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Mercy and Thanks (St. Luke 17.11-19)

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

“Mercy and Thanks”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus           

St. Luke 17.11-19

18 September 2022



We often skip to the end of this account because we think that’s where the focus lies. It’s true that the account ends with an emphasis on thankfulness, but there is much that comes earlier. There are ten lepers, all outcasts because of their disease. All trust in the mercy of Christ. They expect grace from Christ. They know he can heal and they believe he can heal them. They have no merit to present, they simply pray for mercy with every expectation that Christ will give it. They all have faith! None claims merit.

There are people who have near death experiences. They had no hope of recovery but Christ gave them life again, just like these men. God sometimes does the unexpected. Miracles we call them. The inevitable does not happen. God spares your life or the life of a loved one. Your faith doesn’t cause it to happen. That would be the worst error of all! It happens only because God had mercy, undeserved kindness, on us. Luther wrote:

“Whoever seeks mercy obviously is not buying or exchanging anything but is seeking only grace and mercy as someone who is unworthy of it and certainly deserves something much different.” [AE 79.72]

God spoke through Isaiah [Isaiah 65.24]!

Before they call I will answer; 

while they are yet speaking I will hear. 

Jesus willingly heard these lepers and granted their prayer for mercy. He tells them to go and show themselves to the priest. He makes them wait until they are on the way. That’s when the healing happens. They went to the priests even before they were healed. Then they saw that they were cleansed! It happened as Jesus had said. 

Isn’t this enough to make them happy? It should, but that’s not the end of the story. For the nine Jewish lepers there is no resulting thanks to Jesus. 

Genuine thanksgiving puts on practical clothes. It is not simply repeating, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you Jesus!” as we see athletes point to the sky after scoring a touchdown or hitting a home run or winning a game. A game! Words need actions. There must be acts of love which prove faith. These acts of love do not put ourselves first as though only my needs must be met. The Christian life comes into focus here. Love does not litigate or fight for what one believes is his due! It acts. One does not destroy others for what one wants for himself. To demand one’s rights is not the way of Christian love. 

If our Lord wanted what was his right, he would have made the unthankful nine leprous again! He would have caused their leprosy to return! I’m not suggesting that we look at things this way, that God will strike you down again because you have been unthankful and self-centered, but the thought is certainly entertained by many. Yet that is not the way God acts toward us. He acts in grace, in mercy, giving us the good we do not deserve.

I wonder what became of the relationship of the 10 lepers after the cleansing. The only one who returned to give thanks to Jesus for his mercy was a Samaritan. I wonder if the other nine looked at him again as an outcast. Their disease and misery had united them in a community of outcasts. Then what? I strongly suspect that the nine Jews had nothing more to do with this half-breed Samaritan. Their disease had united them in common misery and hopelessness, but now that factor has been wiped away. 

Samaritans have figured prominently in our Gospel readings lately. Perhaps the Samaritan must have said something like this: “Let’s go back and give thanks to Jesus for the great thing has done for us. He’s answered our prayer! We should go back and thank him. It is blessed thing he has done for us.” Perhaps the other nine responded: “Well, we’ve given thanks here to the priests; we don’t need to thank this Jesus because the priests tell us he’s demonic. What’s more, we don’t want to hang around with you any more, you Samaritan dog!” 

The ungrateful nine do not change their sinful ambitions. Interestingly, Luke does not mention any thanks coming from their lips. Their bodies have been healed but something is missing. Their hearts are unchanged. When I was growing up my father would always say after our evening meal, “Let’s return thanks.” It’s the same phrase Luther uses in the Small Catechism in teaching us to Return Thanks:

“Also, after eating, they shall, in like manner, reverently and with folded hands say:

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever. [He] gives food to every creature. He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor His delight in the legs of a man; the Lord delights in those who fear Him, who put their hope in His unfailing love. [Ps. 136:1, 25; 147:9–11]

Then shall be said the Our Father and the following:

We thank You, Lord God, heavenly Father, for all Your benefits, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen. [Luther, M. (1991). Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation. Concordia Publishing House.]

To return thanks means to bring something back to God because of what he has bestowed on us. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? So simple that we don’t have time for it! Do we become like the nine men who couldn’t take time to thank Christ for healing them? What’s even worse, we may not even think about it. I suppose that’s what happened to these nine cleansed men. They became so busy getting back to their families that they didn’t even think about offering thanks to the One who healed them. 

Do we find ourselves so busy that we can’t offer thanks to the One who offers us our daily bread? Do we thank God for our daily bread, even though it may be things we do not want to have? Things like trouble, illness, pain, or loss? Can we, should we, give thanks for even those circumstances? Thanksgiving is not always so easy in things like that. It would be good discipline to thank God for all the blessings he has given you each day. There are some that should stand out, such as our spouses, children, and families. The blessing of a continued life with more gifts that we can number. Can we thank God even though there are gifts he has taken away? Sometimes God withdraws those gifts from us, not to punish us, but to draw us closer to him. What if God were to take away that which was dearest in your life? Could you still offer him thanksgiving? Could we be like Job who gave thanks even though God took away his family and his wealth? The Apostle Paul wrote:

Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [1 Thess. 5.18]

The English concordance to the Bible lists some 136 instances where the word “thank” and its cognates is used. Giving thanks must be important then. But are we so busy that we cannot attend the Divine Service to receive the most important gifts God offers? Faith acts upon what God does in forgiving our sins. This Samaritan shows his faith by thankfulness. Of necessity thankfulness moves us beyond ourselves to others.

Christ has healed us of our spiritual leprosy. He has gone to the cross to pay for our sins and failures. He has given everything necessary for our healing in this life and the next. How often we have prayed the only prayer necessary, “Lord, have mercy!” And Christ has bestowed it and continues to bless us with it. 

In the Service of the Sacrament today we dare not miss the thanksgivings that are there for Christ’s gift of his body and blood. The Preface always contains thanksgiving:

It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto You, O Lord, holy Father, almighty and everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, evermore praising You and saying . . .

There is the Prayer of Thanksgiving after the Sanctus . We’ll be following the left hand column today on page 179 today. The order of things is a bit different but that is not a bad thing because it awakens us from mere recitation of the familiar. Our Post-Communion Canticle is Thank the Lord.” Every celebration of the gifts God provides in the Sacrament brings forth thanksgiving from God’s people. The Post-Communion Collect involves the giving of thanks for what we have received as Christ’s mercy moves us to serve others. 

Mercy comes from God. Now comes the hard part, living a thankful life. Ingratitude is a horrible sin, especially being unthankful to God who gives us daily bread. In giving thanks we receive more from our Lord. We receive a stronger faith because “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” [1 Cor. 11.26] Christ lives in us and empowers us to proclaim his mercy to others. Faith receives God’s mercy and then faith acts in showing gratitude to God for his great mercy by serving our neighbor. 

God grant it for Jesus’ sake!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 

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