Proper 23(C): One Out of Ten Lepers Agrees
By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
At first glance, this passage is about gratitude: remembering to thank God for the longed-for blessings in our lives. While there’s definitely a rich sermon there, it’s not really the focus of the text. Thanking Jesus is actually a function of recognizing Jesus: all ten lepers call Jesus “master” when they first see him, but only the Samaritan comes back to acknowledge that Jesus’ healing act was a function of his godliness. The lepers who were Jesus’ fellow Israelites know this wandering rabbi has been healing those in need and show him due respect, but the Samaritan—who worships God differently enough to be treated as a “foreigner” (v. 18), literally a non-Jewish outsider—knows that his power is of God and that “to thank Jesus is to glorify God.”
This shouldn’t be a surprising perspective in Luke’s gospel. After all, Luke is particularly concerned with demonstrating that the Son of God has come not just to the Hebrews, but to everyone: “Whereas Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy to Abraham, father of the Jewish people,” notes Mark Abbott, “Luke goes back to Adam, parent of us all.” And Luke is the evangelist most concerned with showing Jesus’ affinity for women, the poor, gentiles, and other outsiders. It’s the outsider here who sees Jesus for who he really is, turning back to throw himself at Jesus’ feet while praising God. In doing so, he signifies not just that Jesus has come for all but that those on the margins are the most likely to perceive God working through him, while the insiders (even, paradoxically, the leprous ones) miss the memo, preferring to work within the confines of the established institution.
Where are we guilty of the same myopia—of assuming that Jesus’ healing will be restricted to the four walls of our congregations, or of discounting the voices of those outside our communities because they point to a Jesus who doesn’t fit within our vision?
My friend Matthew has been homeless for the last twenty years. A devout Catholic, Matthew spent several years living on the streets of Boston before he visited a local seminary to share his conviction that churches should always be open, particularly as places of sanctuary for the homeless. He connected with professors and students, including my spouse, and people started asking him to share his message and his artwork at other seminaries, churches, and colleges. He is still without a permanent home, moving between the homes of his pastor friends and preaching the gospel of a homeless Jesus and of unlocked church doors.
I have to admit, his message challenges me. On a gut level, I’m on board: he’s right that we worship a savior who was himself homeless throughout his earthly ministry (Luke 9:58), a savior we are told we are welcoming whenever we provide shelter to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). And as a former staffer at a day shelter, I’ve never had a problem connecting my faith to my fundamental belief that housing is a human right. Churches should be open to those without a place to stay.
But our church houses a daycare which requires us to maintain stringent practices about who has access to the building. Maintenance and energy costs go up when your building is being used by more people more of the time. And getting your congregation on board with using your building as a shelter for those in need, let alone staffing and resourcing such a ministry, is no easy feat. I’ve daydreamed about bringing Matthew’s message of open doors to our church council, and for a host of very responsible reasons, I can’t see how we would find our way to making it a reality.
Yet every time I pull our sanctuary door shut to make sure it’s locked on my way out of our building, I think of Matthew.
Who is the Matthew in your setting? Who is challenging you to acknowledge divine authority beyond your institution? Who is the tenth leper, the foreigner who recognizes exactly who Jesus is and who proclaims the healing, restorative work he’s doing outside the church while the rest of us go about business as usual? Whose prostration and profuse gratitude to God, though it might embarrass or provoke you, might also be pointing you to the One laboring in your midst?
A few months ago while he was staying with us, Matthew came to Wednesday night Bible study. Our text that night was also from Luke, about the rich ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life: “You lack only one thing,” Jesus says. “Go, sell all you have, and give the proceeds to the poor. Then come follow me.” (Luke 18:22) Matthew was silent for most of the evening, listening to us debate semantics about whether Jesus really meant the ruler should give up his material possessions, whether we’re really called to such a radical discipleship. At the very end of Bible study, he asked us a question that put us in the place not of the ruler, where we’d been all night, but of one of the many servants or tenants who must have made the ruler’s life possible. He offered us the outsider’s perspective. And we looked around at each other and realized we’d been guilty of the same myopia as the nine lepers: mistaking the established, the accepted, the traditionally authoritative for the holy.
“Get up and go on your way,” Jesus says to the Samaritan; “your faith has made you well.” (v. 19) Typically Jesus says these words before a bodily healing has taken place, implying that what has been cured is not simply a physical ailment, but a spiritual fragmentation no doubt linked to the trauma of living on the margins of a society not able or willing to adapt to those living with disease or disability. In this instance, Jesus’ words to the tenth leper alone beg the question of whether the nine others missed out on a complete healing, and if so, what their spiritual fragmentation consisted of. They also beg the question of us: what is broken within us when we can’t see Jesus at work apart from where we expect him to be? And how might we go about fixing that brokenness – or, more accurately, inviting Jesus to fix it?
We might start, as Matthew suggested, with getting to know the outsider, of familiarizing ourselves with their journeys beyond our familiar confines. Because it is only through the eyes of the outsider – through the eyes of the one leper who saw Jesus clearly enough to thank him – that the whole picture of Jesus emerges.
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron serves as the pastor of Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves some good thrift shopping, a run, and a dance party with her two young kids and her pastor husband, Chris.
 Stamper, Meda. (October 13, 2013.) “Commentary on Luke 17:11-19.” Working Preacher. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1786
 Abbott, Mark. (Spring 2013) “Jesus According to Luke.” Seattle Pacific University Response. Retrieved from https://spu.edu/depts/uc/response/new/2013-spring/bible-theology/jesus-according-to-luke.asp
 Lyman Waldron, Leah. (October 14, 2018.) “Not Without Riches.” Park Avenue Congregational Church Sermons. Retrieved from http://www.pacc-ucc.org/sermons/sermon-not-without-riches/