“Giving Thanks With Eyes Wide Open” (Luke 17:11-19)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Luther said something interesting in his explanation to the Fourth Petition of the Lord's Prayer in the Small Catechism. The Fourth Petition is “Give us this day our daily bread.” The question then is, of course, “What does this mean?” He answers, “God gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.”
“We pray that God would lead us to realize this.” Sometimes we forget who is the giver of all our good gifts. We need to have our eyes opened … the eyes of our hearts … to see and recognize the blessings that are placed before us. Too often we go on our merry way, not recognizing the blessings that are right in front of our own noses. Too often we take for granted the simple, good gifts that our Heavenly Father has bestowed upon us.
Each one of the ten lepers was healed as a gift. None of them had done anything at all to deserved being healed. They were all sinful, just like you and me. Yet Jesus still answered their cry of “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus told them to go to the temple and show the priests that they had been cleansed. The lepers obeyed his instructions, and as they went, they were healed of their terrible skin disease.
The lepers were given a good gift after they had cried out to Jesus. But, as we heard from Luther, often we receive good gifts even without our prayers. God blesses us with many wonderful things before we ever begin cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
Remember what Jesus said about how God provides for us? Our heavenly Father feeds the birds who have no barns. He feeds us, too. The Creator clothes the grass of the field with lilies more splendrous than any clothes that King Solomon ever wore. He clothes us that way, too. Even before we think to pray, God already knows what we need, and he gives it to us.
Jesus told the ten lepers to go show themselves to the priests. According to the Old Testament law, a healed leper was supposed to show himself to the priests and offer the required sacrifices. This would have been an act of thanksgiving and faith. But also, it would have signaled the entrance of these men back into society and into the lives of their families.
Remember that lepers were social outcasts. To be healed meant that they could be welcomed back into society again. It's been this way for lepers as recently as less than a hundred years ago. One in particular was “Betty Martin,” which wasn't her real name. Her real name was Edwina Meyer. She assumed another name in order to spare her relatives the shame of her disease. An article in the Seattle Times from a few years ago told how
[Betty] was a 19-year old debutante in New Orleans, engaged to a handsome medical student and about to celebrate Christmas with her large family when she learned in 1928 that the pale rose spots on her thighs were caused by leprosy. The doctor who gave the news to her mother shouted, "Get her out of here before she infects the entire city!" No one ever determined how she developed the disease. No other members of her family or friends ever did. The shame and disgrace of her diagnosis led to a [hurried] departure on a sunny day in January. Only her fiance and a few members of her family knew she had leprosy and was being sent to [a leper's hospital in another part of the state]. (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19971121&slug=2573752)
Betty lived there for 20 years. She met and married her husband there. For a time she lived in the outside world, but eventually returned to live permanently in the leper's hospital. Even in the 20th century, Betty's leprosy made her a social outcast.
Although leprosy in the Bible is probably not the same disease as what we think of as leprosy today, nevertheless, the shame and suffering and solitude of those men in Luke's account was worse than Betty's. Lepers in Jesus' day were forced to live outside the city limits, dressed in rags, covering their faces, crying out “Unclean! Unclean!” as people passed by in order to avoid any human contact.
And the leper who returned to Jesus had another strike against him. Not only was he a leper. He was also a Samaritan. This was a double-whammy. Among the Jews, he would have been seen as a mixed-blood, half-breed dog with whom they had nothing to do. An outcast twice over.
But this man's eyes were opened to what had really happened to him. The text says, “when he saw that he was healed, [he] turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks.”
“He saw that he was healed.” His eyes were opened to the fact that his leprosy was gone. And then, and even greater miracle occurred. His eyes of faith were opened and he returned to worship Jesus. Jesus told him, “Your faith has made you well,” which can also be translated, “Your faith has saved you.” The leper didn't go to the temple with the other nine, to the place of sacrifice, the place of the presence of God. He didn't need to. He returned to Jesus, the very presence of God in the flesh, who would soon become the sacrifice for the sin of the world. The Samaritan leper responded in faith as he returned to the presence of God in Christ and to worship the one who gave him new life … in more ways than one. He received the gift of a new life because he would no longer be a leprous outcast. He received the gift of new life because through faith in the Savior he would no longer be a sinful outcast in the eyes of God. Therefore, he gave thanks with eyes wide open!
Through hearing the Gospel, the Holy Spirit works in us and opens wide our eyes of faith. Our sin-sick souls are cleansed. Like the Samaritan leper, we recognize the presence of God in Christ. And likewise, we turn from our sin and return to give glory to God and worship God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, the source of our forgiveness.
Not only do we worship God in the flesh, but he also gives us his very flesh to eat and his blood to drink in his great “Thanksgiving Feast,” the Lord's Supper. Remember how the Lord's Supper is sometimes called the “Eucharist” which comes from the Greek word which means “to give thanks.” In the Words of Institution, we hear that Jesus “gave thanks” at the Last Supper. And that certainly is one important aspect of the Lord's Supper. We give thanks that Jesus accomplished our salvation for us on the cross over 2,000 years ago. The barriers of time and space are broken as Jesus distributes the blessings of salvation today, here and now, in this Eucharistic Meal, the best “Thanksgiving Feast.” Forgiven and fed with the Bread of Life, we can truly give thanks with eyes wide open.
But before we close, there's one more thing that we need to note. The last thing Jesus says to the leper is “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” It's possible to translate “Rise and go” as “arise and journey.” It may be that Jesus was calling that leper to follow him. As we see from the first verse of our text, Jesus was “journeying” to Jerusalem, where he was determined to go in order to die for the sins of the world. And so, having confessed faith in Jesus, our Lord says to the man, “Arise and journey with me. Follow me as I go to Jerusalem, the place of the temple, the place of sacrifice, and see how I will become the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world.” Whether that leper did indeed journey with Jesus, we don't know. The Bible doesn't say. But he certainly was given a start on his own journey of faith in Jesus.
Those words are for us today, too. Having been forgiven, having turned from our sin and returned to Jesus, having our eyes opened wide so we can give him thanks, “Arise and journey.” Arise and journey with Jesus. This coming Sunday begins another new Church Year, in which we will journey with Jesus. During Advent we look forward to celebrating his first coming while we anticipate his second coming on the Last Day. Then, throughout the first half of the Church Year, we journey with Jesus from the manger in Bethlehem to the carpenter's workshop in Nazareth to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Then, we journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the grave. On Easter, we hear once again that the tomb is empty. Jesus is alive and ascends into heaven and sends the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. And thus begins the second half of the Church Year, in which we learn how Jesus was and still is active in his Church through his Spirit, and who is active in us and inspires our journey of faith.
And so, dear Christian friends, “Arise and journey with Jesus today and in the coming Church Year. And keep on giving thanks with eyes wide opened.”