Text: Luke 17:11-19
St. Paul wrote to the Galatians in the Epistle reading that those who belong to Christ Jesus, “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 4:24, English Standard Version) He wrote this to encourage them and us in our walk as Christians, that we do not fall backward into the old pattern of living we inherited from our first parents. St. Paul gave a long list in the reading of the sorts of things that reside in our hearts by nature, but which now have been beaten back in us through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Word and Sacraments. Now, by His grace, we are led to bear the fruits of faith – love, joy, peace, and so on. Today in the Gospel, we also see another fruit of faith: thankfulness toward God in Christ.
The healing related to us by the Holy Spirit through St. Luke demonstrates our Lord’s power, but also His love and compassion for those suffering from sin and its effects. We also see in the reactions of the lepers to their cleansing pictures of ourselves by nature and by faith. By nature, we are numbered among those unthankful lepers, but by faith we are led to confess with the one that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. Today, we confess that a true faith worked in us by the Holy Spirit causes us to give thanks to God by glorifying Christ.
Our text today comes from St. Luke’s Gospel as he recounts for us our Lord’s final journey toward Jerusalem. Earlier in the Gospel, after our Lord was rejected in Nazareth, He set His home base in a town called Capernaum. He preached regularly there and performed many miracles in their midst. But, now in our text our Lord is headed to Jerusalem. There is a more direct route between Capernaum, which was on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, and Jerusalem, but our Lord sort of meandered. As the Holy Spirit says, “He was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” (17:11). This is not the direct route. Perhaps our Lord was taking His time so that more people would have a chance to hear and believe His Word. Regardless, as our Lord entered a certain village, “He was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’” (vv. 12-13)
We’ve heard before about leprosy and the plight of lepers. The word for leprosy in the Bible can mean a range of skin conditions, but most commonly it’s used for what we know today as leprosy. Leprosy can present as a skin condition, but it is related to nerve issues, and causes all sorts of problems. Beyond the physical problems, one who was afflicted with leprosy was also considered ceremonially unclean. They could not visit the temple in Jerusalem, they could not offer sacrifices of thanksgiving or any other sort. Anyone who came into contact with a leper would likewise become unclean. Therefore, lepers commonly lived in colonies separated and separate from their communities and families. When they did enter public areas they were required to keep a distance and either ring a bell or shout at people nearby to stay away. The misfortune of a leper was, indeed, great.
These lepers cried out to the Lord for mercy and, like the Samaritan we heard about last week, He had compassion. Jesus said to the ten, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” (v. 14) Jesus directed them to observe the correct Old Testament procedure. If one afflicted with leprosy was healed, they were to go to a priest, who would inspect and declare the same. An offering of thanksgiving would be made and the person would be re-integrated into the community. It happened that, as the lepers were headed to the temple, they were healed. One of them, when he realized what had happened, turned back and praised God. He returned to Jesus, fell at His feet, and gave Him thanks. He recognized that this great blessing from God was given to him through Christ. Jesus said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (v. 19)
In this text we get a picture of what resides in all of us by nature. For, although the one man came back to give thanks to Christ, the majority did not. Whether the priests in the temple had a hand in that or whether the nine themselves were the unthankful ones, we can’t necessarily say. The result is the same, though. The majority of people – and this is true today – do not praise or thank God for all His many blessings. It wasn’t that long ago that in the sermon I had us recite the First Article of the Creed from the hymnal. There we confessed how many blessings God bestows on us and all people. Our Lord did say that He causes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. (Mt. 5:45) Yet, we see how quick people are to dismiss this as mere chance. We have what we do only by some grand cosmic luck and by our own blood, sweat, and tears. Some do seem to thank God, but that not truly from a place of faith. And, if you ask them what God they mean, they are unable to confess a faith in the only true God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
However, before we jump on a world-bashing bandwagon, the very same thing happens among us Christians. We, also, bear in ourselves the corruption of original sin. St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, everyone of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you…practice the very same things.” (2:1) Later, St. Paul concluded, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (3:10-11) We might also say, no one truly gives thanks to God nor counts all good things as coming from Him. We see this in our own lives. When things are going well, we are more apt to forget God than remember that all good gifts are from Him. If we were truly thankful, we would not forget to hear His Word. And then, when things in our lives are difficult we also forget God’s blessings. What’s worse, we attribute our suffering to some evil agenda on God’s part or a failure of His to divert what is disagreeable to us. Instead, what we should do in our suffering is remember God’s many blessings in our lives and submit to His fatherly care and discipline, give thanks that we should share in Christ’s sufferings, and know that God disciplines those whom He loves. And this all is, of course, in addition to all the other evil things that reside in our hearts by nature that St. Paul listed earlier.
“And such were some of you,” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11) Though evil thoughts and actions were once all that filled our hearts, along with a deep seated unthankfulness and spite toward God – as with the nine lepers – that has all been washed away. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, our evil stony hearts were turned into beating hearts of flesh when we were baptized. The old evil Adam was drowned and died and now does so daily in our Baptism. All unthankfulness toward God is now beaten back in us by the Holy Spirit.
Christ our Lord also has compassion on us as He did the lepers. As He spoke to the lepers in our text, so He speaks to us now in this hour through His Holy Word. As, earlier in the Gospel, He touched a leper, so He offers us His pierced hands and side in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Through these Means, He continually gives to us the forgiveness of our sins, which He won for us on the cross. By these Means He continually strengthens us in the faith and beats back the devil and his influence, which would have us never thank God or bless His holy name.
Through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit also brings us to confess with the one leper that Jesus is God in the flesh. We do not believe in some distant God: unknowable, unreachable, and – ultimately – unconcerned with us as individuals. We believe in a God who speaks to us, who reaches out to us, makes Himself known to us and known by us. He comes to us with love and compassion, and with the power to heal and save. Such has He done, healing us of the spiritual leprosy of sin. There is nothing left for us to do, but to give thanks to God by glorifying Jesus Christ. That is, after all, one of the reasons we’re here; isn’t it? God grant us the grace to know and confess that all earthly blessings come from His loving hand and that the callous unthankfulness which resides in us by nature would be daily forgiven and beat back until we abide forever with our God, Jesus, in heaven.