Luke 17.11-19
October 9, 2016
“The Tenth Leper”
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.

About whom is this story told? Is this a story about the despised outsiders and foreigners, the Samaritans? Luke loves to pull the old Samaritans out of his bag of illustrations. He tells the stories of the Good Samaritan, The Woman at the Well and even at the beginning of this travel portion of Luke’s Gospel, the Samaritan village rejects Jesus (9.51-56). I think the Samaritan village rejected Jesus because he was a righteously faithful Jew, not because he was Jesus. And maybe there is a chronological connection between that story and this one. Maybe the word is out that Jesus is not like the other Jews. Maybe the lepers, these desperate rejects from polite society, have heard that Jesus is a miracle worker. They reason, “If he can heal us, what difference does it make what his religion is?” What difference does it make to those who are suffering and dying what is the source of their relief? In this story all of the foreigner and stranger rules only apply to the Samaritan. If the nine lepers are Jewish, then they are one of us. Jesus is one of them, except for the leprosy of course. They are Jewish but they are unclean. The priest has said so. The priest will have to say they are clean. But the nine are Jesus’ people. The Tenth Leper is different. The Tenth Leper is the foreigner, the outsider. He is not one of us.

The outsider is what makes this an interesting story. The outsider acts the way we are supposed to act. It is the insiders who run off to the priest without saying thank you. Where are their manners? My Momma taught me better than that. I would have been expected to write a thank note to Jesus when I returned home.  

How many times have you heard this story read at community Thanksgiving services? This is a great story to remind us to say thank you. It is a great story to remind us to be grateful for all God has given us and especially miraculous healing. It is also a wonderful story to make us think about who the strangers are in our midst today. Who are the outcasts today? Who are the lepers in our society? Not so long ago, in this country, a preacher would have been very brave to say that Communists were the lepers in our society. More recently the first preachers who talked about AIDS patients as lepers were very brave. Especially if those preachers went against the popular conservative religious belief that AIDS was a divine punishment for homosexual behavior.

We can place our finger down on the time line of American history anywhere we choose and find a different outsider. During the colonial period we could always label someone whose religious beliefs were slightly different from ours. During the 1800's the waves of European immigrants were ghettoized and none trusted or liked the other. It has only been in my life time that alcoholism has been seen as a disease rather than as a failure of moral character. I can remind you of the homeless men, women and children that struggle to survive on the streets of Huntsville. For far too many of us they are invisible; similar to those who are starving. We do not believe that there are people in Huntsville who are hungry. We do not see them. They are not our people.

A few years ago a book entitled The Girls Who Went Away was published. It is the tragically heartbreaking story of young women who became pregnant and were sent away to have their babies and most of them were forced to give up their babies for adoption. When I heard these stories it reminded me of the girl in my neighborhood who went away. I call her a girl because I was in high school and she was younger than I was. What made me so ashamed of myself when I remembered what happened in my neighborhood was that I could not remember anything about this girl after that incident. She became invisible. I have no memory of her after she went away.

As I have thought more about this story from Luke and worked at making relevant the Ten Lepers, with one of them an outsider, I realize that from all of the outsiders I can list through my experience and even through the bigger picture of history, there is one constant – the insiders. We are the insiders and we are the constant.

I believe it is a valid interpretation of this text to direct our attention to the Tenth Leper, the Samaritan who remembered to say thank you. But when I read this story today, I think the message is about more than saying thank you. This story is about who we place on the outside.

So maybe the better question to ask, rather than “About whom is this story told?” is “For whom is this story told?” Realizing that we place different groups of people on the outside is important. Having the discipline to self-examine in order to determine who those groups of people are that we have placed on the outside is important. But more important is to realize that we are the insiders.

We believe that this is our church. We believe that we get to decide how we spend our money and what needy causes we will support. And when we think that way, we are wrong. As a country, we believe that God is on our side when we go to war. Maybe it is good old American arrogance that has influenced the church, but I am not so sure about that. The story of Naaman and Elisha smacks strongly of nationalism. Those ancient Israelites believed that they were special because God chose them. When Naaman is told to wash in the Jordan River he proudly protests that the rivers of his country are better than the puny Jordan. Maybe our arrogance is not American or even religious. Maybe our arrogance is simply human nature. And maybe that is why the story of the Ten Lepers is a universal story.

The one thing I am convinced of by this story is that this story is for us. We need to hear this story. We need to be reminded that God calling us to be the people of God does not give us license to lord it over other people. Being called the children of God does not make us better than other groups of people that we think are the outsiders. Our calling as the children of God and as the church is an awesome responsibility. One of the imperatives of being the church is that we bring the outsiders in. There is no person or group of persons, no matter how we choose to label them, that is beyond the reach of God’s love. There is no group, no matter how we demonize them; no matter how badly that group or a member of that group has hurt us, that is beyond the embrace of the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ.

When it comes to making decisions in the church, we must remember that the church is not a business like any other business. Maybe in your business you make decisions by looking at the bottom line or by weighing the balance sheet. If you are a Christian, I challenge that process even in a secular business. There is a discernment process that Christians use to make decisions. There are three pieces to the discernment process. We start with reading Scripture. We pray. And we listen to each other. If your first reaction to hearing that is to say that the discernment process takes too long, remember this; we are making decisions concerning the kingdom of God. If we pray for a week about an issue, asking for God’s guidance, that is not too long. If we take a month to patiently listen to each other express our concerns over an issue that is OK. If we commit to participating in a Sunday school class, or a Bible study some other time, in order to know what is in the Scriptures that will be time well spent. I know that we live in the age of instant messaging and instant gratification, but I am not convinced that we make the right decisions when we short circuit the process. God is very patient with us. I believe that we can be patient with God. The church may take a bit longer to make the right decision, the decision that we believe is the will of God, but I believe it is worth the wait.

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