A Thanksgiving Sermon

by Peter Sandstrom

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

This is one of the earliest stories of Jesus that I remember learning. We heard it in Sunday School while sitting around a table in the church basement. I can still call to life the feelings of indignation and judgment I felt toward those nine lepers who did not return to give thanks. I thought poor Jesus’ feelings had been hurt. Our comments across the table reflected our certitude as six and seven-year-olds. We nodded earnestly to each other, “If we were there and Jesus had healed us, we would have gone back to thank him!”

In most sermons and lessons I have heard since then from preachers and teachers far beyond the age of seven, the nine lepers and their reputations have come out pretty much the same. In defense of those lepers, a word to redeem their history, and to provide further insight into what strikes me as the heart of the text, and to investigate the reason for its placement in this gospel is in order. This may lead us to some sources to aid us in our giving thanks.

Leprosy is one of the most chronically debilitating and dehumanizing diseases in the history of the world. As grim as is our culture’s revulsion to AIDS and its vilifying of its victims, AIDS doesn’t hold a candle to humankind’s horror of leprosy and persecution of lepers for thousands of years. Like diabetes, but worse, leprosy affects circulation and the nerve endings of the body—especially in the extremities. Hands and feet can become mere numb appendages, out of mental contact with the person. Because of this, cuts, bruises, and injuries are difficult for a leper to detect without actually seeing them. Cuts become infected and the leper’s already strained system cannot fight back effectively. These attacks can leave a leper disfigured, a walking collection of open wounds.

Layers of bandages were required to protect a leper from abrasion and injury and could also become the stinking rags of infected sores. Their sight and smell caused lepers to become a pariah to other human beings. If allowed to live at all, lepers were required to live on the outskirts of villages. A leper lived a life of severe isolation and continual disparagement.

The band of lepers we encounter in today’s text have an added element of notoriety and danger in their lives. They live in a border district, between two peoples who had intense animosity toward each other. So, not only are the ten lepers on the far edges of their city, they are also caught on the frontier between their hostile cultures. And yet, these wretched outcasts seem to have formed their own unique community. The text hints strongly that this leper colony is made up of both Samaritans and Jews. This is the mixed collection of rejected, suffering lepers that Jesus meets up with in Luke 17.

They have endured years of isolation and great pain, so it is no wonder that their first words to Jesus are, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus’ reputation as a healer has apparently penetrated even this small enclave of people, who were cut off from human affairs. Even with this spontaneous burst of recognition and hope for restoration of their lives, the lepers do not break the essential social contract that exists between lepers and the rest of the world; they keep their distance. Whether this reflects ingrained habit or respect for Jesus, these lepers do not rush him and throw themselves at his feet. Interestingly, Jesus does not violate that contract either. He speaks to them from the established distance and shows no sign of inviting them closer. The distance, though, does not diminish the awesome sound or weight of the words Jesus now speaks to them: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

An intriguing piece of narrative follows immediately: “And as they went, they were made clean.” Then comes a pregnant condensation of time: “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back . . . .” I think it is critical in the text that the lepers were not made clean as Jesus spoke his words or right after he spoke them, but only “as they went.”

There is something about the combination of the process of believing that what has been said has indeed taken place and the process of beginning a journey to verify it before the authorities that seems to have enabled the healing process that Jesus initiated for his words to become effective in the ravaged bodies of these lepers. It supports an interpretation of this text as a story about faith healing. Even more fascinating to me, though, as I read this text is the apparent extended passage of time between the cleansing of the leprosy and its discovery by one of the lepers. “Then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” Jesus asks the same question out loud that we ask at this point. Why have the other nine not come back?

I think the answer to that question is central to this scripture, though it is not an answer that the text willingly or easily provides for us. The answer to Jesus’ question and ours comes, I think, from what the text assumes we know about leprosy and about how people cope and hope. Lepers, like all who suffer from a chronic disease or a permanent condition of suffering or loss, must make an essential adjustment to their illness in order to live—in order to survive. They accept the fact that this is the way it is. It is not going to get better. I will always have this illness. My amputated leg will not grow back. My spouse will not return from the grave. The life that I had is gone. This is the way it is. Therefore, I will accept this and make my adjustments. I will do what I need to do to survive and be human from day to day.

Imagine, then, that after years of accepting your condition, of making adjustments, of learning how to cope with the daily reality of your life, someone comes along and from a respectable distance calls out, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Your illness is over, your body is restored, and the adjustments you have worked hard at and have perfected are no longer necessary, starting right now. So do it, already.

Imagine being one of those lepers in the “no man’s land” between Samaria and Galilee, hearing Jesus speak those words. You and your leprous compatriots in a jolting reflex of repressed hope suddenly turn around and, with a few halting steps, begin the journey down the road, which you have occasionally fantasized. You are walking to show yourselves to the priests. As you silently walk along with the others, covered head to toe in layers of reeking bandages, you realize for the first time what showing yourself to the priest will actually require. You will remove all your bandages one by one and will have to look with your own eyes to see if what the Master said was true. You will see that, after half a lifetime of skilled, patient coping, your skin has really been cleansed and restored, or that this in fact is one more false hope from one more false healer with one more false incantation to a very deaf god.

