is the abundance of the harvest. I’m told it’s still true that we live in a world where enough food is grown to feed the entire planet—and yet millions still go hungry!
We have been greatly blessed, which is why we have a great responsibility to spread those blessings around.
Let us—the Church, the believers in God—let us be the first to give praise to God, instead of the last. And let us be the first to remember the poor and the hungry and the outcasts—and the first to respond to them in love; for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
1 Luke 9:20
2 Luke 9:22
3 See Matthew 16:21-23 and Mark 8:31-33
4 Luke 17:13