Sermons That Work

We All Know…, Thanksgiving Day (A) – 2005

November 24, 2005

We all know that Scripture is made up of many different types of literature. But we don’t often think of Scripture as good theater. But when you think of it—there’s lots of opportunity for theatrical presentations in the stories of the Bible. Think back to the times you either participated in a Sunday school or Vacation Bible School play or were the proud parent or friend of a child who did. Think of the hundreds of Christmas Pageants that are put on each year. Scripture makes good theater! But what makes it good theater today is very often the enthusiasm and perhaps the antics of a group of kids acting out Bible stories, dressed often in multi-colored bathrobes and towel head-dresses. If these skits are part of a service, everything afterwards can be quite frankly, anti-climactic!

And that can be a problem. Too often what turns out to be the focal point of the play, isn’t exactly a representation of the real point of the Gospel. Imagine a group of energetic kids acting out today’s Gospel—one playing Jesus, ten others being the healed lepers. We could easily miss the point of this story because we know it so well.

We’ve all heard this story of the ten lepers many, many times. It’s very easy to picture Jesus surrounded by his followers suddenly hearing a little group call out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Things happen quickly from there. He tells them simply to go and show themselves to the priests and as they went they were cured. We hear that only one comes back to say thanks, and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asks where the other nine were and we might think that he’d be a little hurt. But then he tells the Samaritan that it was his faith that made him well. A strange thing for Jesus to say, but it’s something we hear him say often in the Gospels. It’s really a simple story in many ways, but if we leave it here, we miss some things that can help us get at a deeper meaning.

The first thing we should always do when we read Scripture is to remember that these accounts of Jesus’ life were written for first century Christians, not us. They would immediately understand cultural inferences that we might not, but it’s these cultural and language idiosyncrasies that give more meaning to the passage.

So we might look first at this group of lepers. We see that it’s a mixed group evidently of Jews and at least one Samaritan. In Jesus’ time, this would have been unheard of in normal company. Jews and Samaritans would have absolutely nothing to do with each other for any reason. What may have struck those following Jesus might be the same thing that should strike us—the great suffering of their leprosy brought these ten people together. Ten people who were lepers first—and anything else a long way second; ten people who were outsiders to everybody—Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, anybody. Ten people who needed the comfort and support of each other. Ten people who needed to look past ideological differences for sheer survival, such as it was. These were ten people who together could call for help from this very unusual preacher. Notice that no one told the Samaritan he couldn’t call for mercy with the rest. And we know their collective effort was rewarded.

Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests. This might seem like over doing it to us, but in that day, only when the priests proclaimed a person healed could that person rejoin family and community. Imagine how excited these ten lepers must have been to see their leprosy vanish as they made their way to the priests. They would once again be able to live with their families, walk about freely in their hometown. You would think that once they saw the priests and were proclaimed healed that they’d want to rush right back to thank Jesus. We might even think of them as thoughtless almost beyond belief, but here again we find a different cultural norm from our own.

The society of first century Israel was a patron/client society, very different from our own. For a client (the Samaritan leper) to thank the patron (Jesus) meant that the client no longer needed the help of the patron. In a sense, the Samaritan was acknowledging that he absolutely believed that his healing was complete. He would not need to come back again to Jesus for more healing from leprosy. It was his thanks that showed his real faith—faith in Jesus’ word of healing. That’s what Jesus alluded to when he said, “Your faith has made you well.”

So it really wasn’t an outrageously impolite thing to do for the other nine not to come back to give thanks. This isn’t about manners! They were merely showing that they were reluctant to believe they wouldn’t need Jesus to heal them again. The Jews who saw this exchange between Jesus and the lepers would have understood this immediately. Instead of looking askance at the nine, they might have been impressed with the Samaritan (and him a hated foreigner at that!) It may have made those Jews feel a bit ashamed of their hatred of Samaritans, because this man certainly didn’t fit the stereotypes they had. So when Jesus says, “Only one came back to give thanks, and that one a Samaritan,” he’s really criticizing the Jews for looking down on Samaritans as being not as good or holy or pious as the Jews are. They treated all Samaritans like lepers.

But we don’t live in this kind of patron/client society today. For us, it’s expected that we thank someone for helping us, whether we expect to have to ask someone for help again or not. So what is the lesson for us in this passage? As in all the Gospel stories, there are many, but we might want to look at what today’s Gospel says to us about living in community and what we need to do to show on this Thanksgiving holiday, that we really know what thanksgiving is all about.

Look again at the ten lepers. They were individuals who were forced to live together not because they were family or held a common vision, but because they were outcasts—feared and hated because of the contagious nature of their disease. They didn’t even have religious belief in common, yet they had to live peaceably with each other just to survive. Jesus, unlike most Jews, ignored that difference. He healed them all without question. He expects us to do the same.

If we think about issues we’ve experienced in our church or community, we can probably remember times of real division. Whether these divisions were political, theological, racial, or any number of other examples, we might remember feelings of suffering or shame. It’s not easy to be completely open to reconciliation. Every day we still face situations where there’s division, but we must continue to work towards peace and equality.

Remember, the lepers in Jesus’ time were the outcasts. We need to think about who are our outcasts today. We have to remember that Jesus healed all the lepers without question. He expects us to do the same. Life isn’t easy today. We live in trying times. The economy’s not too good, people are being down-sized, our elderly who’ve spent their lives trying to make life better for us, their children, are finding it harder and harder to enjoy a well-earned retirement. And as the news brings us the sights and sounds of terroristic acts being committed all over the world, we know we live in really frightening times.

But our help does come from the Lord our God. Over and over in each of the Gospels, we read Jesus’ promise that he will be with us until the end of time. He sent the Holy Spirit to be our strength and the source of our power to make the changes needed in our world. Ultimately, Jesus came to show us what God is like and how much this God loves each and every one of us. There is not a person in this congregation who isn’t called to strive for justice and peace among all people. Each one of us is commissioned by God to respect the dignity of every human being. We all have a responsibility to pray for peace, to pray that we may be able to live once again in community.

We might wonder what happened to those ten lepers after they were healed. Did they go back to their own families and communities and take up where they left off? Did they take up again the stereotypes they had of each other—or had they seen something different? Did their experience of suffering together and being healed together change their lives? Did they become instruments of peace and reconciliation in their communities? Did they go back and say, “Look what this man, Jesus, did for me. He showed me something about how God loves me and I know that I have to live my life differently from now on.” We’ll never know—the Gospel doesn’t tell us. We can hope, perhaps, that it did make a difference in their lives. We can hope, too, that meditating on this Gospel will make us look beyond ourselves and help us reach out to all God’s people, because the way we live our lives absolutely can make a difference in others.

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Christopher Sikkema


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