How Healed is Healed
A sermon on Luke 17: 11-19 by Nathan Nettleton, 8 October 1995
Christ's wish is that all people will respond with thankful joy to his offer of holistic healing and growth - physical, emotional, social.
The Christian church has had a few dilemmas and more than a few fights over our understanding of what it is that God wants for us. Some have said that God is primarily interested in our souls, whatever they might be, and that so long as our souls is saved then our physical or emotional states don't matter too much. Other Christians at the opposite end of the range of opinion have put all their efforts into health care, food and housing, arguing that God has called us to be a people who do justice and justice must begin with people's basic needs. And as a wise pastor once said to me, in such debates the truth is often not in one extreme or in the other, or in the middle, but in both extremes.
This story from Luke's' gospel addresses these questions. It is found only in Luke and it is quite unlike any of the other miraculous healing stories. It is one of only a few stories where Jesus heals at a distance and is certainly the only story where he heals ten people simultaneously at a distance. But the real uniqueness of this story lies in what happens after the basic healing and what Jesus says about it. And it's there that we will find some real help. But before we get to that let's start at the beginning.
Jesus is up between Galilee and Samaria, beginning his last journey to Jerusalem, when he is approached by ten lepers. Linking Galilee, Samaria and leprosy, all in the one sentence is a bit like linking AIDs, illegal drug use and satanic worship all in the one sentence. You've got Jesus travelling in places that every good Jew would have regarded as very suspect and being approached by people who not only social customs, but even the law, required the devout Jew to stay well clear of.
I'm sure I don't have to tell you how leprosy was regarded in those days. Perhaps even worse than AIDs is regarded in our days. These ten people were certainly not accepted in mainstream society. They were marginalized in the most complete sense of the word: they were forced to live outside the boundaries of the town. There are many like them who are still not welcome in mainstream society. People whose voices are not listened to and whose presence is not welcomed in the streets or corridors of success and power.
Who are some of the people our society pushes out to the fringes, our outcasts???
- behavioural things - crime, substance abuse, prostitution, gambling. - illnesses; mental, emotional or physical.
- social awkwardness and loneliness.
- combinations of these things.
- common links - family breakdowns, violence and sexual abuse
People who's lives were ruined by the greed and power of others. People who have fallen victim to the power games of others and who are always the losers. People for whom the economics of competition in the open marketplace with no protection means just one more opportunity to be a loser and even less likelihood that anyone is going to help them back to their feet. People who have never known real love or security or affection.
There are people all around us who know only to well what it is like to be made to live on the fringes of society like these ten lepers. And you can see in this story the fears they have after years of being pushed away. They have heard of Jesus reputation and they are desperate for his help but they keep their distance and don't risk being pushed back again. They stand back at the socially prescribed distance and cry out for help. Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!
Now Jesus does a strange thing at this point. He doesn't lay hands on them, or ask them if they have faith, or order the leprosy to leave them or anything like that. He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Obeying this instruction would have been a big step of faith for these ten leprosy sufferers. You don't go and show yourselves to the priests until you've been healed, and yet that is all they are told to do. Not even go and wash yourselves in the Jordan River, or go and put mud on your sores, just go and show yourselves to the priests, just as you are. They know only too well that they are not going to be allowed anywhere near the priests while they are still showing signs of leprosy. But that is what Jesus tells them to do, so in a significant display of trust, off they go.
And, says Luke, as they went, they were made clean. We don't know how, and neither did they; they just were. Sometimes healing happens like that for us. It is as we set about living as though we were clean that we become clean. It doesn't always happen that way but it didn't always happen that way with Jesus either.
But I think it does happen a bit like that sometimes with us. It is amazing how sometimes when we are treated as though we were responsible we become responsible. Or if you treat someone as though they were capable they become capable. Sometimes we are a bit like those lepers, standing at a distance expecting to be rejected. Not really believe in ourselves because we think no-one else believes in us. And sometimes it is when people are treated as though they can do things that they discover for the first time that they actually can.
Perhaps you have some examples of how you or someone you know only found out they could do something when someone encourage you to have a go???
But that's not the end of the story as Luke told it. The really interesting stuff is still to come.
