Text: Luke 17:11-19
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
St. Paul makes it clear that the works of the flesh are opposed to the works of the Spirit. The works of the flesh desire only to satisfy selfish desires. It’s all about what I want and no one else’s needs are of any importance. It is directly the opposite of what the Ten Commandments call us to do. The Ten Commandments take us outside of ourselves. They emphasize love for God and the neighbor. This does not, however, mean that matters of the flesh are completely isolated from the Spirit. Whatever fleshly malady we experience, that is whatever disease, injury, or illness we have is not just simply a matter of bad luck. The wages of sin is death. You sin. You die. Every time we are sick it is a reminder that we are sinners. It is a reminder that our bodies are broken. But our bodies are broken because we have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
The lepers that approach Jesus begging for mercy in our Gospel reading for today have a problem. Their chief problem, though, is not simply that they are lepers. Their leprosy is problematic, of course. It means that they must be cut off from their families and communities. They must live in isolation because they are unclean. It’s also problematic because it’s really uncomfortable. They have itchy, scaly skin. They are in constant pain. Ultimately, though, leprosy is not their chief problem. Leprosy is only a symptom of their problem. The ultimate problem is sin. They are slaves to sin. Do they need to be healed of their leprosy? Yes. But their greatest need is not physical healing. Physical healing only takes care of the symptoms. What they need is the forgiveness of sins. Jesus will take care of both.
When these lepers come to Jesus, he tells them to go and show themselves to the priest. This was, after all, what was required by the Torah for one who wanted to be declared clean of leprosy or any other skin condition. You had to go to the priest to be declared ceremonially clean. It didn’t matter if you no longer had the skin condition. If you didn’t go to the priest, you still weren’t considered clean.
As they go on their way, though, the miracle happens! They no longer have leprosy! Luke doesn’t tell us what 9 of the 10 who were healed do. We might assume that they went to the temple and visited the priest just like they were told to do by Jesus. It’s also quite possible, and I like to think maybe even likely, that they never made it to Jerusalem. We know that one of the 10 returned to Jesus, but I’m suggesting that the 9 not only didn’t return to Jesus, but they may not have even gone down to the temple as they were supposed to. I mean, why would they? Their fleshly problem was solved. They no longer had leprosy. What benefit would going to the temple serve? It’s quite possible – and I’d even say likely – that they simply went home and rejoiced with their families that they were able to be together once again.
It is clear, of course, that they should have returned to praise God just as the one former leper did. That was the right thing to do. It was not, however, simply the right thing to do simply because of etiquette. It was the right thing to do because, again, Jesus did not come simply to rid them of the symptomatic disease of leprosy. He came to defeat sin, death, and the devil completely.
This is what the leper who returns to Jesus realizes. He sees Jesus not just as the guy who healed his leprosy; he sees Jesus as the God who forgives sins. He recognizes that he does not simply have a fleshly problem that needs attention, but he needs to have his sins forgiven.
Forgiveness is what he needs and forgiveness is what he gets. When Jesus says, “Rise and go, your faith has healed you,” he’s not saying that the man can pat himself on the back for a job well done. He’s not saying that the man healed himself at all. Jesus is referring to the forgiveness of sins being received by faith by this ex-leper. After all, even the unrighteous receive good things from God. Those nine other lepers did not suddenly contract leprosy because they did not return to Jesus. Had they, this would have turned into a proof-text for works-righteousness. This healing miracle of Jesus, in fact, shows the complete opposite. It shows that Jesus heals the sick not because they deserve it, but because he hears their cries for mercy and desires to show mercy. What those 9 ex-lepers didn’t receive, though, is the forgiveness of sins. They were so fixated on fleshly things that once they received their healing, they had no more need of Jesus. The leper who returns to Jesus follows Jesus’ instructions perfectly, though. It might not look like he went to the temple, but that’s because he knows that Jesus is the temple. What’s so special about the temple? It housed the Ark of the Covenant. What was the Ark of the Covenant? It was God dwelling among his people. Who is Jesus? He is precisely that. He is the Word made flesh who dwells among us. He is the one who will be nailed to the cross for the forgiveness of all sin. He is the one who will be raised from the dead, showing that his sacrifice was accepted in whole by the Father.
We live in a world that is obsessed with fleshy things like the 9. What is the thing that we look to for all good? We look to ourselves. How do we know that life is going well? We say that things are going well when we have a good amount of money in the bank. We say things are going well for us when we have good friends. We say things are going well for us when we’re healthy. The opposite of all of these things are true as well. When we are broke, unpopular, or sick, we determine that things aren’t going well for us. According to the flesh, these things are true, but we should not be primarily concerned about the things of the flesh. This desire to satisfy the needs of the flesh draws us away from God and his Word. It turns us into all those evil things that Paul spoke of in our Epistle reading for today. Rather, we should see the good things that we have in life and praise God that he has given them to us.
Instead, let us go our temple, to Jesus, seeking the forgiveness of sins that he has won for us. He has told us where he is. He is here in the Divine Service absolving your sins and feeding you with his body and blood. Receive these things in faith, knowing that the forgiveness of sins is yours. Then go and live in love and service to God and neighbor knowing that the God who cares for the needs of our soul provides for all the needs of your body as well.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.