Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-15; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
In spite of the fact that they followed Jesus’ directions to the letter, we learn today that these nine missed out on something. When the tenth leper came back and gave thanks, Jesus told him, “Your faith has made you well.” That last word in Greek, the one that the NRSV translates “has made you well,” is actually a pretty special word. For Christians today, it’s a loaded word. The word has a range of meanings, from being made well to being healed or rescued, but the most direct translation is to be saved. Jesus told the leper, “Your faith has saved you.”
Here, a snarky Lutheran pastor might explain how this is a perfect example of how following the Law and the commandments isn’t enough to be saved, that we are instead saved by grace through faith, like that the tenth leper showed! Such a pastor might have a good point, but would still fall somewhat short of the message St. Luke is probably hoping we will take from this story. The leper is saved by God’s grace, and he does experience that grace through his faithful act of giving thanks. However, hearing in this story simply the exhortation to “have more faith” transforms faith into some sort of work that we must achieve; the story becomes an admonishment to “believe harder,” which is, I think, the wrong thing to get from this.
What I notice when I read this story is that it comes immediately on the heels of our gospel lesson from last weekend, the lesson in which Jesus uses the example of a servant. “Who among you,” he asks his disciples, “would say to a slave who has just come in from the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you do what you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
It occurs to me that the nine other lepers in this story treat Jesus like the slave that has only done what he ought to have done: they asked him to cleanse them, and he did—end of story. Jesus asks, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” Their answer is no.
The trouble with a score-keeper God is that such a God does only what such a God ought to do. The job of that God is to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. If that God gives you a place in heaven for being a good person and following all the rules, do you give thanks? Of course not! That God is a worthless slave, doing only what that God ought to have done. The true master in that scenario is each individual person, who has the power to make their own choices and to demand of God whatever rewards or punishments we deserve.
The tenth leper in this story, on the other hand, when he sees that he has been cleansed, recognizes it for what it is: grace. He knows that he has no right to ask, nor any reason to expect Jesus to act. St. Luke makes sure to point out that he is a Samaritan. Perhaps this is the reason he is able to recognize the grace of the situation: unlike the other (presumably Jewish) lepers, who might assume that a Jewish rabbi would help them, the Samaritan—a foreigner—can make no such assumptions.
I think that in the case of this Samaritan leper, being ‘saved’ means recognizing his need for God’s help, which helps him comprehend God’s willingness to give it. Jesus didn’t heal the man because he asked, but because Jesus wanted to. By recognizing that God is not a score-keeper to be persuaded or bought, he actually learns something new about God: he learns how much God loves him—enough to cure his leprosy. And that is cause for giving thanks.
If this is the case, perhaps what we can take from this story is that it is not obedience or strength of character or pure intentions that make God love us. In fact, God doesn’t love us because of anything about who we are, but because of who God is. God loves because God is love; to love creatures such as us is in God’s very nature. God gives eternal life not as a reward, but because giving life is what God delights in doing. This is what St. Paul means when he says that when we are faithless, God is faithful, because God cannot deny God’s self.
Eternal life, then, is not salvation. Eternal life is simply God’s promise; it’s not a reward, not a bribe for good behavior. If eternal life is all we’re in this for, then we are free to hurry on our way, like those nine other lepers off to see the priests. I think that there is something much more interesting, much more important, that this story is opening our eyes to see: the power of God’s love.
Naaman experienced that power at the Jordan. Paul experienced it on the road to Damascus. It is a love that has the ability to heal and cleanse, to forgive sins, to change a person from the inside out. But most importantly, it is a love that God freely chooses to give us who so seldom deserve it. Naaman’s arrogance very nearly caused him to miss out on experiencing that love. Paul was so grateful to have finally recognized it that he was happy to endure beatings, imprisonment and worse if he could only help others to know it. “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory,” he writes.
Paul’s own story reminds us that this glory is not the glory of a conquering warrior or a mighty ruler, but the glory of a man dying on a cross to embody the love of God in the world. In that image, we see the true power of this love: the power to give up all things because we have been given so much more than we could ever lose; the power to redeem evil itself into a force for good. To be saved is to be given the power to love as God loves—to love with one’s whole being, even to the last breath—because we have seen the power of God’s love to save the world from itself.
That isn’t a love we can muster up on our own. We need help; we need to be first cleansed of our fears and hatreds and prejudices, then nursed on that love as we mature in it. That is exactly the help—the salvation, the healing, the rescue—that Jesus gives us in this community. Here, our sins are washed away in the waters of baptism, and we are suckled at this table with the very milk of grace. Here, we are washed in this love and fed on this love and taught by this love, here we proclaim this love and sing this love and pray this love until the day when this love will finally transform the earth, giving eternal life to all creation.
I like to think that this is what the leper saw; not his own clean skin, but the care and concern that Jesus had for him. In his healing, perhaps he even glimpsed the promise of the healing of the world. Regardless, what he saw was not a man doing what he was asked, but person who cared, showing him a God who cared. And that is the salvation that each and every one of us has the power to show the world.