He was a Samaritan
He Was a Samaritan
We opened our service this morning with praise, singing “For the Beauty of the Earth” and its great chorus: “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.” That chorus follows verses in which we thank God for his Creation, for the love of friends and family, and for God’s great love giving peace on earth and joy in heaven. And yet there’s no specific naming of Jesus—just a general reference to God’s love, his presence, peace, and joy.
I’m reminded of one of the tests I try to apply to every sermon I preach. As I review my sermon I ask myself whether it’s something anyone could preach or if it specifically Christian. If I look over my sermon and realise that all I’m doing is moralising or realise that even a Unitarian or a Jew could preach what I’ve written, I’ve left Jesus out. Any sermon that leaves out Jesus is a failure.
I think of that as we sing this hymn we all know—and I’m sure many of us love—because it fails on this level. Almost any religious person could sing this hymn about thanking God for all the good things of life. I know that we read Jesus into the words of the hymn, but they’re not explicit. Lots of hymns have this same problem, but I’m acutely aware of this hymn’s shortcomings because I know its history and how the words have been changed. It was written in 1863 by Folliott Sandford Pierpoint for a collection of Eucharistic hymns—hymns sung during the Lord’s Supper. Originally it was a hymn of thanksgiving for the sacrifice Jesus made in giving his body and his blood for us at the cross. In fact, the original words of the chorus were, “Christ, our God, to thee we raise this our sacrifice of praise.” It was a reference to the eucharist, which is the Greek word for thanksgiving. I can understand the desire of some to change the words of the hymn to give it a more general application, but in doing so a hymn of thanksgiving to Jesus for his sacrifice at the cross and for his gift of the Sacrament of Holy Communion has been very nearly stripped of the Saviour—of the very thing that makes it Christian.
Brothers and sisters, the hymn highlights the connection between thanksgiving and faith and between a general kind of faith in a God who gives us good things and a more specific and saving faith in the Lord Jesus who takes away our sins and invites us into the kingdom of God. This morning we’ll be looking at Luke 17:11-19 and this is just what St. Luke gets at in this section of his Gospel. As we look at this passage of Scripture, think about how our thanksgiving reflects our faith—how the way we give thanks and even what we give thanks for says something about the nature and the object of our faith. Look with me at verses 11-13:
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
After the long series of encounters with the Pharisees and discussion with his disciples, Jesus is back on the road to Jerusalem and for the next three chapters that’s where Luke puts his focus: Jesus is going up to Jerusalem for the last time and to fulfil his mission.
Here Luke tells us that Jesus was skirting around the border of Samaria. Samaria lay between Galilee to the north and Jerusalem to the south. Jesus began his ministry in the Galilee region. He’s on his way to Jerusalem to complete his ministry and on the way there he’s following the route that most Jews would have taken. If they could avoid travelling through Samaria they did. The Samaritans were descendants of the Jews left behind during the nation’s exile in Babylon. The Babylonians had resettled other peoples in the land and some of the Jews who were left behind intermarried with them. In doing that they had broken covenant with the Lord. To make matters worse, they had a different “Bible” than the Jews had. The Samaritans only recognised the first five books of the Old Testament as Scripture. They also had their own rival temple on Mt. Gerizim. The Jews despised and avoided outsiders. They avoided Greeks and Romans and had no love for them, but they truly despised Samaritans: their own cousins who had compromised the covenant.
Luke makes a point of telling us that Jesus is travelling through his “borderland”, because it means that Jesus could be running into anyone; the people he meets could be Samaritans just as easily as they could be Jews. But as he enters this village he encounters something that was even worse than Samaritans. He’s approached by a group of ten lepers. Luke says that they stood at a distance and called out to Jesus. They knew they were unclean. The law put them under quarantine, which meant that they lived in small “colonies” away from or on the fringe of towns and cities. They lived in misery and poverty. Leprosy in the Bible covered a wide range of skin diseases, not just modern-day Hansen’s Disease. But remember that being a leper wasn’t just about having a communicable disease or about being quarantined away from friends and family. It meant being completely on the outside. It meant being unclean. Not only did no one want you near them for fear of coming into contact and becoming unclean themselves, but it meant being shut out of the covenant community. Nothing unclean could enter the temple or its precincts. And there was little, if any, sympathy for lepers. The Jews of Jesus’ day had come to see diseases like leprosy as punishment for sin. If you had it, you must have done something to deserve it—in a sense, God’s judgement had come on you early. Far be it from anyone to take pity on those whom God had punished. These men probably looked on Jesus and his friends with envy. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. It was the centre of Jewish religious life the way celebrating the Lord’s Supper is the centre of the Christian religious life—except that Passover only happened once a year. Because they were unclean, these lepers weren’t permitted to celebrate the Passover. Again, they were outsiders in every way: socially, spiritually, religiously.
And yet they’ve obviously heard about Jesus. Maybe the story of how Jesus had embraced the Galilean man full of leprosy had made its way to the leper colony near this village. Whatever the case, these ten people risk coming to the village in the hope that maybe they’ll encounter Jesus and that just maybe he will heal them too.
