Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
August 28, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Jesus’ brief encounter with ten lepers between Samaria and Galilee is often taken like one of Aesop’s fables—a morality lesson for remembering to say thank you. Now, it’s good to remember to say thank you, just like your mom reminds you to do. But as a kid your thanks are often given more begrudgingly than spontaneously; as an adult you might give thanks more out of social duty or a desire to remain in someone’s good graces to get something good again in the future.
This episode of the ten lepers does present a moral situation, but the very last line of reading reveals that it’s about so much more. And He said to him, “Rise, go away for your own good, your faith has saved you” (v 19). The thanks at the one gives reveals something about true thanksgiving—it’s not that it’s heartfelt, or that you really, really, mean it, but that it is something that grows out of Jesus’ gift for you. And the lepers provide a vivid object lesson for what that gift is.
Jesus’ Cleansing Produces a Sacrifice of Thanksgiving
And it happened that on His journey into Jerusalem, He was also going through the middle of Samaria and Galilee. And as He come into a certain village, ten leprous men met Him. They were standing at a distance and they lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And seeing them, He said, “When you have gone, show yourselves to the priest.” And it happened that upon their departure, they were cleansed. One of them, seeing that he was healed, returned with a loud voice glorifying God. And he fell upon his face at His feet, thanking Him; and he was a Samaritan. Jesus answered and said, “Were not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found returning to give glory to God except this for this foreigner?”
There are a number of distinctions made between the one and the nine. The one is a Samaritan; the nine are presumably Jewish. The one returns to give thanks; the nine are nowhere to be found. The one doesn’t perform the Levitical sacrifices and ceremonies required for reentry into the Israelite community; the nine presumably do. The nine lepers receive outward cleansing by outward works; the one is cleansed from the inside out.
In the Israelite community from the time that the Law was given, lepers were considered unclean. And for good reason. Their disease was very contagious and gruesome. Lepers were required to live outside of the community. But if by chance, you were a leper who was cleansed of your disease, there was a serious of prescribed ceremonies that you had to do—shave your head, burn your clothes, offer very specific sacrifices, wait a week. It was as much practical as spiritual, so that you wouldn’t bring the disease into the community.
But it was entirely outward. The ceremonies were only an outward confirmation of their outward cleansing. In contrast to the nine stands the one. He never ends up at the priest; in fact, he could not complete the sacrifices required by the Law because he was a Samaritan. He was by nature unclean. Until he meets Jesus.
This one leper is cleansed by receiving Jesus’ words by faith. His faith, engendered and strengthened by the words that Jesus spoke, believed that they not only offered an outward cleansing of the skin, but an inward cleansing of the conscience. And a conscience can only be cleansed by the forgiveness of sins. So the faith of the one Samaritan leper is a faith that anticipated the death of Jesus, and the blood that He would shed. For there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.
The outward ceremonies for cleansing a leper were given precisely to awaken faith in this very promise. The sacrifices and ceremonies the nine would have offered anticipated the one sacrifice of Jesus that cleanses body and soul. The ceremonies were sacrifices of thanksgiving, but they had been turned into sacrifices of merit, as if you could achieve full cleansing by simply performing the outward act. But outward acts can only at best achieve outward results.
This is why the faith of the one saved him. Not because He achieved his own cleansing, but because he received it from the One who is able to cleanse the body and the conscience. He is cleansed from the inside out. And being cleansed, he received full salvation.
Think of a time when you’ve been truly thankful. It’s never been because you’ve forced yourself to be thankful, or because social pressures have caused you to say, “Thanks.” You were thankful not because of something within yourself that produced the thanks, but because of the generosity and the gift given to you. So it is with the gift of Jesus. The mercy He delivers, the complete cleansing that He works in you produces a eucharistic sacrifice—a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Like the one leper, you have been cleansed—not simply an outward cleansing by outward works—but starting inside. How so? Because you have been baptized. Now there are some that mock us Lutherans, saying that our high view of Holy Baptism means that we believe in an outward work for salvation. But they deliberately overlook the very clear words of St. Peter in the Scriptures that extol Holy Baptism to be precisely the opposite. Baptism now also saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the flesh, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right hand, who went into heaven, with angels and authorities and powers having been subject to Him (1 Pt 3:21-22). It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
The foreign commander Naaman was upset that the Lord’s prophet would send him to wash in the Jordan River in order to be cleansed of his leprosy. He was looking for some quality in the water, some mystical power. But the Jordan had God’s promise attached to it. Likewise, the water of Holy Baptism doesn’t do its work because the water is more special, but because it is set aside by God’s Word and promise to do what He promises it will do. It’s not an outward work, but rather an inward working of the Spirit through God’s Word attached to the water. And it works a cleansing of the conscience, because Baptism is a specific appeal to God for forgiveness for the sake of Christ, who died and rose again.
Baptism is a sign and a seal of the Holy Spirit that points you back to the one sacrifice of merit, the death of Jesus Christ. The blood that He shed is the only thing that can cleanse your guilty conscience. It’s the only thing that can wash away sins. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Eph 1:7).
This cleansing produces another kind of sacrifice—a sacrifice of thanksgiving. It’s not just saying thank you, but everything that proceeds from the cleansed conscience. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord (Ps 116:16-17 ESV).
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard