Monday, 8 October 2007

10% Luke 17 11-19

This story can be read in at least three different ways, depending on our take on Luke’s gospel. First there are those for whom the important thing is trying to discover what relevance the story had to the early church. Under this view the gospels were written as source material for sermons; therefore every story had an immediate application.

So the story of the ten lepers might be told with tis application. In the church communities to which Luke was writing there was this problem: lots of people came forward to be baptised but few then went on to- regular attendance at the eucharist. And so Luke puts this story to show that Jesus had exactly the same problem in his ministry. Ten lepers were cleansed: or ten people experienced the washing away of sin in baptism; only one came back into the Lord’s presence to give thanks; or only one came to the thanksgiving service. The story then might be used either to console the church; we have problems keeping converts - don’t worry even Jesus found it the same; or it might be preached to the newly baptised as an encouragement to come regularly to the table to give thanks for salvation.

The second kind explanation places greater emphasis on the setting of the story within the gospel itself. One important ingredient of Luke’s gospel is that the underdog - the outsider, the foreigner is the one commended, and the favourites come nowhere in the race. Thus it is a prostitute who is commended for love, not a Pharisee: a runaway spendthrift of a son for whom the fatted calf is killed: a Samaritan who is shown as the model neighbour. Here, then, the emphasis should fall on the fact that it is a Samaritan who returns to give thanks. The others accepted their healing as no more than they deserved; they were after all members of God’s chosen people and if that was to mean anything concrete in their lives then they had a right to expect to be healed: the Samaritan could only stand amazed that a Jew had healed him, an enemy.

We, too, live in a society where people regard health, prosperity, happiness as rights. In the USA you don’t thank your doctor for healing you - you just sue if he doesn’t. This attitude also spills over into other areas of life. In prosperous Britain God is there to be sued when things go wrong not to be thanked for salvation. Why pick on me? is a question more asked than Why choose to heal me? We like the Jews have come to take God’s love for granted. It takes an outsider to teach us gratitude.

But it could be argued that both these approaches magnify small details of the story to fit into a scheme. Perhaps we should take the whole thrust of the story on its own merits. The story is about faith: the lepers exercised faith in three ways: first they asked for cleansing and then went out to live their lives believing they had received cleansing before there was any obvious sign; that was the limit of faith for the vast majority; but one man - one man without any preconceptions discovered two further aspects of faith which resulted in a scale of blessing the others had not experienced; humble praise, and mission.

Now this note of humility is particularly relevant given the previous passage which exhorts the disciples not to get too big for their boots. The man who throws himself to the ground in gratitude is told to stand up. Jesus does not keep us on our knees grovelling. The health he gives is total. We can stand up straight empowered by his grace. It is only after the man has stood up that Jesus pronounces his faith complete. Thus faith is born in that moment when we both recognise the truth of who we are and we begin to recognise the person God has called us to be. So we go forth with a new vision of God and ourselves.

The Jesus who accepts us as lepers, makes us fit, commissions us as servants and adopts us as sons. And so Jesus waits for those he has healed through his saving death to come to him in gratitude; that gratitude in itself opens channels for yet more tidal waves of grace to flood into our lives; grace that enables us to stand up; to take responsibility; and then to go out in mission.

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