2 Timothy 2:8-15
“You don’t get something for nothing.” “You get what you pay for.” “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” We’ve all heard these expressions, and probably used them ourselves at one time or another. They reflect what it’s like in the real world, the give and take required to get along. That’s why many of us feel we have to bargain with God, as if we were haggling with a used car salesperson. And that’s why we have such a hard time accepting that with God it’s different. Because God doesn’t cut any deals; God doesn’t strike any bargains. God gives whatever God wishes – this creation, our lives, our talents, our many blessings, God’s love, forgiveness, presence, support – all with no strings attached.
But it’s hard for many of us to believe or accept this. So we try to figure out ways to manipulate God by playing the “I’ll scratch your back, God, if you’ll scratch mine” game. We act as if the things we do and say actually earn us God’s favor, and if we don’t do all the correct things perfectly and in order, then God has the absolute right to punish us, to leave us high and dry to stew in our sins, and to withhold the divine love that we so desperately need. Thank heaven we have the holiday of Thanksgiving next month, a day when we can pay our annual homage to God, when we can “scratch God’s back” so to speak, so that God will continue to scratch ours. But what happens the other 364 days of the year?
Many others of us sincerely acknowledge God’s goodness to us, but just as sincerely believe that God expects from us – indeed demands from us, in return for all the blessings we receive – a sincere “thank you.” This we dutifully remember to do, at least on that November holiday, so that our accounts will be squared away. After all, you don’t get something for nothing, right? And let’s face it, giving a little thanks to God now will hopefully be deposited in our heavenly bank account, and if something happens down the road later, we can draw upon that account and experience God’s favor.
But is this really how it all happens? If so, then the story about the ten lepers doesn’t make much sense. First, a word about leprosy. Leprosy in the Bible refers to a variety of disfiguring skin diseases, including what we now know as Hansen’s disease, named after the Norwegian physician who discovered the cause of leprosy. In the ancient world, more than a medical diagnosis, it was a social disaster. Lepers were considered unclean sinners, utter abominations,
the assumption, they were being punished and rejected by God, thus they were treated the same way by others. They were excommunicated from society, literally expelled from the town precincts, forbidden all physical contact with those who were healthy, and brutally separated from their families and friends. While the disease attacked their bodies, society responded by attacking their identities and depersonalizing them. Lepers were considered nobodies, the scum of the earth, ignored or ostracized, or worse.
The ten lepers in our story, in their suffering, hopelessness, and loneliness, cry out to Jesus for mercy. Interesting how those who lay claim to Jesus’ powers are often the down-and-out, the downtrodden, the ill, the rejected, the lonely, the powerless. Even today, many of us (you and me) in our suffering and loneliness, in our feelings of rejection and hopelessness, we also cry out to Jesus for mercy.
Well, Jesus takes pity on the lepers; he refuses to buy into the culture of hate and rejection. When they cry out to him, he immediately recognizes their plight, acknowledges who they are, and offers them welcome. He does this by sending them straight to the priests, who will verify their cure and certify their cleanness. Jesus shows them the compassion that no one else does.
He accepts them for who they are and sees them as real human beings with dreams and hopes, with hearts longing for love, with hands longing for simple human touch.[i]
Obediently, the lepers leave to seek out the priests, and on the way they are made clean. They are completely cured – restored to their communities, to their friends, to their loved ones – and made whole again. They are given the gift of new life. They are all cured, but only one is healed. Only one of the ten returns to give thanks. And this one is not only cured, but also healed. He sees that it is not enough to feel like his old self, fantastic and blessed as that must be. That’s only part of it. Being free of his affliction teaches him something more – but I’m ahead of myself. I’ll come back to this in a few minutes. There’s an irony here: the irony is that though his leprosy is gone, the one who returns to give thanks, a hated Samaritan, is still an outcast, still considered a heretic to the faith, a foreigner; some might contemptuously call him an alien, or an immigrant.
Jesus wonders aloud about the others. Such ingratitude! He has cured these people of the most dreaded disease of the day, and there they are celebrating their good fortune, not even thinking about the one who made it possible. Or maybe they are congratulating themselves on how clever they are to have gotten Jesus into curing them. Such ungratefulness! One author has imagined the excuses of the nine who did not return, and he put it this way: “One waited to see if the cure was real. One waited to see if it would last. One said he would see Jesus later. One gave glory to the priests. One decided that she never had leprosy. One said he would have gotten better anyway. One said, ‘Oh well, Jesus didn’t really do anything.’ One said, ‘Any rabbi could have done it.’ And the last said, ‘I was already much improved.’”[ii]
But are we any different? Think of all the excuses we make for not giving thanks, all the things we take for granted, not just our health, but our general well-being – like being warm when it is cold, or having enough to eat, or having a roof over our heads at night, or not having bombs crashing around us day and night, like those poor folks in Aleppo, Syria, or being able to make choices in our lives, like voting in presidential elections, without being held back by lack of education, poverty or persecution.[iii]
Not only are the other nine lepers cured, but they stay cured. Insensitive and ungrateful as they are, what Jesus gives to them is not taken away. Their leprosy is gone – for good. But wait a minute. That’s not fair! Doesn’t the cured leper who comes back get something for his thoughtfulness? If it was his faithfulness that made him well, how come the others, who obviously have little faith and certainly no sense of gratitude, how come they walk away also cured? What good is this religious stuff we go through every week, if the rain falls on the just and the unjust? … and it seems to, doesn’t it? Why bother coming to church? I would venture to say that the folks at home this morning, reading their Sunday paper, or doing their yard work, or whatever, probably will end up the day pretty much the same as we will. Isn’t that galling?
