Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Strangers Here

Saint Luke 17:11-19

Last Sunday we heard a parable told by our Lord Jesus involving a Samaritan man and some Jewish men. Today we also hear a story involving a Samaritan man and some Jewish men, but this story is not made up; it is no parable, but a real event in the life of our Lord Jesus. In last week’s parable, healing is urgently needed because of severe injury inflicted in the course of a robbery—injury that, if left untreated, would bring forth death. In the real life event of today’s Holy Gospel, healing is also urgently needed because of severe injury inflicted by a terrible disease called leprosy, which left untreated, would also bring forth death.

But now, while a man injured by robbers could be treated and cared for and brought back to health, there was no medical cure for leprosy back then. Today there is. There now exists a medical cure in the form of a multi-drug therapy, which over the last 20 years has brought healing to some 16 million lepers worldwide. At the time of Jesus, the only thing that could be done about leprosy was to segregate the infected from the rest of society, with the hope of keeping the disease from spreading.

So why, then, if there was no cure for leprosy—why would ten men infected with the disease cry out to our Lord, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us”? What was there about Jesus that would bring hope for healing to these poor, miserable wretches? We know and, apparently, so did they. In their isolation, they had somehow heard about Jesus, and how He had done what no man had ever done before. He had healed a leper!

This took place in the early portion of our Lord’s ministry, not long after He had called His first disciples. Saint Luke tells us that, while Jesus was in one of the cities of Galilee, a man “full of leprosy” comes up to Him and falls on his face before Jesus and begs Him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Hearing the man’s plea, Jesus reaches forth and places His hand on the diseased man and tells him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the man is a leper no more.

When Jesus hears the cry for mercy from the ten lepers of our Gospel Reading, He does not lay His hand upon any of them, as He had done before. Nor does He say to them “be clean,” or “you are healed,” or something like that. Instead, Jesus tells them to “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And right away, before seeing any sign of healing, they set off to do this, and “as they went they were healed.” When they see that their healing has been accomplished—when they look upon their hands and feet made whole and touch their restored faces, no longer eaten away by the disease—the nine Jewish men keep on going. But the lone Samaritan man, Saint Luke tells us, “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.”

As we see from what happens next, our Lord Jesus is pleased to see the Samaritan man return to give Him thanks and praise and evidently quite dismayed by the others’ lack of return—even though those nine others are doing exactly what He had told them to do. He says to the Samaritan, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

When Jesus refers to this man as a foreigner, He’s directing our thoughts to a profound truth, one that you and I lose sight of all the time—the truth that we are all foreigners—strangers in a strange land. To be a foreigner in the context of faith is indeed a good thing. It’s how God would have all of us regard ourselves in this world.

From the very beginning, when the Lord God sent the sinful yet redeemed Adam and Eve out of the paradise of Eden, they were as strangers in a strange place—and this was by design—for their good. Even the toil and hardship and pain that would mark their lives in this world was by design, for their good, lest they become too comfortable—too at home in this fallen world. Their exile, as God gave them to be reminded, was not to be permanent, for God was at work, in Christ, restoring fallen mankind that we might rightly dwell again in paradise forevermore.

But despite the thorns and thistles of this world, humankind again and again would settle down and regard it, not as temporary exile, but as home. This is what the sin and unbelief inherent in everyone brings forth. According to our sinful nature, each of us is drawn more to the things of this world than to the things of God. It’s only by faith that we are able to discern the better; it’s only by faith that the place of our true home is known. Thus it is that the foreigner—the Samaritan—returns to Jesus, for by faith he knows where his true home really is. And that’s in Jesus—where it is for you—where it is for me.

The nine others who did not return, but went straightaway to the priests at the temple in Jerusalem, were no doubt certified by the priests as being cleansed of their disease. The priests, according to the Levitical laws, would have checked the men out most thoroughly. Seeing no sign of the disease, the priests would have then offered a blood sacrifice to God, sprinkling the blood a bird on the nine to declare that they were clean. The Samaritan man did not go to receive this declaration from the priests. In fact, if he had gone, as a foreigner he wouldn’t even be allowed entry into the temple to present himself. But he did even better. He showed himself to Him who is the great High Priest—to our Lord Jesus Christ, who was sent by the Father to offer up Himself on the altar of the cross—a sacrifice, as the hymn says, “of nobler name” than the blood of beasts, and of “richer blood than they.” The blood of Jesus, God’s own sacrificial Lamb, cleanses us from all sin, from every evil, and frees us to live as God’s own children—as Saint Paul says, “no longer strangers and aliens, but … fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

Yes, though you are called by God to be a stranger—a foreigner—in this world, He has also called you to be in His home—a household that is not only yet to come, but exists now in Christ. This is the reality of your baptismal life. You are in the world, but not of it. However, as Luther reminds us, you unfortunately also have another life that exists alongside of your baptismal life. You are, “at the same time, saint and sinner,” he says. And these two realities of your mortal, earthly life are constantly at war within you. Saint Paul says of himself, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” I’m sure you have often thought the same of yourself.

Saint Paul knows that freedom from sin in this life is just not possible—not for him and not for you. And yet you heard him tell you today, to “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” He also says that those who do those things that gratify the desires of the flesh—and he includes a big long list of sins and evil doings just so you know what he’s talking about—he says if you do these things you “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” And you know what he means by that—hell and eternal damnation instead of salvation and life without end.

So what are you to do? To put it mildly, it seems like you’re in a tight spot! But what was it that Jesus said to the Samaritan that He healed of leprosy—the foreigner who returned with faith to give Jesus his thanks and praise? Jesus said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” This He says to you, too, and to all who turn to Him in true faith, trusting in His mercy and grace. When does Jesus say this to you? Well, every time He says to you, through your pastor, “I forgive you all your sins,” every time He gives you His true Body to eat and His true Blood to drink for the forgiveness of your sins, and every moment that you are living as one who is baptized and washed clean of sin’s leprosy, Jesus is saying to you, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” By the forgiveness that Jesus brings from the cross and gives to you, He enables you to “Rise and go your way,” to be that stranger in a strange land who is, day by day making your way to your real home, to the everlasting kingdom of God where you even now hold citizenship.

Rejoice and give thanks, dear friends, for, along with the Samaritan and all the saints of God, “your faith has made you well.” Jesus has provided you with the cure: His blood shed for you. Amen.