Just outside the village, the lepers meet Jesus. They stand at a distance to stay out of trouble, and they call to Jesus: “Master have mercy on us!” They address him as “Master”. St. Luke is the only New Testament writer who uses this title and in the context of his Gospel, it’s a title for someone who has authority to do the miraculous, someone who is the Lord’s agent. Even if they didn’t fully grasp who Jesus was—and we can see that at least nine of them didn’t—they still believed that he was somehow doing God’s work. They’d heard about his claims to be the Messiah. They had heard about his miracles. They didn’t care that he wasn’t meeting the expectations of many in Israel. They were desperate and came to him believing that he could deal with their horrible problem—that he could restore them. Like everyone else, they no doubt believed that their leprosy was some kind of punishment—that it was a curse from the Lord—and so, in seeing that Jesus is somehow the Lord’s agent, that he has divine authority, they beg him for mercy.
Jesus never works the same way twice. In Chapter 5 he reached out to the leper and healed him on the spot. This time he gives the lepers something to do. Look at verse 14:
When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
Instead of healing these lepers on the spot, Jesus sends them to the local priest. In the torah—the law, specifically in Leviticus—the Lord gave his people regulations about various skin diseases like leprosy. The priests were given instructions there on what’s clean and what’s unclean and the procedures for testing and examination of various diseases and potential diseases. Anyone diagnosed as unclean was put out of the camp. When a person was healed, the first thing he or she had to do was visit the priest. He was the one qualified to examine a person and to determine whether he or she was now clean and ready to be readmitted to the community.
These ten no doubt thought it was odd for Jesus to be sending them to the local priest to be examined when they were still sick. They must have heard enough about Jesus to trust him, though. And so, in faith and even though they’re still covered in leprosy, they believe—they trust Jesus—and they go.
The way Luke tells the story no one who knows the Old Testament can miss the way he connects this story about Jesus with the story of Elisha and Naaman the Syrian. In 2 Kings 5 we read about the commander of the Syrian army. Naaman had leprosy. He also had a young Jewish slave girl in his house who told him of a prophet in Samaria, Elisha, who would certainly cure him. Naaman eventually went to see Elisha, who sent Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan River. Naaman was upset at first: upset that Elisha sent a messenger to tell him this instead of coming himself; upset at being told to wash in a Jewish river as if it were somehow better than the rivers of his own country. But eventually, in faith, Naaman washed in the Jordan and was healed. Like Naaman, these lepers had to take a step of faith.
Jesus already pointed back to this story of Naaman when he rebuked the people of his hometown for their unbelief. He said to them, “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27). In other words: Because of her lack of faith, because she’s resting in false assurances, Israel is missing out on God’s salvation. Instead, that salvation is going to the outsiders: to tax collectors and sinners, to gentiles and Samaritans, to the poor, blind, and sick—even to lepers. It’s as if Jesus knows who each of these ten men is and how each is going to respond.
Anyway, they respond in faith. They would have known the story of Naaman and that sometimes God works by requiring us to take a step of faith. They set off to see the priest and Luke writes:
And as they went they were cleansed.
They got what they had asked for. Luke uses the usual word for being made clean from leprosy. Imagine their excitement as the healing took place and they hurried off to share their excitement with the priest. Soon they could be with their friends and families again. But, Luke says, one of the lepers stopped. One of them realised that there was something more he needed to do before going to see the priest:
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. (Luke 17:15-16a)
While the other nine continued on their way to see the priest, this one turned around. Luke says it was because he “saw that he was healed”. Does that mean the others somehow didn’t see that they were made clean? No. Remember that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus has said that his mission is to give sight to the blind—not just literally healing people who are physically blind. The healing is a metaphor for the redemption of a people walking in spiritual darkness. Notice Luke’s change in terms. All ten were cleansed as they went on their way, but this one saw that he was healed. He realised that Jesus was capable of doing more than just healing his skin disease. Jesus could truly make him whole. He came to be cleansed of leprosy, and yet he got so much more. He thought his problem was a skin disease. His real problem was blindness—spiritual blindness—but somewhere between asking Jesus for mercy and his going off to see the priest in faith, the scales fell from his eyes and he realised that Jesus the Messiah was inviting him into the kingdom. And so while his friends ran on to see the priest, he turned back and fell on his face, acknowledging and submitting to the lordship of Jesus. He suddenly knew that this was the King and he wanted to be part of his kingdom. And that was crazy and amazing, because Luke goes on to tell us:
Now he was a Samaritan. (Luke 17:16b)