“But the other nine, where are they?” Why did they not turn back? I believe they did not come back because they did not dare to set themselves up for a life-crushing, dashed hope. They could not get themselves to unwrap the layers of bandages to show themselves to the priests and see themselves as they were. Why did only one come back? Because, I think, one and only one uncovered himself and “saw that he was clean.” I strongly suspect that the healing that was begun by Jesus’ words and their initial journeying could not last with such a resolution of hopelessness. And, if they ever did at some later time actually manage to unwrap their bandages, they would indeed have found what they suspected they would find, a ravaged skin and a broken body.

As remarkably textured and insightful as this gospel lesson is, it serves us best as a resource for our own giving of thanks when it points beyond itself to another text. Recently I heard Dr. James Sanders speak on the writing of the gospel of Luke. His thesis is that the author of Luke consistently used a gospel text to refer back to and to comment on a prior text in the Hebrew Bible. The Gospel of Luke, then, is constantly doing midrash with other scripture.

After I had read through this passage in Luke 17, I decided to take Dr. Sanders at his word and see what happened! Sure enough, there is an Old Testament text, II Kings 7, that tells of a group of Samaritan lepers at the outskirts of a city during the time of the prophet Elijah. The king of Aram had laid siege to the city of Samaria, and the city with Elijah in it was utterly cut off. Starvation was rampant and some inhabitants were secretly eating the children of the city. The situation was desolate and insane and completely devoid of any life or good news. Nonetheless, Elijah tells the king of Israel, trapped in the besieged town as well, that food will be available at a reasonable price tomorrow. Of course, Elijah’s word is not believed. The text connected to Luke 17 begins with the third verse of this seventh chapter:

Now there were four leprous men outside the city gate, who said to one another, “Why should we sit here until we die? If we say ‘Let us enter the city,’ the famine is in the city, and we shall die there; but if we sit here, we shall also die. Therefore, let us desert to the Aramean camp; if they spare our lives, then we shall live; and if they kill us, we shall but die.” So, they arose at twilight and went to the Aramean camp; but when they came to the edge of the Aramean camp, there was no one there at all. For the Lord had caused the Aramean army to hear the sound of chariots, and of horses, the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, “The king of Israel has hired the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to fight against us.” So, they fled away in the twilight and abandoned their tents, their horses, and their donkeys, leaving the camp just as it was, and fled for their lives. When these leprous men had come to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent, ate and drank, carried off silver, gold, and clothing, and went and hid them. Then they said to one another, “What we are doing is wrong. This is a day of good news; if we are silent and wait until morning light, we will be found guilty; therefore, let us go and tell the king’s household. So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city, and told them . . .

Once more we find a band of lepers cut off from the city. They were facing both the usual horror of their daily existence and also the two-edged calamity of imminent starvation and an invading army of cut-throat foreigners. Knowing that the city populace who have kept them out on the edges all these years are not going to choose this particular time to become generous, they decide to throw themselves at the mercy of the foreign army.

As they traipse off in the twilight toward the enemy encampment, the scene takes on an almost Monty-Python-like air. Four starving, bumbling, rag-covered lepers hobble beneath the early evening sky, practicing their very best “have mercy” speeches, when they come upon a scene too staggering to believe or comprehend: The enemy camp is completely deserted and fully intact! And fully stocked! Wandering from tent to tent, munching on roasted turkey legs and pomegranates, drinking wine by the tubful, wearing ornate gold serving bowls on their heads while riding on the bewildered donkeys and horses—they have the celebration of a lifetime. Yet, as drunk and as overwhelmed as they become, they remember they are lepers with a poor retirement plan. No fools, they go and bury a fortune in gold and silver and, significantly, several changes of Aramean finery to replace their lepers’ rags regularly.

Suddenly, in between trips to the treasure cache, a realization overtakes all of them and they look at each other and say, “What we are doing is wrong. This is a day of good news.” The four Samaritan lepers leave the camp in the dead of night to make their way to the gates of the city to bring the good news of God’s deliverance to the King of Israel and to the starving people behind the besieged walls.

There are reasons and reminders for thanksgiving in these two amazing texts that are obvious enough: restored health, food for living, and some security from violence and destruction. It is, however, the resources for thanksgiving that are more subtly inlaid in these interconnected scriptures. I will suggest a few of them based on this reading of the texts.

The first is that the good news, the cause for our giving thanks, often has to be uncovered in order to be found. The leper whom Jesus helped restore had cause to praise God only after he uncovered his skin and saw its transformation. The lepers at the enemy camp could feast and celebrate only after they uncovered the tent flaps and discovered the food and wealth inside. Second, the good news, the restoration, the word of. deliverance that God has for us sometimes lies within ourselves. But in order to tap that resource we must engage in the awful and courageous process of slowly unwrapping our layers of bandages and looking beneath them to see ourselves as we are. Third, the good news of God’s deliverance may come to us from the edges, from the enemy camp. It may even be borne from that enemy camp to us by foreigners—even sick, ugly, pagan foreigners—in the dead of night.

This Thanksgiving, may God grant us the grace to uncover the resources for praise and gratitude. May we realize both those resources that lie within us and those that are outside of us, those from within our heart of hearts and those from within the enemy encampment Amen.