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Dear Friends in Christ,
I want you to think of some familiar Bible stories. Think about the Centurion who came to Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman who came to Jesus. What do those two stories have in common? You might think, they both came to Jesus asking for healing for someone else, a servant and a daughter. You might remember that they were both non-Jews. But did you realize that these are the only two people in the Bible that Jesus holds up for us a having great faith?
Now think about these incidents from Jesus’ life. A notoriously sinful woman crashes a party and anoints Jesus’ feet. A blind man begging alongside the road learns that Jesus is passing by and he calls out to Jesus, but is told to be quiet. A woman in the crowd thinks that, if only she can touch Jesus’ robe her chronic illness will be healed. It is. When Jesus stops to ask who touched him, his disciples think it’s a foolish question at first. What do these incidents have in common? That’s a little harder to see. Two are miraculous physical healings, one is a pronouncement of forgiveness, but in all three cases the person Jesus speaks to is looked down on by those around them. And in each case, Jesus says to that person who is looked down on by others what he says to the Samaritan leper. He says, Your faith has healed you, or the more literal translation in all these cases is, your faith has saved you.
What is faith? In catechism class you probably learned that faith has three parts, knowledge, acceptance and trust. You can’t believe in, or trust in, someone or something if you don’t even know it exists. Paul asks, how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And there are lots of things you hear about every day that you don’t necessarily believe- things people brag about, or stories in the news you are pretty sure are fake, or at least biased half-truths. Faith is having knowledge of something, accepting what you have heard to be true, and then trusting, being so confident in what you believe that you are willing to defend or even die for it. Having that kind of faith in something, having that kind of faith in Jesus, a faith that is willing to publicly defend and even die for what you believe usually is something that has to be developed in you through testing. Like a muscle, faith grows and becomes stronger when tested.
Consider the ten lepers. They are an interesting group. They may have been from different villages all along the border of Samaria and Galilee. Normally they would never have hung out together, certainly not with the Samaritan among them, but one thing drew them together. They all had the incurable disease of leprosy which meant that they could not live in villages with healthy people. They had to live in caves, or in some kind of shelter that was far enough away from where everyone else lived so that they would not infect others with their disease. Misery loved company. Since they all had the disease they could live together, maybe pool their talents and resources, and make a little better life than they would have had living all alone. Their common predicament even allowed them to overcome the deep-seated prejudice that existed between Jews and Samaritans.
Somehow, they had heard about Jesus of Nazareth. They must have heard about all the miracles he was performing; perhaps even that he had healed others who had leprosy. They must have heard that he was traveling nearby and they decided to go together, as a group, to see if Jesus would heal them. When they got close enough for Jesus to hear them, but not so close that they would break the law about keeping their distance from non-lepers, they called out loudly, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!
Was this faith? It was certainly hope. They certainly realized that there was nothing they could do that would cure them. Maybe some just looked at it in the sense of “what do we have to loose? What’s the worst that could happen? If the Jesus refuses to talk to us, or if he is unable to heal us, we are no worse off than we are now. But what if he is able, what if he does heal us?” Were they trusting that Jesus was God in the flesh, their savior from sin; or maybe just a prophet like Elisha who had healed Naaman of his leprosy? We don’t know what was in their hearts, but it seems likely that whatever faith they might have had was shaky, certainly in its infancy; a spark, not a fire.
What was Jesus’ reaction to their request for mercy, which certainly implied, “please heal us?” He told them to go show themselves to the priests.
Now they understood this to be an implied promise. There was only one reason to go show yourself to the priest. It was a priest’s job to inspect a leper’s skin and decide whether or not that leper was healed. It was a test, a challenge from Jesus, a way for them to show their trust. They might have preferred to have Jesus heal them first, after all, what if they got to the priest and they were not healed? Wouldn’t it make more sense for Jesus to say, “Ok, you are healed. Now, go show yourself to the priest so that he can declare you clean and you can return to your homes and families?” But Jesus told them to go before they were healed, while they still had leprosy. He challenged them to have faith; to trust his implied promise that if they did what he said they would be healed before they got to the priest. It was similar to Elisha telling Naaman to wash 7 times in the Jordan to be healed of his leprosy. He challenged him to trust that he was speaking God’s word and to do something that seemed foolish. In both cases, when Naaman washed in the Jordan, when the ten turned and headed off to show themselves to the priests, their leprosy was healed. And when they realized they were healed, faith grew.
