“Mercy for the Marginalized” (Luke 17:11-19)
The Holy Gospel for today from Luke 17, about the cleansing of the lepers, happens to be the assigned Gospel for the Day of Thanksgiving. And that makes sense. Jesus’ words about the one who came back to give thanks make it a natural for that occasion. But this text also shows up as a regular Sunday reading during the three-year lectionary, and thus it appears today. So this morning we’ll take a slightly different approach to this text than we would on Thanksgiving. Today we’ll emphasize the text’s theme of “Mercy for the Marginalized.”
Mercy for the marginalized: What do I mean by that? Let’s talk about those two words, “mercy” and “marginalized.” “Mercy” is a biblical word that has to do with God’s help for people in a state of distress, in a state of misery. Mercy is God’s answer to our misery. The good Lord looks down upon all the afflictions that come our way, in body and soul, and he has mercy on us. He acts to relieve our distress. He supplies our needs, both physical and spiritual. That’s mercy.
And that’s what the people in our text are asking for. Mercy. Our text begins: “On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’”
“Have mercy on us.” “Eleison” is the Greek here, as in the “Kyrie eleison” we sing at the start of the service: “Lord, have mercy.” We’re asking the Lord to supply our needs, which are many, out of his great compassion and love for us poor sinners.
So these fellows call out to Jesus with their “Eleison,” their “Have mercy.” And needs, they do have. Affliction and distress, they have. They are lepers, you see. Lepers are people afflicted with a terrible skin disease, a wasting disease that destroyed their flesh and ostracized them from their community. It also kept them from going to the temple, because they were ceremonially unclean. And so lepers were people who could be described as “the marginalized.” They were on the margins of society, literally. They were people on the fringe. Lepers had to keep away from normal, healthy people, for fear that they might infect others. “Unclean!” they would call out, when people might come close.
Although here, when Jesus comes close, these lepers feel bold enough to ask for mercy, to ask for his help. Instead of crying “Unclean!” they call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” There’s something about Jesus–things they’ve heard about this unusual man–that has led them to expect great things from him. They have heard of his miracle-working power. They have heard of his deep compassion. And so they are bold to say, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
And Jesus listens. And he responds. His mercy moves him into action. We read: “When he saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed.”
With his word, his mighty word, Jesus cleanses the lepers. Christ’s word is a divine word, a creative word, powerful and effective. His word accomplishes what he says. He wills it, and he says it, and it is so. This is the eternal Son of God speaking here.
Jesus sends the lepers on their way, knowing that his word will do its work. The lepers are cleansed. But what’s this about “Go and show yourselves to the priests”? What’s that all about? Several things, it seems.
The Law of Moses provided that when someone was healed of a disease that had made them unclean, that person was to go and show himself to a priest to verify the healing and to admit the person back into access to the temple, or, before that, back to the tabernacle. It was a way to restore that person back into the community of God’s people. And while at the tabernacle or temple, the healed person would offer up a thank offering, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, to give thanks to God for the healing. That’s why Jesus tells the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
But at the same time, what else would this do? By the priests verifying that these lepers were healed, they would unintentionally be affirming the divine authority of Christ. Jesus was the one who had healed these men, and the priests would not be able to deny that. The conclusion that ought to be reached? This Jesus exercises undeniable authority from God. And if the priests won’t believe in him, hopefully these lepers will get the message and make the connection.
So the ten head off to see the priests. Except for one of them, who turns around and comes back. What’s up with that? Well, for starters, this man is a Samaritan, and that means he wouldn’t be a guy who would go to the Jewish priests. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along. The Samaritans didn’t go to the temple in Jerusalem to worship. So the healed Samaritan comes back.
Let’s back up here and give a little background to this whole Samaritan thing. After the reign of Kings David and Solomon, the nation of Israel split in two, dividing into a northern kingdom, which took the name Israel, and a southern kingdom, which was called Judea. The temple was in Jerusalem, in the southern kingdom, as was the throne of the line of David. Thus the legitimate temple and the legitimate king were in the south, in Jerusalem. The northern kingdom, though, set up a rival shrine, unauthorized, and set up a rival capital in the city of Samaria. From that point on, while the southern kingdom often went astray, the northern kingdom, based in Samaria, always was off-beam and fell into idolatry.
Then in the year 722 B.C. the Assyrian army swooped down on Samaria and defeated the northern kingdom. That was it for them. The northern tribes were dispersed, scattered, driven out. The Assyrians brought in other peoples to settle there, thus diluting the national and ethnic identity of the people who remained. Thus the rise of the Samaritans and the resulting animosity of the true-blue Jews against them. The Samaritans were looked down upon as half-breeds, both ethnically and religiously. Which they were.
But now here, among the ten lepers whom Jesus cleanses, one of them is a Samaritan. A leper and a Samaritan? You can’t get much more marginalized than that! Yet Jesus has mercy on him. He cleanses him. And, filled with gratitude and with faith in this Jesus, the healed Samaritan comes running back to Jesus, to give thanks to God.
As a Samaritan, the healed man can’t go to the priests in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he does go to The Priest, namely, Jesus Christ. Christ is our great High Priest. He intercedes for us with God. He offers up the perfect sacrifice, the once-and-for-all sacrifice, to cleanse us from all our uncleanness, to heal us in both body and soul.
That’s what Jesus has done for you, my friends. By his going to Jerusalem, and offering himself up there in our place, on the cross, Jesus has bridged the gap between us and God. Our sins had separated us. Jesus restores us. The priestly sacrifice that Jesus offers is complete and perfect. Perfect righteousness, to cleanse us from our terrible sin disease. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sins.
And this is cleansing for both body and soul. Because our sins are forgiven, now death has no power over us. In the resurrection of Christ, we see a vision of our own future, that is, in the resurrection of the flesh on the Last Day. Our bodies, now afflicted with illness and infirmity, now subject to aging and decay, our bodies now wracked with disease and death–these bodies of ours will be raised up whole and perfect and just right for enjoying eternal life. That is the promise held forth by the cleansing of the lepers. Wholeness, forever.
And now, in this life, you and I have been restored to the community of God, the people of God, the church. We are no longer marginalized. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done or how far you have gotten off-track. You are welcome here in the church. This is a place of restoration and reconciliation. Therefore repent of your sins and receive God’s forgiveness and be joined to the people who live by forgiveness. This is a place of hope and healing and wholeness, a place of care and mercy and compassion. This is where Jesus lives.
Cleansing for lepers. Salvation for Samaritans. Mercy for the marginalized. This is what we find in Jesus Christ our Savior. Healing in both body and soul, for sinners like you and me. So call on him in all your troubles. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Trust in him. Because it is faith in Christ, this faith will make you well, this faith will save you.
And so a Sunday in October becomes a Day of Thanksgiving. Today we give thanks to God for his great mercy–mercy for the marginalized–his great mercy in Christ.