There is much to be thankful for this holiday weekend … and I’m not talking about the turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. No, I am talking about college football. This year the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is also the time when rivalry college football games are played.
These are passionate match ups that usually involve two schools that are located in the same state: Alabama vs. Auburn; Oregon vs. Oregon State; Georgia vs. Georgia Tech; Florida vs. Florida State … the list goes on and on. There is always close geographical proximity, even if it is bordering states like the Ohio State vs. Michigan match up. The games are for bragging rights, and so they are interesting and important even when the teams aren’t very good – such as in the Indiana vs. Purdue game.
These rivalries can be good natured, but more often than not they engender animosity – the schools and teams really don’t like each other. An unsuccessful season can be salvaged by beating the rival. And if that victory destroys the conference or national championship hopes of the rival, then the victory is all that much sweeter.
If the Jews and the Samaritans had played football, it would have made for a truly great rivalry game. Here you had two groups who lived in close proximity to each other – Samaria was located right in midst of Jewish land with Judea to the south and Galilee to the north. They had a shared history. The people who would become the Samaritans had been brought in as replacements for the exiled people of northern Israel in the eighth century B.C. The Samaritans had taken up a form of Judaism, with their own version of the Pentateuch and they built their own temple on Mt. Gerizzim in Samaria.
At the end of the second century B.C. the Jews had conquered the Samaritans. They destroyed the capital of Samaria and more importantly, they destroyed the temple at Gerizzim. The Samaritans responded at the beginning of the first century A.D. by scattering human bones on the Temple porches and in the sanctuary in Jerusalem in order to defile it. There were bloody incidents as the two groups came into conflict, and tried to play off the Romans against each other.
These facts provide the background for the great surprise of our text tonight. The Lord Jesus heals ten lepers, and yet only one of them returns to give thanks. Only one returns, and then he turns out to be a Samaritan. The one who is the rival – the enemy - returns and gives thanks.
Our Gospel lesson tonight begins with what is usually called a “travel notice” in Luke’s Gospel. We are told, “On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he enters a village that is located in the borderland between Samaria and Galilee. As he does so, he is met by ten lepers who stand off at a distance and cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
“Have mercy,” such as when we say, “Lord have mercy” in the liturgy, is a cry for help. The lepers were afflicted by some kind of skin ailment. We can’t be sure exactly what kind it was, but we do know that according to the Torah the result was that they were considered unclean and were unable to live with the rest of the population. They were also prohibited from going to the temple in Jerusalem.
At the report that Jesus was passing through, they stood off at a distance and cried out for help. The reports about Jesus’ healing miracles were well known, and so here was an opportunity for relief. They cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Nothing more needed to be said. It was obvious who they were and the help they needed.
We don’t know what the lepers expected Jesus to do – how exactly they expected this healing to take place. Yet I think they were probably surprised by the response that they received. Jesus didn’t say, “Be cleansed” and provide immediate healing. He didn’t come up and touch them in order to deliver healing, as he had on other occasions. Instead when he saw them he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
It was the priests in Jerusalem who could certify that a person was healed and no longer rendered unclean by a skin condition. Jesus implicitly promised healing by telling them to go and show themselves to the priests. It’s a rather understated miracle because it didn’t take place immediately. Instead the Greek grammar is very clear that as they went they were cleansed. The lepers believed and obeyed Jesus’ word, and so they were healed.
All ten believed and obeyed. Yet then we hear in our text that, “one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks.” Ten are healed. Only one returns and gives thanks. It’s not a very good percentage. And then we learn the kicker as our text says, “Now he was a Samaritan.”
Our Lord certainly noticed. He asked, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And then he said to the Samaritan man, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
In considering our text tonight and its setting in Luke’s Gospel, we see the reason we have to give thanks. It has nothing to do with turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, or even, college football. It has nothing to do with the abundance of our land and the many blessings that we have the luxury of taking for granted.
We find reason to give thanks because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. At the end of chapter nine Luke tells us, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The time for the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission was approaching – a mission that would take Jesus to the cross and tomb on Good Friday; out of the tomb on Easter; and ascended into heaven forty days later.
He does this in order to bring salvation to all people – not just to the Jews who descended from Abraham. He would be taken up in the ascension so that he could usher in the last days by pouring forth the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, his Spirit, would then send forth the saving message of the Gospel into the world. Just before his ascension he said to the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Christ our Lord brings salvation to all people – even those who were the enemies of God’s people. He has brought salvation to you who were enemies of God because of your sin. By his death and resurrection Christ has won you forgiveness.
Jesus heals the ten lepers. In doing so he is the presence of God’s reign in their midst. He is God turning back the forces of Satan and sin, and putting all things right. And he has brought that same cleansing to you. After Paul had encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, God sent Ananias to Paul to help him regain his sight. Then Ananias said to Paul, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
Like the lepers, you have been cleansed. Their healing occurred as they received the Lord’s gift in faith. It happened as they trusted the Lord’s word and began to make their journey to Jerusalem. The same is true for you. You received the cleansing – the washing – of baptism as you received it in faith. Day by day you continue to receive salvation because you believe and trust in what God has done for you through water and the word.
It is easy to take this washing for granted, just as it is easy to take salvation for granted. It is easy to be like the nine lepers who when healed continued on their way in order to enjoy those benefits by “getting on with life.”
It was the tenth leper – the Samaritan – who recognized the magnitude of what Christ had done for him. Because he perceived this, he returned to give thanks.
The day of Thanksgiving provides us with an opportunity to pause. It prompts us to turn back from everyday life and to return to Jesus in order to give thanks. Of course, we include in this thanks all of the items covered by the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed. We give thanks for clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children – all the things that make life possible, and make life good. But chiefly we give thanks for the cleansing from sin that he has provided – a cleansing that will culminate in resurrection and eternal life with Christ. We return and give thanks. And then Christ sends us out again to live the life he has redeemed for us as he says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.”