Too bad God didn’t zap those cured lepers and give them the dread disease all over again like they deserved! After they’d shown such ingratitude, it would have served them right! And wouldn’t it make us feel better if we knew that being here would bring us some reward that those at home with their newspaper or rake or couple of extra hours of sleep would miss out on?
I know we’re not supposed to feel this way, but it’s hard not to, isn’t it?
When we see bad things happen to good people, or good things happen to those who are either bad or who could care less about God or church or faith, when we see God showering grace on people, whether they pay attention or not, it makes us wonder WHY? Is there no difference between the one leper who comes back and the other nine who go their merry way?
Yes, my friends, there is a difference. When Jesus says to the Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you well,” he means that here is where the real healing has taken place. It is not just the leper’s body that is cured, but also his whole life, his soul. When he comes back he is not only cured but healed, because he knows how he has been cured, and from whom his cure has come.
Being free of his affliction has taught him deeper lessons – and given him eyes to see the source of his wholeness as a person. And thus he is not only cured, but also healed.[iv]
The Samaritan does not come back to ask Jesus to hang around just in case he needs his help again in the future. He doesn’t return to settle his account with Jesus, to “pay the bill” so to speak for the cure he’s experienced. He doesn’t come back out of fear that the leprosy might return if he doesn’t thank Jesus. He doesn’t come back out of a sense of duty or obligation.
He doesn’t come back to impress Jesus with his piety or to boost Jesus’ ego by showing him
that his healing miracle has really worked. He comes back, I believe, because of a thankful heart – he feels gratitude, a sense of happiness that overflows into thanksgiving. He feels he just has to come back and say, “Thank you, Jesus” – nothing more than that, which really is quite enough.[v]
We realize now that the Samaritan was a person of faith, and that it was his faith that motivated him to action. People of faith are no better than others. They don’t deserve or receive special treatment from God. But people of faith, like the Samaritan, perhaps like you and me, people of faith have a glimpse into how the universe really works, have an inkling about the sources of goodness and wholeness and hope, and that can make a big difference in how one leads one’s life. Many of us come here week after week, in our difficulties, in our needs, sometimes in our suffering – physical, mental, or emotional. We come expecting a healing, a miracle, God’s mercy, newness of life. We come, not because we’re especially good or holy – because oftentimes we’re not. We come, not because we’ve earned or deserve God’s favor – because we know that we cannot and we do not. But we come because we know that what we are going to find here is a richer, fuller, truer understanding of reality than is available in any other way.
This is the healing we experience when we gather together with our church family to share with one another our hurts and pains, our joys and laughter, as we listen and pray and sing together.
Speaking of singing, at the end of worship this morning, we will be singing a much-loved hymn, Now Thank We All Our God, a hymn steeped in praise and shaped by gratitude. Just a short aside to give you the background of it. The hymn was written by a Lutheran pastor, Martin Rinkart, during the devastating “Thirty Years War” in the seventeenth century. During those years, half his parishioners died, either from the ravages of war or as the result of catastrophic plagues. Rinkart performed over 4000 funerals, and yet somehow, by God’s grace,
in the midst of horrific circumstances, he hung on to the wholeness and goodness of life. He wrote a total of 66 hymns, most of them hymns of praise, including Now Thank We All Our God. Through all those dark years, this man of faith, hope, and gratitude gave God his thanks with his heart and hands and voice. Though he prayed to God to free his country and his people “from all ills,” this prayer was not to be answered as he wished. Yet Rinkart did all he could to keep his people alive and to ease them into death. He continued to be aware of the presence of God even in the midst of darkness.[vi]
Our Christian faith is really quite practical, you know. It works! Our faith provides for us understandings, resources, and strengths – even in the midst of darkness – that we can’t obtain in any other way. All we need to do is to be faithful in our response, in our thankfulness – not because it’s something we have to do, a duty, not because we feel we need to bribe God, but solely because it is the gateway to life’s most bountiful riches. It’s a reminder to all of us, that who we are goes much deeper than how we’re feeling, and that God’s love and hope are even wider than we might possibly imagine.
I’ve got a challenge for each of us to consider for this coming week, something specific to do, sort of a faith experiment. At least once each day, more if you like, take a deep breath and prayerfully say, “Thank you.” Just that. Nothing more. Each of us and God know what we’re thankful for, so there’s no need for long elaborate lists and lots of words. Just “Thank you” – nothing more. And I’ll bet this will be a pretty good week if we do. At the very least, each of us will be more aware of our faith, and how necessary and important it really is. I’ll be interested to hear how your week went.
Our faith, yours and mine, even if it is no bigger than a mustard seed as we talked about last week, our faith in God, revealed in Christ, is a belief in the One who is always with us, who comforts and supports us, who meets us in all our difficulties, and whose love and forgiveness come to us without limit, without conditions, with no strings attached. We do get something for nothing, God’s mercy and grace, and that seems like a good enough reason to be thankful, doesn’t it?
Rev. Kenneth C. Landall
[i] William D. Howden, Preaching Word and Witness, 10/14/01.
[ii] Charles L. Brown, The Ministers Annual Manual, 2001-2002, 10/14/01.
[iii] Peter H. Meek, “Thanksgiving Time,” Pulpit Digest, 11-12/88, pp.35-38.
[iv] Maxwell Grant, Reflection in King Street Weekly Word, 10/5/16.
[v] The Clergy Journal, 5-6/88, p.43.
[vi] Mildred Tengbom, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XII, No. 11, 10/14/01.