Embracing Lepers; Luke 17:11-19

 

If you have your Bibles, today we will be in Luke 17:11-19. It reads, “While traveling to Jerusalem, He passed between Samaria and Galilee. As He entered the village, 10 men with serious skin diseases met Him. They stood at a distance and raised their voices, saying ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When He saw them, He told them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And while they were going, they were healed. But one of them, seeing that he was healed, returned and, with a loud voice, gave glory to God. He fell face-down at His feet, thanking Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus said, ‘Were not 10 cleansed? Where are the nine? Didn’t any return to give glory to God except this foreigner?’ And He told him, ‘Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.’”

So, Jesus is passing through an area between Samaria and Galilee, and He encounters these lepers who are made up of Jews and Samaritans (although the text does not explicitly say there were Jews among the lepers, the way Jesus points out how it was the Samaritan who came back is an indication that there were some Jews). He tells them to go visit the priests because such a command would have been an indicator for the lepers that they were to be healed. According to the Mosaic law, lepers were not to visit a priest except upon their being healed. The lepers then are traveling to the priests, and they are miraculously healed. Then the text singles out one person from among the ten, a Samaritan, and it says he returns to praise God and give thanks to Jesus, a Jew, despite the hostility between the two groups. Now, Luke is the only one who records this event taking place, and that is because this story in particular plays a large part in what Luke is trying to get us to see throughout his gospel. What is Luke trying to get us to see?

There is a pattern demonstrated within the Gospel of Luke that is reiterated consistently. It seems that the problem Luke is examining is that there are persons who claim to be of God while distancing themselves from other persons made in His very image. We Christians can be just as guilty of this fault. Regardless of our race, creed, ideology, etc, we can fall into the same trap as the Jews and view others as lesser or insignificant. It is selfishness inherent in human beings by our sinful nature that we antagonize groups. We see this repeatedly throughout the Bible. How and why do we justify these actions despite God commanding us to do otherwise?

I think there are three main reasons as to why we neglect and antagonize others:

1) Safety

The first reason is safety. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 demonstrates the dangers of safety as a hinderance to following God. A master has three servants and each are given money before the master leaves on a long journey. One servant is given five talents, one is given two, and the last one is given one. Each servant then goes out and uses their talents to make even more. All except for the third servant who takes his talent and buries it into the ground. When the master returns all of the servants have to give an account of what they had been given. The first servant comes forward and shows his five extra talents he had made. The master blesses him. Likewise, the second servant comes forward and shows his two extra talents he had made. The master also blesses him. But then the third servant comes forward with his single talent he had been given and admitted he did nothing with it. The master rebukes the servant and orders him to be thrown out to a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Notice why the final servant was reprimanded by the Master. It was because by burying what he received he was caring not for others but for himself. His selfishness which manifested itself as concern for his own safety prevented the bearing of fruit for the Master. But we don’t see that same attitude of selfishness in Jesus. Look closely at the text. In Luke 17, Jesus is passing through an area between Samaria and Galilee. Since the lepers were nearby we can infer Jesus was probably near the outskirts of a town, since lepers were not allowed near a town. Jews do not go these places. It’s dangerous. To be in a place where there could be paganistic Samaritans? To add to that, lepers? That was fertile ground for a disaster to the Jews, and yet, that’s exactly where we see Jesus.

Now, I am not condoning recklessness. Rather, I am prescribing boldness to you all; however, many Christians neglect those who are in the “danger-zones” because we cover it with the pretense that safety should come first. If we are waiting for safe conditions to be like Christ, the Gospel will never leave our lips when it’s needed.

2) Politics

The second reason is politics. Too often Christians develop an “us versus them” mentality. We allow ourselves to become divided over secondary issues which are irrelevant. Paul warns Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:14, “…not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers.” In other words, debating irrelevancies will only divide the Church and seek to alienate others rather than build them up in the faith. In our text today, the significance of the leper who returns to Jesus being a Samaritan is due to the vehement opposition these two groups had between one another. Their identities as either Jew or Samaritan left little room for compromise and unity. And we do this too; we create unnecessary divides between persons due to secondary issues which do not matter in light of eternity. This last election is replete with examples: persons neglecting others, cursing others, and attacking others for having a difference of opinion on things like foreign policy as if it will have eternal consequences. What relevance is any of this for the Kingdom of God? These are secondary differences which mean nothing in light of eternity.