Luke tells us that as the ten headed off, they were made clean. And then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Have you ever been to one of those kid's theatre shows where you are supposed to boo loudly every time the villain appears on the stage. Well that is a bit like the way Jewish audiences reacted every time a Samaritan came into the story. If you are really trying to shock, and even offend people, you make a Samaritan the hero of your story. I don't think you'll have to think too hard to realize that this is not the only time that Jesus did that.
Then Jesus asked, Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and praise God except this foreigner? The word foreigner doesn't really carry enough weight to our ears. It was much more shocking to a first century Jew. Was none of them found to return and praise God except this social and religious alien? Was none found except this member of a despised, rebellious and godless race? Is this the only one who can acknowledge what God has done for them?
And then comes what I reckon is the really interesting bit of this story. Jesus says to him, Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. Most of you are thinking What's so amazing about that? That is what Jesus always says when he heals people. Well fair comment, but... Listen again to who he says it to and when he says it. How many people were healed? Ten. And how many people did he say Your faith has made you well to? One. And yet it doesn't read as though this is only because there was only one there to say it to. It reads as though Jesus is distinguishing between this one and the other nine.
So what could that mean? Surely Jesus is not saying that this one was healed by his faith and that the other nine were healed without faith. That seems pretty unlikely. It seems to me that Jesus is distinguishing between the physical healing that all ten received and the being made well that this one experienced. All ten were made clean but only one was made well.
What do you think this distinction could mean???
It seems to me that all to often we think the job is done when we've only got half way. Too often Christians have been seen as only concerned about the destiny of a person's soul and apathetic about their physical and social needs. This story warns us against the opposite extreme of just addressing the obvious problem and offering nothing more. I think that we Christians who work among the poor and needy are notorious for this. We give drugs to the sick, or food to the hungry, or a room to the homeless, and we think we've done the job. I'm not knocking those things, they certainly need to be done and we need to be doing them. But if the sick are cured but lonely, the hungry are fed but destitute, and the homeless are sheltered but emotionally distraught, then they haven't been made well.
Jesus calls us to be committed to the whole person. These ten didn't just have leprosy. They were also social and religious outcasts. They had not been welcomed or accepted by anyone for who knows how long. And for some reason it was only the most outcast one of them all, the Samaritan leper, who came back to Jesus in gratitude and found something more.
I am not one who says Come to Jesus and all your problems will disappear. You and I know too many beautiful Christians who still have serious thorns in their flesh for us to be able to say anything like that with integrity. But I do believe that gratitude to the God who heals us, and entering into a fuller relationship with Jesus Christ is an important part of growth to wholeness. That is what happened here for this person. His leprosy was cured and he recognized it as the work of God and responded in a fuller way to it. He recognized where his healing came from and returned to worship God and to give thanks. And Jesus said that his faith made him well.
The Holy Spirit is at work everywhere, calling people towards wholeness. Some respond, some don't. We are being called towards wholeness, both as individuals and as a community, and we are being called to be part of the offer of healing and wholeness to others.
This is part of the challenge for us here. Both for our own healing and growth and for our mission in the world. Our mission groups will not normally be targeting specifically spiritual concerns, but you can't totally separate them either. The Youth Outreach mission group runs the Kidz Club, seeking to meet recreational and social needs of local kids, but a few of the kids may turn out to be like this one man who saw the possibility of something more. The new group forming to look at housing issues will no doubt see any number of people who will see us as just functionaries doing a practical task. But if one in ten saw the possibility of something more holistic through us, then our strike rate would be as good as that of Jesus in this story.
It's a whole package. Don't measure success by the number who come back to say thanks. Jesus doesn't down play the value of having the basic problem healed. God desires our healing and growth at every level, and anything accomplished at the level of basic physical needs is life giving and liberating and is therefore an act of partnership with the life-giving God. But hopefully we can sometimes nurture that progress and encourage people to broaden it to every area of their lives. Just as we have found greater fullness of life in responding to the fuller offer of God's goodness and love, so to we hope to become a community of healing in which people can hear the Spirit's call to wholeness and find the support and inspiration they need to respond to that call.