To Be Sure
A sermon on Luke 17:11-19 & 2 Timothy 2:8-15
by the Revd Dr Frank C. Senn, Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Evanston, IL, USA
while visiting with us on 10 October 2004

Dear friends and fellow members of the body of Christ, I come to you today not just as an American but as a minister of the gospel with the responsibility to expound today’s readings as the word of God to us today.

If I were back home I would be expounding these same texts today in the context of my own congregation’s life and mission. I cannot pretend to know your context. But there’s a value also in knowing that some things are true and right no matter what context we find ourselves in.

As a Lutheran pastor I take guidance in my proclamation of the gospel from Martin Luther’s Catechisms, which we also drum into the heads of our youth. I've always been impressed with the litany-like phrases in Luther's Small Catechism that make his explanations so memorable and also so enduring. Repeating things over and over again is not only good pedagogy, it is good formation. That’s the value of liturgy, an established order of worship that we can do over and over again, being formed by its truth and values no matter what our feelings are on a particular day.

In his Small Catechism, Luther writes that we obey each of the Ten Commandments because "we should fear and love God." “We should fear and love God so that...” (And the explanation of each commandment follows). We believe each article of the Creed because "This is most certainly true." When we come to the Lord's Prayer, Luther explains:

To be sure, God's name is holy in itself...
To be sure, the kingdom of God comes of itself, without our prayers...
To be sure, the good and gracious will of God is done without our prayer...
To be sure, God provides daily bread, even to the wicked, without our prayer...

"We should fear and love God." "This is most certainly true." "To be sure!" Powerful words, but sometimes so taken for granted. I guess that's what's at the heart of today's gospel: taking for granted the gifts of God, especially God’s routine gifts that he gives over and over again..

Luke, who must have had an ear for good stories, is the only evangelist who gave us the episode of the Thankful Samaritan, just as he alone gave us the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Unjust Steward, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Luke, the only non-Jew among the New Testament writers, had a special interest in outsiders: in Samaritans and shady characters and poor Lazaruses and, in his Acts of the Apostles, the apostleship of Paul and the mission to the gentiles.

The Thankful Samaritan was twice an outsider. He was an outsider, as far as orthodox Jews were concerned, just for being a Samaritan. Enmity between Jews and Samaritans had been brewing for centuries. The Samaritans were the remnant of the ten northern tribes of Israel who survived the fall of Israel to King Sargon II of Assyrian in 722 B.C. They retained their own Israelite heritage: their own version of the Five Books of Moses and their own Passover festival and other customs. In 586 B.C. the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians, and many of its leaders and people were carried off into exile. During the years of Exile the Jews, building a new life in Babylon and living there in modest comfort, also put together the Pentateuch as we know it today.

When the exiles returned from Babylon in 538 B.C., the Samaritans offered their help in rebuilding the Temple at Jerusalem. Their offer was refused! Thereupon the Samaritans built their own rival sanctuary on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem, where the patriarchs had worshipped. The Samaritans were looked upon as heterodox and illegitimate by the Jews and enmity and strife arose between them. At least one of the ten lepers who cried out to Jesus for mercy was a Samaritan outsider.

He was also an outsider because he was a leper. The Law of the Pentateuch, both Jewish and Samaritan, required him to live "outside the camp." He was "unclean," someone ritually defiled who could not enter the Temple precincts.

Dealing with leprosy was a bit complicated. Strictly speaking, lepers could not be healed. Their disease was a judgment of God against them and only God could heal them. So lepers were not healed by human agency, but they had to be cleansed---just as Naaman the Aramean had to be cleansed by bathing in the Jordan River. The lepers' ritual defilement had to be removed. That required the verification of the priests that they had been healed. Upon the priestly proclamation, the cleansed lepers were restored to the community and its worship and could offer the appointed sacrifice of thanksgiving. The Samaritan, of course, would not go to the priests in Jerusalem. Perhaps he could have gone to the Temple at Gerizim. But instead, "when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him."
In other words, the Samaritan returned to worship the God who had healed him.

The Greek word for "prostration" and "adoration" is the same. Adoration in worship means not just getting down on your knees but touching your forehead to the ground, as Eastern Orthodox worshippers do. That's what the Samaritan did. He got down on his face in adoration of the God who healed him. And what's more remarkable is that Jesus accepted the worship of this outsider.

But he did not accept that Samaritan's worship without wondering about the other nine who continued on their way, undoubtedly rejoicing, and presumably doing what both Jesus commanded and the Law required. There's no evidence that Jesus took back his healing from the "ungrateful nine." Ungrateful though they might have been, they were allowed to keep their gift. We hear in the words of 2 Timothy today, "If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself."

To be sure! Though we are faithless, God remains faithful, even patient and hopeful, for he cannot deny himself. He is the waiting father in the parable misnamed for the prodigal son---also reported only by Luke. The gifts God gives us are real, and they are given without strings attached. They are fully our gifts to use in our freedom.

That is for us both the good news and the bad. It is good news because we can depend on God's gracious faithfulness. It becomes bad news when we turn these gifts to our own selfish uses as if we were among the "ungrateful nine."

To be sure! God gives us seven days a week whether or not we care enough to return to give praise and thanks on the Sabbath. God created the Sabbath for us, not us for the sake of the Sabbath, providing us with rest from the rigours of a daily routine and time to remember, and to be grateful for, all the good gifts of life he has given us and all that he has done for our salvation.

To be sure! God gives us food, clothing, family, friends and all we need in daily life whether or not we are grateful enough to share with those who have less.

To be sure! God has redeemed us, lost and condemned creatures who in our alienation are as outsiders and in our sinfulness are as lepers. He has done so not with silver or gold, Luther writes, but with the holy and precious body and blood of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. And he has done this whether or not we care enough to thank him, praise him, serve him, or obey him.

To be sure! Nine lepers went skipping on to the priests, claiming their gift and celebrating their healing. Many of us, in our own ways, join them! I'm always struck by the fact that in my congregation people are encouraged to write down their prayer requests in the narthex. These are include in the intercessions for the day offered by the lay assisting minister. We receive lots of prayers for the sick, but very few thanksgivings for healing.

We look out for our own interests and bring our requests to God. But we do not live lives of gratitude, which would actually expand our sense of the world in which we live. Yet God does not rescind his gifts. Nor does he withhold them the next time we need them.

Nonetheless, there is a wondering sadness in Jesus' words: "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

All ten were healed of leprosy. One was given still more. He was given a new understanding of the relationship of faith and wholeness because he returned to worship.

Shall we take God's gifts and run? Again and again we claim the gifts and yet are absent from God's house on the Lord's Day. Again and again we claim the gifts and yet are grudging and delinquent in our stewardship. Again and again we claim the gifts and yet are silent in our witness to the One who heals us.

We take God's gifts and run. But he gives them all the same. Though we are faithless, God remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. It is God's nature to be faithful.

As Luther writes in the Small Catechism: "To be sure, God provides daily bread, even to the wicked, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that God may make us aware of his gifts, and enable us to receive them...with thanksgiving." Amen.


If you'd like to read more of Pastor Frank Senn's sermons,
please visit his church's website.