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“Then one of [the lepers], 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. Now he was a Samaritan. 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 17:15-18).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It’s hard to bow down with a full belly. Pregnant women coming to the communion rail know this. Middle-aged men trying to pick up a scrap of paper from the floor know this. And on days like tomorrow (today), with Thanksgiving dinners, there will be a lot more people who experience this firsthand.
But that’s just from the physical aspect. I would submit to you that it’s hard to bow down spiritually with a full belly, too. What I mean is that it is easier to turn to the Lord in hard times. It’s easier to keep God and His Word as a priority when you’re facing trials and struggles. But it’s so easy to forget the Lord and His many blessings when you are comfortable, when times are good.
Martin Luther said: “The greater God’s gifts and works, the less they are regarded.” A hungry man is more thankful for his morsel than a rich man for his overflowing table. A lonely woman in a nursing home will appreciate a visit more than a popular woman with a party thrown in her honor. A Russian who finally gets his own copy of Scripture after seventy-five years of state-imposed atheism is more thankful for his little book than we are for all the Christian books and Bible translations that overflow our shelves. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that if the constellations appeared only once in a thousand years, imagine what an exciting event it would be. But because they’re out every night, we barely give them a look.
One of the evidences of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives is a gradual reversal of this twisted pattern. God wants to make us people who exhibit a thankfulness on proper proportion to the gifts and blessings we’ve received. He wants us to become a people who realize that nothing we have comes from our feeble efforts, but solely from the merciful and gracious hand of God. We must learn that the only way to come before God is empty-handed as beggars.
But that’s not easy to do, is it? It’s hard to bow down with a full belly.
What would it take to get you to beg? What would it take for you to swallow your pride and ask for help from a total stranger, a passing acquaintance, even a close friend or family member? I submit that it takes at least two things to make such a bold request. First, it takes a sense of desperation, at the very least the recognition of a great need that you are unable to fulfill yourself. And second, it takes confidence that the one whom you are asking is able to fulfill that need.
And so, we turn to the ten lepers in our Gospel. They are desperate. They’re all out of options. They’re dying from a terrible contagious disease. They can’t go to work. They can’t stay home. They can’t hug their wives and kids. The Law is clear: They are unclean. They are required to stay away from everyone else except other lepers. If anyone who doesn’t have leprosy happens to wander their way, these loneliest of men are required to shout out a warning to stay away.
When Jesus comes along, the beggars shout from a distance. Not “stay away,” but “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Somehow, they’ve heard. Though they’ve been ostracized and isolated, they’ve still gotten the news of Jesus and His miraculous healing. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” This is a prayer of faith—or at least the beginning of faith. The lepers know Jesus through the wonderful stories that have been told about Him. The Word of Christ has worked faith in their hearts. Their plea for mercy is an expression of this faith. They realize that they cannot buy or barter for the blessing Jesus brings, but can only beg for it.
And Jesus, seeing them, and fully away of their miserable plight simply tells them to show themselves to the priests. It was commanded in the Law of Moses that those who supposed themselves to be cured of leprosy must present themselves to one of the priests on duty at the temple, in order that their healing might be confirmed. If it was determined they had been cured of their sickness, then they were required to bring a sacrifice. The sacrifices in the temple included the shedding of blood, looking forward to the cleansing atonement of the Messiah, who, at that very moment just happens to be on His way to Jerusalem to offer His blood as the final, once-for-all sacrifice. Jesus wants the priests to confirm that the miracle has taken place. It will confirm that Jesus is who He says He is: the merciful one who cleanses the entire sins of humanity.
As the ten obediently head to the temple, all of them are cleansed.
Can you imagine the joy that all of them felt that moment? They, who were outcasts, who had no hope, who had no future to look forward to, now had received their lives back! They could go home to friends and family. They could kiss their wives again. Play with their kids. They were cleansed!
One of them comes back—a Samaritan! The man praises God, bows down at Jesus’ feet, and worships. He has nothing to give Jesus in return for healing except his thanks. And while we usually highlight the ingratitude of the other nine at this point, this one only highlights the Lord’s mercy more. As a Samaritan, this man would not be able to enter the temple in Jerusalem. As Jesus notes, he is a “foreigner,” a term used by Jews with reference to Gentiles. In fact, this term appeared within an inscription posted on the barrier wall of the Jerusalem temple. It said: “No foreigner should enter…. Whoever does is himself responsible for the death that will follow.” It is most ironic, therefore, that this “foreigner” draws near to the living temple of God, Jesus Christ. There, his worship is received by God Himself, now incarnate.