Jesus was a Jew. Not only that, he was the Jewish Messiah. And that’s probably why this man was so struck by what had happened. Jews hated Samaritans. Most Samaritans probably rejected the whole idea of the Jewish Messiah anyway—they’d long before sold out to Greek philosophy and mixed it with their Jewish beliefs. This man wouldn’t have been interested in Jesus as the Messiah. The Messiah was for Jews, not Samaritans. He just went to Jesus because he believed Jesus could work miracles and because he’d hard stories about Jesus healing people. The last thing he wanted Jesus to know was that he was a Samaritan. If Jesus knew who he was, this man thought, he would have refused to heal him. And yet Jesus seems to have known. Maybe it was being sent off like Naaman the Syrian that tipped this man off that Jesus knew and had healed him anyway. Somehow he figured it out. Somehow he “saw”—it dawned on him and he realised—that the Jewish Messiah had invited him into his kingdom, not only cleansing him from his leprosy, but declaring him clean as a Samaritan. Imagine him stopping in his tracks as the weight of this dawned on him and then turning around to thank Jesus, not just with his praises, but by prostrating himself before Jesus and submitting to his lordship. Luke writes:
Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:17-19)
“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” Jesus came to restore Israel to himself, he came to give sight to the blind and Israel was full of spiritually blind men and women, but they refused to have their eyes opened and so Jesus healed this Samaritan. The Pharisees refused Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, so he took his kingdom to the tax collectors and sinners—to all the outsiders. They were the only ones who realised that their own spiritual blindness. They were the ones ready to celebrate with Jesus as he inaugurated his kingdom. They knew their problem and so they repented and believed; they gave up their sins and their false gods and their worldly sources of security, took hold of Jesus in faith, and were restored to God. The other nine lepers, who were presumably Jews, were blind. As far as they were concerned, their only problem was leprosy. Once Jesus fixed that they could go back to being good Jews: circumcised, eating the right food, avoiding gentiles, offering sacrifices at the temple. The Samaritan was different. He realised that leprosy wasn’t his real problem; his real problem was spiritual. The nine had faith that Jesus could take away their leprosy and so Jesus took it away. The Samaritan, however, had faith that Jesus could heal him also of the spiritual leprosy that separated him from God.
The others were cleansed, but this man was sent away saved. In our translation Jesus sends him off saying, “Your faith has made you well.” Literally, in Luke’s words, Jesus tells the man, “Your faith has saved you.” And Jesus tells him to rise up. Yes, the man was on the ground and this is the usual word for standing up, but it’s also the word for resurrection. Because of his faith, this man has been reborn—he’s found new life.
What was the difference between the one and the nine? They all came, calling out to Jesus, “Master!” They all came with a measure of faith. But for the nine Jesus was simply a miracle-worker who could meet their immediate need. The Samaritan’s faith was no different, but somewhere in the process he realised that his real problem was bigger than leprosy. He realised this at the same time he realised that Jesus was more than just a prophet and more than just a travelling miracle-worker. In Jesus he came face to face with the God of Israel. In Jesus he came face to face with divine love, with grace, and with mercy—not just for an unclean leper, but for a hopelessly apostate Samaritan. And in faith he took hold of Jesus and was made clean—really and truly clean, not just cleansed of leprosy on the outside, but even his soul purged of the disease of sin.
We see his faith in his response as he falls down at Jesus’ feet. This was the Lord. This was the King. He had nothing to give in return, so he gave Jesus his very self—he submitted himself to the one he’d come to know as Lord. Brothers and sisters, is our faith more like that of the one or more like that of the nine? We can answer that question by looking at our response to God and, more specifically, to Jesus. I’m sure that every one of us is thankful for the blessings we’ve received, as we sang in the hymn: for the beauty of the earth, for friends and family, for the provision of our daily needs, even for peace and joy. We come to church and we raise our hymns of grateful praise. That’s great, but the nine lepers no doubt went off to the priest singing hymns—or at least joyfully shouting—of praise. But that sort of thanksgiving doesn’t reflect a faith that truly saves. A faith in the Lord Jesus that truly saves is a faith that moves us to submit our all to Jesus—not simply to sing hymns of praise, but to throw ourselves at his feet, submitting ourselves and every area of our lives to his lordship, to his rule, in the faith-filled knowledge that he is our King. A faith that saves is a faith that leads us to live as truly kingdom people, not just singing praises on Sunday, but daily entrusting ourselves, our needs, our relationships, our families, our finances, our doubts, and our fears—everything—to Jesus. As he has sacrificed his all to give us life, we sacrifice our all in a returning sacrifice of praise.
Think on that as we come to the Lord’s Table this morning. Here we have our weekly reminder that Jesus has sacrificed his body and blood for us. Come not only to be strengthened, but as you come to receive the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice, like the leper, offer yourself and your all back to Jesus. The Lord of Glory meets us here to give us himself; let us give thanks by submitting to his Lordship. “Christ, our God, to thee we raise this our sacrifice of praise.”
Let us pray: Gracious and merciful Father, you sent your Son to open the eyes of the blind. Open our eyes as you did the Samaritan leper. Open our eyes to our sin and rebellion. Open our eyes to our need for a Saviour. Give us your Spirit to turn our rebellious hearts to love for Jesus and give us faith to submit our lives in every way to his lordship. Through him we ask this. Amen.