“Have Mercy on Me!”

Luke 17:11-19 (Sermon)

Introduction

God is hard to pin down and figure out because, as Bishop Owensby said, “God is a who and not a what”; a person, not a thing. So, our knowledge of God is limited; it seems we live in the tension between the book of Numbers and the held breath of the Easter Vigil. The chaotic and terrifying book of Numbers highlighting God’s bold activity emphasizes that no one puts God in a corner; this gives way to the deafening silence of the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Movement then silence and stillness. More movement…more silence and stillness. It’s part of the story of Israel in the midst of exile and return; it’s part of our story, too. There are times when our hearts grow weary, on the brink of fracturing under the weight of yearning under the twin questions: where is God? Who is God? I wish I could tell you I’ve never doubted; I have. I wish I could tell you that I always stand on the firm bedrock of my faith; I don’t. I question, I weep, I long. Where is beauty? Where is justice? Where is peace? Where is love? Where is God? If God has come, and God’s will is being done, then why isn’t earth as it is in heaven? Sadly, it’s often hard to think about giving thanks.

I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me!

vv.11-14

Jesus is on the move in our gospel passage. Luke tells us he travels into Jerusalem, taking a middle route between Samaria and Galilee (v.11). As Jesus enters a certain village a group of ten men encounter him; but they keep their distance (v.12). They kept their distance because they suffered from leprosy—it was a divine curse and they were ritually unclean. [1] These leprous men knew their plight and the commands of Torah: one must steer clear of family and community, [2] and one must announce their unclean presence. [3] But these men weren’t without hope: lepers could be healed and welcomed back. [4]

And hope comes near; and they recognized hope when they saw him. And they lifted up their voices and cried out when they saw this hope. “Jesus!” They called. “Master, have mercy on us!” Desperate, they called out to the one they knew could help them, who had the miraculous power to rid them of this curse and make them clean.[5] (Otherwise, why ask?) Calling Jesus “Master” is not only a term of respect; they saw and recognized in Christ the power of God to heal and reconcile.[6] And their desperate hope and plea is met with an answer from Jesus: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And they got up and went. On the way they were made clean (v.14).

If we stop here, we might be tempted to make faith into a work. (Have (enough) faith and be healed!). When that happens, faith no longer saves, it no longer flies with the wings of mercy and hope but is a mere dead stone dropped into the deepest part of the sea. If we stop here, we will make this moment of sudden healing of the ten leprous men the dénouement. But it’s not. This is:

Now one of the men when he saw that he had been healed, returned with a great voice giving glory to God, and he fell upon his face on the feet of [Jesus] giving thanks to him. And he was a Samaritan…and [Jesus] said to him ‘Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” (Luke 17:15-16, 19)

Gratitude.[7] Gratitude is pushed to the front. Hiding behind all the other players on the stage, gratitude steps forward and speaks. And Luke uses a leprous Samaritan voice,[8]the voice of a double outcast, to do make a point. It’s the Samaritan who understands what has happened in his event of encounter with the merciful one. His leprosy is gone and he is clean, and something bigger occurred: he’s healed (v.15). Luke changes the verb “they were made clean”[9] in v. 14 to “he had been healed”[10] in v. 15.

The comparison here is not between one having faith and the others not.[11] Rather, the comparison is between only hearing and really hearing so deeply that you do (shema). All ten were made clean; one realizes he’s healed. They all believed; one saw and heard.[12] Would not a double outcast know the depths of rejection and being marginalized?[13] Would not a double outcast know not only the miraculous healing, but also the bigger miracle being healed by Jesus, the good Rabbi, a Jew? [14] The Samaritan Leper is accepted and received across socio-political lines. It’s doubly not about clean and unclean with Christ. It’s about cosmic healing and this Samaritan man sees it. It’s the word of acceptance, of mercy, of hope, of beloved that he hears—words having long gone silent and still. And he hears so deeply that he can only do one thing: return with magnificent gratitude to the one who is the priest of priests in the temple of temples. And it is this priest and this temple that know no dividing walls and exclusion, but only unity and inclusion.[15] And he is grateful! He falls on his face at Jesus’s feet:[16] loving the Lord his God “with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind…” (Lk 10:27).

Conclusion

We may think that in this age of pain and suffering, this level of gratitude has gone the way of the horse and buggy. But I don’t think it has. I think each and everyone of us knows the depth of gratitude that changes lives forever: the partner who took us back when we didn’t deserve it; the friend who forgave us; the parent who embraces us upon our return even when we were convinced things were too far gone; the sibling who actually did pick up the phone finally. We know this depth of gratitude. And our hope for ourselves and for others—not only those seated here with us right now, but for the whole world—is based and embedded in this simple thing: gratitude.

Gratitude is the basis of our ethic because gratitude remembers and recalls and retells the story of when: when we were too far-gone, when we were lost, when we were in doubt, when we were angry and then God.[17] Christ came near. God in Christ comes near to those who think they are too far-gone, he seeks those who are lost, he believes for those who are in doubt, and comforts those who are angry.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 38-39)

As we tell our stories here and proclaim Christ crucified for us, we encourage each other and carry each other and bear each other up. We then spill out from this building into the world. And as we go we carry with us our absurd gratitude and our absurd stories into a world that is convinced God has gone completely silent and completely still, questions of where and who still fresh on suffering, hurting lips. But God is only silent and still if we remain so; God’s silence and stillness is only true if we forget who we are and whose we are: we are the apple of God’s eye, we are the beloved of Christ, and we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Where we go, so too does God; where God goes, so too do we.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful–
for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim 2:11b-13)

It is God in Christ Jesus who is our story, the one we remember, recall, and retell. Christ is our faith, hope, and mercy—not only when we cannot muster these but especially when all we can do is: I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me! And he does; over and over again never ceasing and never failing.