Do not get me wrong. There are objectively right and wrong things to support and reject, but when we start treating every little thing as if it is a make or break in terms of a relationship with that person, we become just as guilty as the Jews and Samaritans when they had rejected persons based on national identity. How many of us campaign and argue and beckon others to align with our politics before ever thinking about doing the same for our God? We ought to maintain vigilance and not compromise our primary beliefs about Christ, the Church, salvation, and sin, but when we indoctrinate politics like so many churches have we fall into the trap of arguing about words which will not bear any fruit nor will it make disciples.

3) Pride

Finally, it seems our own pride will hold us back from reaching out to others in love. Like the Jews, we are tempted to develop a mindset which establishes us as chosen of God and therefore superior to others, so there exists no need to concern ourselves for the salvation of others. The Bible thoroughly condemns such a mindset. Jesus says in Matthew 3:9, “And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones!” We cannot assume ourselves untouchable if we refuse to reach out to those whom no one will touch and embrace, and yet, this is exactly what many Christians do. We feel uncomfortable with the messages which call us to action and rest easy with the ones which never charge us to proclaim the Gospel in words or action. In Luke 17, we see Jesus: a Jewish, ceremonially clean, male. For the time, He was perhaps in one of the greater positions of authority by way of who He was (not to mention being God Incarnate), but He doesn’t use this authority and lord it over others. Rather, He submits Himself to the will of the Father, and He acts in grace and humility. He blesses the lepers, and He dares to do what no self-respecting Jew would do and that is declare the saving faith of a Samaritan. Contrast this attitude with many of us. We don’t like to approach those whom others tell us to reject. In word, we say, “Yes, of course as a Christian I must seek those who are neglected,” but when was the last time we genuinely thought of or cared for the poor or physically unattractive or unpopular? Despite our best intentions in our best moments, the fact of the matter is our default is neglection and our tendency is shaming.

Hopefully, by this point you can understand some of the reasons why we reject those who are perceived as of a lower stature than ourselves whether that be in society, employment, or politics, etc. Often, the problem lies not in our view of other persons, but it lies in our distorted view of ourselves. We view ourselves too highly with undeserved titles. In all the reasons I just gave, there exists an escalation of our own person while at the same time a negligence of others’ needs as humans made in the image of God.

This negligence of others never happens verbally. One rarely sees a person reject another group of people out loud and without discretion. Neglecting other people often occurs subtly through our everyday actions. And those actions are rooted in our own desire for the reasons I just mentioned. It’s not that we hate people, but it’s that we love ourselves.

Look at the story in Luke 17. If relations between the Samaritans and the Jews are any indication of how Jesus should have responded then we should be reading a story in which Jesus rejects the Samaritan, but that’s not what we read, is it? Rather, we see it is the most unlikely person, a Samaritan, an outsider, a religious reject, a ceremonially unclean individual who receives the greater blessing from Christ while the most likely candidates to receive that same blessing (supposedly Jews) settle for the superficial healing and just walk away from Jesus. Why would they walk away? Why would they, Jews, be the ones who walk away from Jesus and settle for themselves a merely physical healing, and why would it be the Samaritan who comes rushing back to Jesus?

May I suggest: upon receiving their healing, the Jews only thought of themselves while the Samaritan thought of God. The Jews, puffed up with themselves, obsessed with themselves, could only think of themselves while they joyfully rejoined society, but it was the Samaritan, the one who was used to being treated as a second-rate human being by the Jews and therefore did not escalate his pride, who was able to see beyond the superficial, physical healing and come running back to the One who made him well.

This is what Luke is trying to get us to see: that where we neglect, Jesus accepts, and how can we look down upon so-called lower classes when it will be these groups who will embrace the Gospel in abundance? For blessed are the poor, and the hungry, and the hated, and the excluded for they will receive the greater blessing that so many of us will miss. This mindset confronts the Christian to not disqualify any person from salvation, and it even calls us to expect such a thing where those who accept the Gospel will often be the most unlikely characters. This calls us not to see persons by our own expectations, but by how God views them and how He will work His purposes through these people.

