We Need More Than Healing: Luke 17:9-11

21st Sunday after Pentecost: Oct. 9,2016

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. AS he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

I just started reading a new book called Love, Henri. It is a compilation of letters written by Henri Nouwen, a beloved Catholic theologian and writer whose books have helped to enrich and deepen my faith.His other writings are why I am making the time to read it even in the midst of the craziness of my current schedule.

But my excitement about the book does not eliminate the craziness, which is why I felt like the foreward to the book was speaking right to my heart. Brene Brown, the vulnerability researcher who wrote the foreward, talks about two interwoven themes she found in the letters.

  • Loving and listening to God; and

  • Carving-out God-centered time in our lives.

Listening, and time. She talks about wanting to be someone who lives by that pattern, but also how, in the twenty years since Nouwen died, life has just been getting faster and faster. And how, in those same twenty years, listening to the ever-more strident and divisive voices from all sides is getting harder and harder. She sums up the experience she has found in her own life and in her research in this way:

“The combination of time scarcity and not listening has made being present with God, ourselves, and each other almost impossible.”

I deeply resonate with this description, and I expect many of you can as well. We may be able to imagine an idealized reality, where every day begins with quiet, focused immersion in prayer, and where this discipline reforms our spirit to respond to the people and challenges we meet with love and hope… but that ideal feels so unachievable that it’s only consequence in our real lives can be to shame us with our failure.

In REALITY – my faith activities are far too often a matter of necessities. What do I need God to do in me today so that I can get through everything that is on my plate? It can feel like a crisis mentality of Christianity. A problem-solving, fire-drill faith, rather than a patient, lifelong discipleship in pursuit of wholeness.

So, when I read the story of the healing of the ten lepers, I find myself identifying with the nine, rather than the one. I see myself in the nine, who – after all – knew they needed something from God, and asked for it, and then got busy with their lives when that request was granted, because… wasn’t that the point?

If you are anything like me, there is a moment of indignation when Jesus implies criticism of the nine lepers for not returning. After all, they were doing what he told them to do! He told them to go and present themselves to the priest, and they went – absent any sign of healing, they had enough faith to ask him to act, and then to follow his commandment even while they were still afflicted.

He never told them to come back when they were healed, so why are they being blamed for continuing to the priest? Plus, they actually were healed, so by Jesus’ own formula –“your faith has made you well” - shouldn’t we proclaim that they had faith? They were made well. Why the contrast?

Why indeed. It does not seem to even be consistent with the story, much less to be a fair to the nine.Clearly, we need wrestle with what Jesus’ final proclamation in this story really means.

In four separate healing stories told in Luke’s gospel, Jesus makes this same proclamation in the Greek text, although it is sometimes translated as “your faith has saved you, instead of “your faith has made you well.” It is really easy to read this proclamation as a causal statement. “Because you have faith… God heals, or God saves.”

Such a reading is understandable, but it can have disastrous consequences.

It can feed the culture of faith healing that blames the sick, or their families, for a failure of faith.

It can lead to cultic practices that refuse proper medical treatment in the belief that seeking healing from any source other than God signals unbelief.

And, in less obvious but still destructive ways, it can make faith into a work that we perform to deserve God’s love and care.

But faith is NOT our work, it is a gift. The Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast.”[1]

The giftedness of faith is at the very center of our Lutheran confessions. By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Faith is NOT something we perform in order to demonstrate our worthiness. Faith is something we receive by the working of God’s Spirit in our lives.

But if that’s true… what does Jesus mean? Why does he question the failure of the nine to return, and say exclusively to the one “your faith has made you well?”

I think the wellness Jesus is talking about, is not what we expect.

It is clearly NOT physical healing – all ten lepers had received that healing already.

And it is also clearly NOT a pronouncement of earned salvation – Not unless Martin Luther and 499 years of the church have been utterly wrong about the full witness of scripture.

So what is the wellness Jesus is talking about?

I wonder if maybe it is the wellness that Henri Nouwen talks about in his letters, when he calls us to the practices of loving and listening to God, and carving out God-centered time in our lives.

Because that’s what I see in the prostrated worship of the one leper who returned.

In the first encounter with Jesus, the text tells us, the ten kept their distance.

Now, there were very good reasons for them to do so – as lepers they were outcasts, who were ritually unclean, possibly contagious, and forbidden to approach others.

In fact, the reason Jesus sent them to the priests was because only the priests could confirm their healing and restore their right to be reintegrated into the community.

And so, again, I am sympathetic with the nine. After their healing what they would clearly believe that they most NEEDED was the priest – so that they could be declared clean and have a right to re-enter their communities, their lives.

Who can blame them for rushing off to do just that? But the rush to meet their next, urgent need meant they missed out on the chance to draw near to Jesus.

Jesus was just passing through, on his way to Jerusalem. This was their one chance fall at his feet. To praise God in the flesh. To turn toward Jesus, not because they needed something from him, but just to say “thank you!”

Clearly, our response to God is not what generates our healing, or our salvation, or our worthiness in God’s eyes. But turning toward God – for more than the currently-needed miracle – changes us. Just close your eyes for a moment and see the leper in his two postures.

First standing far-off, afraid to approach – yelling across the distance just asking for one concrete act of assistance.

And then, by grace through faith, drawing near to throw himself at Jesus’s feet in adoration. Seeking nothing but the chance to say “thank you.”

And that “thank you”, I believe, is the wellness Jesus is talking about. Because that “thank you” is a restoration of relationship.

As one commentator describes it “(the healed leper) praises God, and recognizes his utter dependence on God for his well-being…. Wholeness is more than just a physical cure; it emerges from an intimate relationship to our healing God.”[2]

And that kind of wholeness is what I hear hinted at in Henri Nouwen’s letters too.

In one of those letters he offers this advice:

“We should live in the present, where love can touch us.”

I always get a little nervous about “shoulds” in Christian theology, because it is so, so tempting to slip into the belief that we have to save ourselves. But neither Nouwen, nor Jesus, are talking about effecting restored relationship with God. They are talking about what it looks like; how that relationship changes our posture toward God.

Listening, and time.

Falling at the feet of our savior, not because we need something from him, but because we just need Jesus.

In the rush, and the craziness, and clamor of this world, can we stop the never-ending scramble? Can we turn from our focus on the next urgent need? Can we take time to just listen? Not because we need something, but rather because it changes us?

I know how hard it can feel to make God-centered time in our lives, but I wonder whether that might be what it looks like to experience the gift of faith that makes us well.

Amen.

[1] Ephesians 2:8-9, New International Version

[2] Bruce Epperly, The Adventurous Lectionary – October 9, 2016 – The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost.

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