Hallelujah!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the Lord! (Ps 111:1-2)

[1] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). “‘Leprosy’ was a term used to designate a number of skin diseases, so the fundamental problem of these ten was, in all likelihood, not a malady that was physically life-threatening. Instead, they were faced with a debilitating disorder. Regarded as living under a divine curse and as ritually unclean (whether they were Jew or Samaritan, it does not matter), they were relegated to the margins of society.” 623.

[2] Justo Gonzalez “Luke” Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. “To be a leper was not only to suffer a physical illness, but to be cast out from family and society.” 205.

[3] Gonzalez 204-5, Numbers 5:2 (lepers ostracized from community by law); Leviticus 13:45-46 (lepers announce their uncleanliness).

[4] Gonzalez 205, “Since various diseases were included under the general heading of leprosy, allowance had to be made for those whose symptoms disappeared. For them, the law provided a detailed procedure, which included an examination by a priest, and then a complex ritual of cleansing (Lev. 14:2-32).”

[5] Green 623, “Used elsewhere in the Third Gospel, ‘Master’ denotes one who has authority consistent with miraculous power, and this is its meaning here.”

[6] Green 623, “What is clear is that, in naming him as master, these lepers place themselves in a position of subordination to him in the hope of receiving from him some form of benefaction. This benefaction, they seem to believe, will have its source in God; in effect, they request from Jesus a merciful visitation from God.”

[7] Gonzalez 204. “The theme of gratitude for God’s wondrous and unmerited gifts connects it with the previous parable, about the master owing nothing to the slave. In this case, the Samaritan who returns is grateful for what Jesus has done, while the others seem to take it in stride, almost as if it were their rightful due.”

[8] Gonzalez 205-6, The one who returns is a Samaritan and it is assumed the other 9 were Jews; the Samaritan is leper (outcast) and Samaritan (double outcast).

[9] Greek: εκαθαρι᾽σθησαν

[10] Greek: ια᾽θη

[11] Gonzalez 205, “We tend to ignore these nine, or to classify them as unbelieving ones; but the text says (or at least implies) that they believed Jesus, and even that they obeyed him by continuing on their way to see the priests.”

[12] Green 626, “What separates the one from the nine, then, is not the nature of the salvific benefits received. Rather, the nine are distinguished by their apparent lack of perception and, then, by their ingratitude. They do not recognize that they have been healed. This may be because leprosy was as much or more a socio-religious stigma as a physical malady. For it to be effective, cleansing must reach more deeply than the surface of one’s skin, and it may be precisely this added dimension of restoration that the nine fail to comprehend. More evident in the distinction between the behavior of the one and the nine, though, is the failure of the latter to recognize that they had received divine benefit from Jesus.”

[13] Gonzalez 206, “One could even say that there is a hint that the reason why he was doubly grateful for his healing was that he had a double experience of exclusion, and that he therefore could be doubly surprised by Jesus’ act of healing—not only a leper but a Samaritan leper! Thus the great reversal takes a new twist: those who are most marginal and excluded are also able to be most grateful to this Lord who includes them. Those whose experience of community and rejection is most painful may well come to the gospel with an added sense of joy.”

[14] Green 624-5, “Unlike the other lepers, this one perceives that he has been the recipient of divine benefaction—and that at the hand of Jesus. Of his three actions—praising God, falling at Jesus’ feet, and thanking Jesus — the first is expected within the Lukan narrative, the second two quite extraordinary. Praising God following a miracle is the appropriate response in the Third Gospel; indeed, this former leper joins many in the narrative who witness God’s mighty acts, then return praising God.”

[15] Green 626, “Worded differently, one appropriately gives praise to God via one’s grateful submission to Jesus as master or lord, the ‘location,’ so to speak, of God’s beneficence. Here, Luke’s Christology reaches impressive heights as he presents Jesus in the role of the temple – as one in whom the powerful and merciful presence of God is realized and before whom the God of the temple (whether in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim!) can be worshiped.”

[16] Green 625, “’Falling at the feet’ of someone is an act of submission by which one acknowledges another’s authority; it signifies reverence, just the sort of response one might make toward a person regarded as one’s benefactor. Gratitude, too, is expected of those who have received benefaction. Because the former leper recognizes Jesus as the agent of the inbreaking kingdom of God, there is nothing incongruous in his actions: Both praising God and to his request for the merciful visitation of God.”

[17] Karl Holl The Reconstruction of Morality. Eds. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense. Trans. Fred W. Meuser and Walter R. Wietzke. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1979. “But whence comes this duty to love God? Luther did not fail to answer this question in his Lectures on the Psalms. We are bound to love God because God is the given and sustainer of life who daily, unceasingly, and bountifully blesses us with his gifts. It is therefore the feeling of gratitude form which Luther derived the sense of obligation. Now we see why the New Testament imperative, in all its majesty and inexorableness, stirred him so deeply. He accepted it not only on authority; its essential meaning wrought conviction. If we owe God everything, then even by ‘natural right’ [iure naturali] we must give ourselves wholly to God.” 48.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s