What does this mean in light of the Gospel? Well, in the Old Testament, persons could be declared unclean by coming into contact with that which related to death. So persons could not come into contact with things like blood, dead bodies, persons with certain diseases like leprosy, etc., because such a person would become ceremonially unclean. This state did not equate to sinfulness, but it did mean that a person could not enter the presence of God in the temple lest they be destroyed by the great magnitude of holiness God possesses. They could undergo rituals which would make them ritually clean and able to stand in God’s presence. But when we get to Ezekiel 47, we see something unique. In this chapter, Ezekiel has a vision where a stream of water starts following from the Temple of The Lord. And Ezekiel observes something miraculous; wherever the stream goes, life springs up behind it and it becomes the home for all living creatures. Instead of something being clean in order to come to the Temple, the Temple is reaching out and bringing to life all that which it comes into contact with. Fast forward to the Gospel of Luke. We see Jesus reaching out to the dead, the lepers, the ceremonially unclean, and wherever He goes, life springs up and persons find their home. This is why Jesus is able to touch lepers and dead persons and not be unclean. He is our Temple. In John 2:19-21, Jesus refers to Himself as the Temple. He cannot become unclean. And when He heals us and our hardened hearts, we become now and forever ceremonially clean before the presence of God. We are reconciled. So what does this mean in terms of our relationships with others? Well, Jesus says in John 7:38, “The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” Jesus is calling us to remember the image in Ezekiel. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Through the Holy Spirit, Christians have the ability to bring life to the unclean, peace to the unreconciled, and a home to the lost.

So it seems our best option with handling our struggle to be united with others is uniting our attitudes and mindsets to where they match God’s. Understanding who is God is crucial here because there comes the temptation to assume the position of God instead of the mindset of God. We did not die on a cross. Jesus did. We do not save. Jesus does. If we assume God’s position, we escalate our pride to a point where we judge others when such a job is reserved for God alone. What we ought to adapt from God is His humility. C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” And this attitude is exactly what we see Jesus exemplifying in the Gospel of Luke.

In Luke 8, Jesus is openly associating Himself with women in His ministry. In Luke 19, Jesus visits a corrupt tax collector, a pawn of the Roman government to cheat Jews. In our passage today, Luke 17, Jesus praises a Samaritan and declares him healed because of his faith. Finally, in Luke 23 we see Jesus betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and crucified for persons who hated Him. Whether they would be social outcasts, moral outcasts, religious outcasts, or political outcasts, Christ sought to reconcile them with God. This is the root of the Gospel, which ought to inspire the most profound sense of joy within us as Christians; however, many of us still are rocked by a deep sense of fear. This fear isn’t of God, but it is of our own selfish desires which entice us and drag us away as is said in James 1. Whether our desires be safety, politics, or pride, Christ set the standard by defying all of these and creating a model of boldness, reconciliation, and humility for us to follow. If there is a person who sits alone, eat with them. If there is a person who feels afraid, comfort them. If there is a person who is starving, feed them. In this way, we are allowing streams of living water to flow from us.

The consequences of living this way are very real, and experienced by Christians every day. Not too long ago, I discovered a story about a protest having to with a shooting which took place in Dallas, and there were black protesters of this shooting on one side of the street while white counter-protesters congregated on the other side of the street. There were cops in the middle of the street keeping the two groups at bay until the leaders of either group decided to meet in the middle of the road. Then the groups’ leaders decided to be daring and merge the two groups. If race relations currently are any indication of what should have followed then a person would expect confrontation and hostility and possibly even violence, but that is not what happened. Instead, the two groups embraced one another welcoming one another and even trading hugs. Then the entire group decided to form a circle and pray. One of the cops who was previously keeping the groups at bay was now laying hands on people in prayer. That is the Gospel. It is this idea that persons who are fundamentally different in ideology and worldview and social class are beckoned to come together in the name of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and defy any barriers which would normally keep them apart.

The Jews had forgotten this power which God brings. We can either follow in their footsteps and assume our own superiority and well-being over others, or we can continue what Christ began by His death on the cross: reconciliation among all peoples to God Himself, who is the Greatest Conceivable Good.

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