You have probably experienced something similar. Maybe you came to God with a request, for healing from an illness, or for some blessing, or help with or the resolution of some problem you were facing. You had faith. You knew who God was and you believed that he could help you. Maybe, like the Lepers, you came out of desperation thinking “I tried everything else, maybe I’ll ask God to help me,” realizing that you should have come to him first. Your faith was a little shaky. You wondered if God would hear and answer. Maybe it seemed at first that he wasn’t going to answer and you thought, “maybe I shouldn’t have even asked.” And then, he did something even better than you could have expected. Your heart was filled with joy. Your faith grew as you realized it was not misplaced. God really does exist, he is able to do all things. He hears and answers prayer! And then you went about your life just as you had before. NO?
The fact that Jesus didn’t heal these Lepers right away and then send them to the priests, but sent them on their way and then healed them, provided another test for faith. How would they respond when they were healed, when their prayer for mercy was answered beyond their wildest dreams? Imagine what must have happened, Scripture doesn’t give us the details. Imagine that suddenly, one after the other of the ten, realizes they have been healed. They must have stopped in their tracks. They must have cried out to each other, “Look, I’m healed! Look, I have feeling in my fingers and toes! Look, all those scaly spots on my skin are gone- it’s pink and healthy like a new born baby!” How they must have jumped for joy and celebrated! “I’m running to the priest as fast as I can so that I can be allowed to go home to my wife and kids,” one might have said. “I can’t wait to get to rejoin my fellow shepherds and see how the flocks have grown while I’ve been gone,” another might have said. But one said, “I’m going back right now to tell Jesus thank you.” Maybe the rest even ridiculed him for it, but he returned. A few minutes earlier he could not get close to Jesus and he had to call out loudly to anyone who came near, “Unclean, unclean!” Now he fell at Jesus’ feet and gave thanks and praise to God loudly, for all to hear. He would not return to his life before leprosy until he personally expressed his thanks to the one who had heard his prayer and healed him. Jesus had tested his faith, and his faith had grown to the point where God, and giving God thanks and praise, was the most important thing in his life, his first priority.
In coming back and falling down before Jesus it seems that this man was acknowledging that Jesus was more than a healer. It seems to be and acknowledgment that Jesus is the Messiah, his savior. The other nine, like the priest and the Levite who passed by the man who had been beaten and robbed and left for dead, made the required ceremonies of the law more important than giving thanks to Jesus, or acknowledging him to be what their healing proved him to be, the Son of God, the promised Messiah; not just their healer but the savior from sin. And he, the one who returned to give thanks, was a Samaritan. He was the one with great faith. He was the one to whom Jesus says, your faith has saved you.
Is there something for us to take to heart from the fact that those who were singled out by Jesus as having great faith were gentiles, and those to whom Jesus says, your faith has saved you, were looked down on by others? Isn’t it a warning to us not to take our faith, our position as “faithful Christians” for granted? Faith grows when it is challenged. It grows when something makes us realize that we can’t help or save ourselves so that we come to Jesus for mercy. Faith grows when Jesus doesn’t just wave a magic wand but gives us a promise and says, “Trust Me.” Faith grows when it is obvious that Jesus has kept his promises, when he answers our prayers. What will we do? Will we act as if that answer was expected? Will we act as if a blessing was deserved? Jesus asked, where are the nine?
Like the thankful leper, as our faith grows through testing, may we be moved to acknowledge before all who Jesus is. He is the Son of God, not a genie in a bottle who grants wishes, not just a healer of our physical ills, but the promised Savior. He is the only one who gives forgiveness for all the times we have been ungrateful, or taken our many blessings or granted, or acted as if we deserved something from God because of who we are or what we have done. Like the thankful leper, may we be moved to fall at Jesus’ feet every day and say “Thank you Lord for coming to earth to live and die in my place, and for rising from the dead so that I can be sure that my sins are forgiven.” Then, Jesus is able to say of us, you have great faith, your faith has saved you because I, the one and only savior, am the one in whom you trust for everything good.