As most of you know, I don’t choose the Scripture readings for each Sunday. Instead they have been established by the lectionary – the schedule of readings for the Sundays and Feasts of the church year that has been handed down and shared by the church. This is a very good thing because it means that you are not subject to the whims of your pastor. You are not subject to his personal preferences or agenda.
The lectionary assigns readings for every Sunday. Not surprisingly, it assigns different readings for each Sunday. You are not going to hear the same text twice in a year. The only possible way that could happen would be if a Feast Day in the church year – like the day for St Matthew which was yesterday – fell on a Sunday. To be honest, I haven’t checked, but there may be a text used on one of those days that is also used on a Sunday during the year. But if they exist, they are few and far between. Which is to say, it basically never happens.
However, our Gospel lesson for today from Luke chapter 17 is a striking exception to this, because it shows up twice every single year. It is the Gospel lesson for today, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity. It is also the Gospel lesson for Thanksgiving.
Now as we listen to our text, it’s not hard to figure out why it has been chosen for Thanksgiving – we hear about the one man, the Samaritan, who returns to give thanks. And when one preaches on this text for Thanksgiving, that is of course the aspect that is emphasized. But as we look carefully at our text we find that just as much – or maybe even more so – it is a text about the nature of faith.
Our Gospel lesson begins by saying, “On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” Periodically, Luke reminds us that Jesus is on a journey – he reminds us about where Jesus is going. After Peter confesses that Jesus is “The Christ of God,” our Lord tells the disciples of his coming passion as he says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Shortly after this, Luke tells us, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Jesus Christ is journeying from Galilee to Jerusalem in order to suffer and die. You can’t get from Galilee to Jerusalem without having to pass through some of Samaria. And so as Jesus passed by in this area he entered a village. There he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
Whenever we hear about “leprosy” in the Bible, we are not quite sure what condition is being described. It’s generally believed that this was not leprosy as it has existed in the modern world. More likely, it is a term that refers to a variety of skin diseases and conditions. The consequences for Jews and Samaritans – since Samaritans had a version of the Torah that also described lepers as being ritually unclean – was terrible. They could not live in the village because their touch made everyone else unclean. Sharing in the same hardship, they tended to live together, and also to live outside of villages. There, family members and compassionate individuals could supply them with food.
The news about Jesus’ ministry had spread throughout the region. As Jesus was entering the village, the ten lepers met Jesus as they stood at a distance and cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” The men seized the opportunity when Jesus was near. They cried out asking him for help as they said “have mercy on us.” And they called Jesus “Master.” In Luke’s Gospel the only other people who call Jesus “Master” are his disciples. Everything about the lepers says that they approached Jesus in faith. We see faith in action here, appealing to Jesus for help.
The lepers appealed to Jesus in faith. But we learn that when he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And that was it. According to the Law of Moses, it was the priests who could certify that a person didn’t have leprosy. So Jesus tells lepers to go show themselves to the priests. As we will see, the Greek text is very clear that when he spoke these words, nothing happened. He told men, who still had leprosy, to go show themselves to the priests.
How very different this was from when another leper came to Jesus in chapter five! That man fell on his face and begged, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” So Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” Immediately the leprosy left the man, and the Jesus told him to go and show himself to the priest.
Which response from Jesus would you want? Of course, we want the immediate healing. If we come to Jesus in faith, we want the good results now. And remember, the ten lepers did come to Jesus in faith. Yet all they got was a command from Jesus: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus doesn’t give them healing immediately. Instead he just tells lepers to show themselves to the priests.
In a sermon on this text Martin Luther commented: “Thus we see here that when the lepers had begun to believe and to expect something good from Christ, He then pushes their faith further and tests it. He does not obviously make them healthy, but tells them that they should shows themselves to the priests.”
The lepers have faith in Jesus. They believe he can heal them. Yet he hasn’t healed them. Jesus words haven’t directly promised healing. He has only told them to go show themselves to the priests. It would have been easy for the lepers to feel let down or rejected.
Yet in the experience of the ten lepers, we see how God often deals with us. As Luther comments, “Here, however, faith becomes stronger and only increases through temptation. It does not pay attention to how ungracious or uncertain the gestures and words of Christ sound, but clings firmly to His kindness and does not let itself be frightened away.”
We experience times of difficulties and hardships. We pray to Christ in faith asking for his help. And we do not see anything happen. Perhaps things even get worse. And so we feel doubt about whether Christ really cares – whether he is even there.
But these experiences are not the absence of Christ and the lack of his love. Instead, they are God dealing with us in ways that drive us to deeper faith. Luther wrote: “This is the manner that God uses with all of us to strengthen and test our faith, in that He treats us in such a way that we do not know what He will do with us. He does this only so that we will commend ourselves to Him, yield ourselves only to His kindness, and not doubt that He will give us what we desire or something better.”
The lepers believed in Jesus. And because they did they obeyed his word and set out for Jerusalem. They were lepers going to see the priest. But it was Jesus who had told them to do this, and they believed and trusted in his kindness. They believed and trusted in his mercy. They believed and trusted in his power.
Then we learn in our text: “And as they went they were cleansed.” The Greek text is absolutely clear that the healing occurred as they were going. They trusted and believed in Jesus, even when it seemed that he had not helped them. They had come to Jesus in faith, and then at Jesus’ word they set out on the journey in faith.
Sometimes, like for Jairus, this means continuing to journey in faith in spite of bad news. In chapter eight of this Gospel, Jairus came to Jesus, fell at at Jesus' feet, and implored him to come to his house because his twelve year old daughter was dying. Jesus went with him, but their journey was slowed by the crowd and a woman who touched Jesus to receive healing.
Then, someone came from Jairus’ house and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.” In the face of this news of death, Jesus said to Jairus, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” Jairus continued to believe as they completed the journey to the house, where Jesus raised the girl from the dead.
God uses these circumstances to cause us to grow in faith. There are times in our life when we must walk by faith, trusting in God’s promise of his love and care even when all of the circumstances around use seem to contradict this. Yet we are reminded of why we can do so by the first words of our text: “On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.”
Our Lord Jesus completed his journey to Jerusalem. There, as he had predicted, he did suffer and die. He carried out the Father’s will by offering himself as the sacrifice to take away our sin. But also as he had predicted, on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. In Jesus’ resurrection we have been given the living hope that sustains us in faith during our experiences in life. Jesus lives! And because he does, we know that sin and death have been defeated.
Why do you know that you can trust and believe in Jesus in the midst of the things going on in your life? It is because he has loved you in this way, by dying for you and then rising from the dead. He has proved his unfailing love for you. And by his defeat of death, and exaltation to God’s right hand he has assured us that he has all power to help and sustain us. He gives us faith to recognize that the outcome is certain. Our journey in life will end in life with Christ. The journey for all believers ends with the return of the risen Lord who will raise us from the dead and give us life with him in the new creation.
Through his Spirit the Lord continues to speak this good news to us to sustain us in faith. He calls us back to our baptism by which we have shared in his saving death and received the guarantee of sharing in his resurrection. He feeds us with his true body and blood, given and shed for your for forgivness of sins, because this is food for the new man to strengthen us when he is allowing circumstances that deepen our faith.
Jesus Christ has done this for us in his death and resurrection. He is doing this for us now through his Means of Grace. He will do these things for us when he returns in glory on the Last Day. And so, like the Samaritan in our text, we give thanks to God. This thanksgiving is the voice of faith, that continues to trust and believe in our crucified and risen Lord.