The man returns because he has faith. Jesus says so: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” That’s what faith does. It keeps running back to Jesus for more, because it never gets too full to bow down. Faith runs back with thanksgiving, because faith gladly says, “I had nothing to give, but Jesus was merciful to me anyway! I still have nothing to give, but Jesus will be merciful to me again!” Faith always runs back to Jesus for more. It never gets too full.
This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the other nine: Not so much that they don’t give thanks, but that they don’t come back to Jesus who has so much more to give them. They’ve got what they want most—they have their lives, health, families, and home back again. But they don’t have what they need most—forgiveness, faith, life, and salvation. They run to the temple—the dwelling place of God. They go to see the priests, not realizing that there in their very midst was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrificial system—Jesus, the great High Priest, whose very body is the Temple of the Lord’s Presence come to earth.
Then Jesus asks, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus’ question tends to emphasize the ingratitude of those who did not return to give thanks, a big part of the reason that this text is the appointed Gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day. But there’s more here than just a reminder to use your good manners.
Why didn’t the nine return to give thanks? I would submit to you: Because it’s hard to bow down with a full belly. It’s hard to beg if you think you no longer have a great need. It’s hard to bow down unless you recognize the superiority of the one before who you bow. Having had their immediate needs fulfilled, the former lepers head to the priests, and then once declared “clean,” probably back to home. There is no more need to beg and bow down. They have received their lives back and they are ready to get on with living. Kiss their wives, play with their kids. To do all the good things they had been missing. Except for the most important!
The nine get what they want, but they miss what they really need. The cares and riches and pleasures of life choke out their seedling faith, long before there is any fruit to bear. The temporal gifts they have received seem so much more important than the Giver. And they ending up missing the greater eternal gifts He has to offer. It happens far too often. It can easily happen to you and me.
In a recent post, Pastor Hans Fiene wrote: “The greatest threat facing the church in America is not liberalism or Islamic terrorism or Hollywood or public schools. It’s the utter indifference and apathy of Christians who consistently prioritize money, sports, family, etc. over hearing the Word and belonging to their fellow Christians. The Gospel will remain on earth until Jesus returns, but it might not remain in your neighborhood, folks. Get back to God’s house. Wait too long and it might not be there.” Indifference leads to unbelief. Apathy leads to apostasy.
Faith, on the other hand, keeps running back to Jesus. Faith keeps running back with thanks, and faith keeps running back for more. Faith’s belly never gets too full to bow down. By faith, the Samaritan who had been a leper knows that it’s not just that he was at the mercy of God; He remains at the mercy of God. And by faith, he knows there’s no better place to be.
The way of faith, then, is ever returning, glorifying God for what He has given. And you will find that He always has more to give. Which leads to even more thanksgiving. The Lord wants this to be an endless cycle and the very joy of your life. What He wants, finally, is to give you nothing less than Himself, and He is, as Dr. Luther puts it so unforgettably, “an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good.” And so today—and every day—you gush forth constant thanksgiving for all the gifts of your Lord to you.
Thanksgiving is worship. Worship is continual repentance and faith—begging for cleansing and salvation, receiving by faith God’s good gifts in His Word and Sacrament. Offering Him thanksgiving and worship for all He has done for you. In this life, you never move beyond that. There is no greater purpose, no greater service that you can render unto the Lord. Not that God needs your thanksgiving. He doesn’t benefit from your thanking Him. You do! The more you thank God the Father through His dear Son, Jesus Christ, the more you recognize how generously and bountifully He deals with you, and the more you are motivated to share His love and mercy with others.
Chances are you are leaving here today and you’re going to fill your bellies—maybe too full to bend over, but hopefully never too full to bow down. Enjoy your time with family and friends and feast; they’re part of God’s good gifts, too. But never forget the greater gifts! Come before your Lord often to receive His mercy in Word and Sacrament. Live in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Receive the very body and blood of your Savior Jesus Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
And then depart in peace and joy. “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.” You are forgiven of all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.