October 13, 2013, Pentecost 21 – The Fruit of Faith
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When our children were little, one of the things we tried to hammer home was saying “thank you.” I would be willing to bet anybody here who raised children couldn’t even count the number of times you told your kids, “Remember to say thank you.” Or when they received a gift, how many times did we give them that little nudge and say, “What do you say?” We let our children know it was very important to thank people who were kind to them, or who gave them something, or who helped them in any way. It was one of the big things we wanted them to learn, along with kindness and gentleness and generosity: one of the things that went into growing up to be a good person.
And I think because of that, the story of the ten lepers has always been a very popular lesson for Sunday School teachers. Thank you, Jesus, for giving us such a great story to teach our children how important it is to say, Thank you. Look at the way those nine lepers got themselves in trouble when they forgot. And look at the way the Samaritan – and kids must think that Samaritan just means an extra nice person – the Samaritan is the only one who remembers to come back and thank Jesus for healing him. And as a child I always had an uneasy suspicion that the other nine might have gotten their leprosy back for not being polite, because Jesus says the faith of the Samaritan makes him well.
But the story of the ten lepers is not about being polite. In fact, the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about good manners – Jesus has much deeper things to teach us than politeness. The story is not about Jesus having his feelings hurt or being offended because nine out of the ten people he healed were rude. I think the first thing to notice is that all ten men had faith in Jesus. They believed that he could heal them, or at least they hoped that he could heal them. I think we can assume they all had at least that little “mustard seed’s” worth of faith we talked about last week when they cried out to Jesus to heal them. Lepers were required to live outside the village limits because of their disease, but they lived as near as they could to the villages because they depended on people’s castoffs and handouts to survive. They would certainly have heard all the stories of Jesus’s miraculous healings so that when they learned that Jesus was actually passing through the region where they lived they rushed out to meet him, knowing, or at least hoping, that he would be able to help them.
Their faith was strong enough that when Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests they went at once, without question. In the story about Naaman the Syrian, Naaman was really put out that the prophet didn’t come out and do something dramatic, but just told him to go wash in the river. He had to be convinced to give it a try. But the lepers obeyed right away, even though it didn’t make a lot of sense. According to Jewish law, lepers were supposed to go and show themselves to the priests AFTER their leprosy was healed, AFTER they were all well, so that the priest could give them an official clean bill of health and then they could return to normal life, living in town, with their families and friends. But all ten men had faith, they recognized enough of Jesus’ power to act on his command without question. And as they obeyed, as they walked along, their diseased flesh became clean and well and whole again.
It is a wonderful healing story even if we stopped right there, and if we stopped right there – or rather, if Luke had stopped right there – we would have grown up reading this story as an example of faith. But Luke doesn’t stop right there. He goes on to tell us about the one man who turns back to give thanks for his healing. It wasn’t really strange that that man was a Samaritan, because if you remember, Jesus was traveling along on the border between Galilee and Samaria, but Luke – and Jesus himself – emphasizes the fact that he was a Samaritan, a foreigner, because his reaction is what Jesus hoped for from his own people, his chosen ones. But it was only the Samaritan man who came running back the way he had come, shouting for pure joy, to fall at Jesus’ feet and worship him. And Jesus tells him, “Your faith has made you well.”
And here’s where it helps to read the story in the Greek, because there are three different words used for healing here. When the ten men headed off to show themselves to the priests, and suddenly they realized that they were well, the word means that they were “cleansed.” The leprosy had been washed away, completely. They obeyed Jesus, and he made them clean from their disease. Then, when the Samaritan man realized what happened, the word Luke uses means to be “cured”. He writes, “One of them, when he saw that he was healed, cured, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice.” That’s our Samaritan, the hero of the story, and he ran back joyfully to Jesus, who told him, “Rise, and go your way, your faith has made you well.” And this time the word Luke uses doesn’t just mean “well” as in cured from his leprosy, it means “well” as in saved, well and whole and restored as a whole person.
Jesus is grieved that the other nine failed to come back with thanks and praise. “Weren’t nine men healed? Where are the others? Why is only this one foreigner here to glorify God, and none of the others?” He is grieved not because they were rude to God, but because he wanted to give them more than just physical healing. The physical healing was an invitation to a deeper healing, an invitation to respond to God. Through obedience all ten men were healed of their disease. But only the faith of the Samaritan bore the fruit of gratitude, and in responding to the grace and power and love of God he was made completely well, freed not only from the power of leprosy but of sin and condemnation and death as well. He was made really and truly well. And that is what Jesus wanted for all of them, that their faith not simply move their minds and bodies to obedience, but to do more: to take root in their hearts and to grow the life-giving fruit of thankfulness, which is so much more than a matter of politeness. The thankfulness of the Samaritan was a whole-hearted response of human love to God’s perfect love. And Jesus told him, “Your faith – faith that responded to the goodness of God – has saved you.”
Gratitude is much, much more than a matter of politeness, and that, of course, is why we nagged and exhorted and chastised our kids about saying thank you. Because having a thankful heart is part of being a truly whole and healthy person. I said last week that we need to practice living by faith, keeping our eyes on God, trusting in his love and in his power and in his wisdom. But our faith will take root and blossom when we also respond to him, when we do like the Samaritan, when we get beyond hanging in there and trying to be good and just come running back to God to say, “Wow!” and “Thank you!”
The nine lepers were religious men. They obeyed, and they were healed. But religion, like manners and politeness, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with real goodness or true healing. Religion and manners have to do with outward behavior; but gratitude is a matter of the heart. And it is in our hearts that we know and are known by God. Gratitude is a posture of humility and openness. When we are thankful we are like the Samaritan, who fell at Jesus’ feet in worship. When we are thankful we come before God without pride, without demands, without expectations. We simply and joyfully come to express our love. And then healing happens. Then we are saved by our faith.
On one occasion a couple of years ago, when I made my confession, I was given a very helpful penance. The priest to whom I made my confession told me to spend twenty minutes giving thanks to God. Twenty minutes seemed like a longish time to count my blessings, but I did it. And several things happened. First of all, twenty minutes was not anywhere near long enough to exhaust all that I wanted to give thanks for. The more I thanked God, the more I thought of that I wanted to thank him for. And that, I truly believe, did a real work of healing in my heart. It drew me closer to God, too, and it did a lot to put the things I had been struggling with into proper perspective. It brought light into some dark places. It let me hand over the heavy yoke of worry and frustration I had been carrying, and take on the light yoke of thankfulness in its place. I was already what you’d call “saved” of course, but there is no end to our need for wellness – we always need healing – we are continually beset by dis-ease of one kind or another. And I highly recommend the exercise that I was given. Try it: sit in a quiet place for twenty minutes – or longer, if you like – and begin simply to tell God the things you are thankful for.
Being thankful is the fruit of a living faith. Thankfulness opens our hearts to receive the life and joy and peace and health that Jesus Christ offers to everyone who puts his trust in him. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote this: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”