Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
St. Luke 17.11-19
September 22, 2019
“Jesus, Master, Have Mercy”
Seminarian Andrew Keller, Vicar
+ In the Name of Jesus +
For the second Sunday in a row, our Gospel reading includes a Samaritan. Last week, the ‘Good Samaritan’ parable was spoken in response to a lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” There, the Samaritan showed mercy on a beaten man, when the religious elite sought only to uphold the purity laws. The Samaritan anointed the man’s wounds with wine and oil, and paid to make sure he had the proper shelter and care. It was not an illustration of how to earn eternal life, as the lawyer sought to find. Rather, to paraphrase Pastor Meyer’s sermon, Jesus is the ‘merciful Samaritan,’ who loved his neighbor perfectly by giving his body and blood on behalf of beaten sinners, that through him we might have eternal life.
This Sunday, we hear of ten lepers that approach Jesus, one of whom is a Samaritan. They cry out from their despair, “Jesus, Epistata (that is master or rabbi), have mercy on us.” They recognize the authority and power of the Lord, with faith that he can give them what they want. However, as they departed, only the Samaritan returned to praise the Lord. Jesus spoke to him, “Your faith has made you well,” a phrase which is better translated, “Your faith has saved you.”
Leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, is a skin and neurological disorder caused by bacteria. It causes rashes, sensitivity or numbness on the skin. While once feared to be highly contagious, it only spreads through extensive contact, and is highly treatable if not left for too long. However, in Biblical times, it was a death sentence. If detected, the individual was removed from society to live alone or among other lepers, lest he contaminate the others. In a time where the community was your identity, this left lepers as nobodies. Now, we are told that one of these nobodies was a Samaritan. Samaritans had an incomplete reading of Scripture, worshipped not at the temple, but at Mt. Gerizim, and were viewed by Jews as outsiders. Among the outcasts, he was the outcast.
In our sinful condition, we are like the lepers. Without healing, we are covered in the leprous stain of sin. Like the lepers, we are separated from God and from our neighbors. Unclean people cannot live before a holy God, lest we perish. Sin causes us to be outcasts and lose our identity before Him. Sin fractures our relationship with one another, causing us to approach our neighbor not with love, but with jealousy and selfish attitudes. Apart from the Lord, we can only stand at a distance, despairing and crying out, “Jesus, master, have mercy.”
The unclean lepers approached Jesus, as he was passing through Samaria and Galilee. They called out with one voice, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” This word for master is Epistata, and its other uses are by the disciples. The lepers are confessing that Jesus has great authority and power. They beg, not for healing, but for mercy, trusting that Jesus would care for them. And he did! He told them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” Leviticus 13 and 14 reveal the laws concerning lepers, what to do if a part of them is found leprous, how to dispose of garments, and what to do if they were found to be cured. They were to show themselves to the priest, who upon further inspection would offer sacrifices on their behalf, that they might be declared clean, rejoin society, and live within the camp. As they went on their way, the ten lepers were healed, cleansing them of their disease. They were not healed immediately in the presence of Christ, but as they went away. The ten believed Jesus’ word, and did as he told them.
Ten were healed, yet nine did not return. Where then did they go? Did they continue on their way to show themselves to the priest? Did the Jewish nine abandon their once brother-in-affliction when the common affliction was removed? Or were their eyes closed and ears shut to the time of their visitation, namely Jesus as God in flesh before them? They begged for mercy from the Lord and received it. However, instead of giving thanks and praise to Jesus for what he had done for them, they sought the paths of the law, returning to the priests instead of to the true priest. They did not give glory where it was due. They went to be purified, offering sacrifices with the hope that they might make themselves pure. They depart from Jesus, walking down the path of the Law, rather than recognize the one who could give the healing they needed-not physical but spiritual.
This healing does not happen without Jesus, yet only one leper, a Samaritan figures this out. He alone returned to Jesus, no longer at a distance, but he ran to his healer, fell on his face in a posture of worship, and gloried and gave thanks to God in a loud voice. He received much more than a renewal of bodily life and healing; he received spiritual life and healing. Jesus said to him, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.” The foreigner, outcast Samaritan recognized that Jesus was more than Epistata, master; this man is God incarnate. He did not go to the priests of the Law but to the Great High Priest, who will atone for the world. He did not go to the old temple, but to the Word made flesh, dwelling among us. His actions echo the words of Peter in John 6, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” It was not a matter of work that saved the Samaritan; it was the word of God.
When we read this Gospel, we are tempted to do two things: Praise the Samaritan for giving thanks, and chastise the nine Jewish lepers for not returning. We read the Gospel and feel proud that we are not them. We would never mistake the Lord’s healing for our own. But if we really look at ourselves, how often do we take credit for what God has done? Do we look at this Gospel and only see what we need to do in response rather than receive what Jesus has done for us? We like to think we would be like the Samaritan, when in reality, like the Jewish lepers, we will return to the path of the Law. By trying to help ourselves with the works of the Law, it is like scratching the leprous itch on our skin, which makes us feel good for a moment, but ultimately worsens our condition.
You, like the leper, were unclean, but now you are clean. You were separated from the Father, but now you are reconciled. You were apart from God, but now you have received mercy. Like the lepers, it was not your work that cleansed you, but it was Jesus’. Jesus’ death on the cross has purified you, that you are welcomed back into the presence of God. You do not stand at a distance, but like the Samaritan leper, fall before him in worship. The Old Adam in each of you leaves you dirty and unclean, but baptism drowns and kills all sin and evil desires. You stand washed clean, to live in righteousness and purity forever. As the lepers received healing as a gift of God, so you receive forgiveness of sins in his word and Sacraments. We still beg for his mercy, singing in the Agnus Dei, “O Christ, thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy on us!” He is merciful to you in your cries of help. He hears your prayers and answers them.
Jesus restored the leprous Samaritan to physical and spiritual health. It was not a conditional healing. It was by the grace of God that the lepers were healed. Yet, only one returned, praising Jesus, God-incarnate, and thanking him. His faith in Jesus as the Son of God, come to take away the sins of the world saved him. His response is that which we hear in the explanation of the First Article of the Creed. God created and sustains his creation only out of Fatherly divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in me. On the Last Day, he will give us the ultimate healing from the leprosy of sin in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. For all this, we, like the formerly leprous Samaritan, cannot help but to thank and praise, serve and obey him. To Christ be all glory, honor and worship for all that he has done, restoring us and hearing our cries of, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!” Amen.