Proper 23 • Luke 17:11–19 • October 9, 2016
By Dale A. Meyer
This text speaks to our faith within the context of a changed America, a churched nation in our youth but now a country that gives the church no special privilege. This sermon can probe, perhaps uncomfortably, parishioners’ faith, and do so with an eye toward more faithful community outreach.
About the text: The ten lepers who meet Jesus are presumably all Jewish, save for the Samaritan. The Holiness Code in Leviticus 17–27 taught Jews to keep themselves separate from Gentiles, but here we see that religious rules are set aside when people share a common bond of misery. The ten lepers ask Jesus for mercy, for hands-on physical help for their leprosy. Our Western understanding of mercy is pity for someone who is in a bad way, but biblical mercy means action. “Go and show yourself to the priests,” Jesus responds (v. 14), suggesting he wants the priests to wonder about him. When the lepers discover they have been healed, only the Samaritan returns and “he fell on his face at Jesus’s feet, giving him thanks” (v. 16). Jesus’s response is critical to getting this text right. It’s not that the nine didn’t give thanks; no doubt they were very thankful. The nine were wrong in not seeing Jesus as the personal embodiment of God’s mercies for their need. “Was no one found to return (to the person of Jesus) and give praise to God (present in Jesus) except this foreigner?” (v. 18). “All the promises of God find their yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20).
What does this say to worshippers and congregational life in increasingly unchurched America? The nine lepers who didn’t return were spiritual, calling Jesus “master” and looking to him to dispense a favor; it was all about them. America remains highly spiritual; it’s just that more and more of us claim to be practicing our spirituality apart from the institutional church as “nones.” Like the nine, people today claim to have “faith” but it’s self-centered and self-determined, not the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). In this context, Jesus’s praise for the Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well” has a double meaning—health and salvation. “Your faith” is not the hearer’s subjective feeling but outwardly directed trust in Jesus. “Made you well” (ESV) is the perfect of sozo in Greek, “your faith has saved you.” Faith saves, makes us well in two ways. Many Americans, like the nine, see faith as a means to a better place in earthly life, with Jesus the master dispenser. Yes, faith does improve our earthly lot. “Every morning mercies new” (The Lutheran Hymnal, 537). But in the double meaning, the deeper meaning is the eternal salvation that Jesus gives to those who trust in him. Like the nine, many spiritual Americans acknowledge Jesus as a “master,” seeking betterment of their temporal situation, but do not bow their broken lives and empty hearts before him. “Was no one found to return except this foreigner?” Might one reason for the decline of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod be that many have been tempted to spirituality apart from devotion to Jesus?
For the sermon you could play on this double meaning of “Your faith has made you well,” contrasting the self-serving spirituality of many Americans to the true church’s outspoken witness to Jesus Christ. A powerful illustration would be to use the story of an ethnic believer, a modern-day Samaritan, who gives thanks and praise because he or she recognizes that God’s mercies have come in the person of Jesus. This gospel is a Great Commission text, “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Like the Samaritan, that starts with Christ-centered personal lives and congregational life, as the epistle pointedly says, “If we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us” (2 Tm 2:12).