Luke 17:11-19

disobeying gratefully

Roy W. Howard

Careful to keep their distance, it was a desperate cry: Lord have mercy on us! Casting his eyes on them, Jesus must have been close enough to notice the wretched condition of their skin and noticing that, he would know immediately that these were men were miserable, without hope or home. Leprosy is the name in the New Testament for any number of skin diseases. Such afflictions set apart the victims socially, morally and religiously. In total social isolation, the afflicted formed their own communities of beggars who lingered on the margins in desperation. When Jesus saw them and heard their cry, he asked them no questions, did not inquire about their backgrounds. It was shockingly abrupt. Go see the priest, is all he said. Do what the law requires. That’s it, and they did it. Ten were healed along the way. One turned back. There it is: one turned back. Does that make you curious? Why him? What happened to the one that was different for the others?

And, most importantly, if we could discover what happened in him, would it make a difference for you and me?

I can imagine more easily the nine who went on their way in perfect obedience to Jesus’ command. Perhaps the momentum of their restored health – clean skin – kept them moving forward. Astonished at their new found status – rubbing their arms and faces slowly, carefully, just to prove they were not dreaming – it must have seemed too terrible to turn back, even for one second. He said go. If we turn back, it may jinx everything and the miracle would vanish. Don’t risk it. He said go. It’s better for now just to keep going to the priest, just like he said. Get on with the new.

I can understand the nine. Can you? They had the dazzling possibility in their minds, confirmed by their skin, that the horrible past was now gone. Nothing could stop them.

It’s like the time when you say to yourself – I’ve got to remember to say thanks and when things settle down I will. Only you forget, when things settle down – whatever that means! Do things ever really settle down for any of us? The moment passes and the thank you remains unspoken, unwritten, and eventually forgotten in the passing flow of life. Such good intentions forgotten are deeply embedded in the fabric of our lives that are woven out of the deeds done and left undone, the words said and left unsaid.

Perhaps that is the way of the nine. I don’t know; I can only imagine. Presumably, having received the approval of the shocked priest, they will carry on happily in their new lives – just as Jesus intended for them when he healed them of their affliction without any questions. They can join their families, the religious community will have a place for them – now that they are clean – and life will be normal. They did everything he asked and nothing else. But I wonder if now and then a nagging memory of how it all happened touches them, like a little shock of electric current. A shock just enough to unsettle the moment, knock everything off slightly off kilter. It could come as a question in the quiet. How did I get here in this blessed state of being, surrounded by such goodness?

Have I forgotten anything?

Yes, I think we know the nine. And we have experienced what is missing.

What about the one? What happened to him?

With his traveling companions the too looked at his fresh clean skin. He heard Jesus’ commandment to go to the priest. He knew what he was supposed to do. But something other than obedience rose up in him like a Yellowstone geyser, deep within his spirit. Let’s call it gratitude – because that’s what it is, isn’t it? The desire to say Thank You came to him with such unbridled joy that he risked everything to express it, including his own healing. The text says – he turned back praising God with a loud voice! Can you hear him singing? Can you see him running? Can you see him falling at Jesus feet overwhelmed with gratitude?

Here is the astonishing thing: his gratitude led to his disobedience that led to his well salvation, which is just another word for well-being. Salvation – well-being – is the remarkable thing that occurs when you and I follow the joyful desire to give thanks to God for our lives. This man allowed nothing to delay his gratitude – not even the religious obligation laid upon him.

This is radical gratitude. Jesus names it as faith and says it leads to wholeness.  Is this our hearts deep longing: to find in this life wholeness, well-being, salvation? This longing resides underneath all else we do or don’t do. It is the restlessness that emerges when we stop long enough to hear that question: what is missing? Radical gratitude is the essence of simple faith in Christ. It always leads you home.

There is one more thing about the One who turned back that Luke would have us notice. He’s a double outsider; a leper and a despised Samaritan. An outsider among outsiders, is the only one who turns back. Again, Jesus asks no questions prior to his action. He gazes upon his wretched condition and heals him. And once again, it is the least likely one who displays for the rest of us a faith and gratitude that leads to health and wholeness.

Pay attention to him. That could be written as banner across our hearts. Pay attention to him.

All of this reminds me of the singer-song writer Lucinda Williams who took a tour around the country speaking with people on the margins of society. She called it the Blessed tour and spoke with homeless people, veterans, former addicts, poor folks and others whom easily match the Samaritan of the New Testament. Blessed is how they described their lives and how Lucinda described her response to their gratitude. It’s a fitting way to end this sermon with this clip.  Enjoy