10 October 2004

'The Grateful Leper'

Reading: Luke 17:11-19

Robert Tulip


1. Our Gospel story today tells of the miraculous healing by Jesus Christ of ten lepers in a village near Samaria, during his final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. The lepers stand at a distance, reflecting their outcast status and the perceived danger of infection from their frightening incurable disease. They call on Jesus for mercy, acknowledging him as master. Jesus sends them to see the priests, where their leprosy is miraculously cleaned. Only one of the ten, a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus for healing him. Jesus expresses irritation that the other nine did not see fit to return to praise God for the healing miracle. Only the Samaritan leper, lowest of the low, showed the manners and politeness to acknowledge the source of his recovery. Jesus told the one who returned 'Rise and go your way, your faith has made you well.' The other nine ungrateful lepers blithely went their own separate ways.

2. This story has lessons for how we should help people at the margins of our society today. It is also interesting for the light it sheds on the person of Jesus Christ and the meaning of faith. In this sermon I will first make some comments about Christology and faith, then draw out some contemporary social implications.

3. As the Son of God, Jesus Christ had a wholeness and integrity of personality, which gave him miraculous powers. By focusing the energy of the spirit of God through his complete purity of soul, Jesus was able to perform deeds, which are inconceivable for ordinary people. The source of Jesus' power was his unwavering focus on divine truth and love, always putting the eternal values of God before any selfish desires. He accomplished the holy path more fully than any other person before or since, which is why we celebrate and glorify his name as Lord, Saviour and Messiah.

4. Since observing the wonderful works of Jesus, the church has grappled to understand him and the miraculous intervention of the eternal creator God he represents in our fallen world. The early Christian community came up with the formula of the holy trinity to explain the immensity of what they had seen in Christ. The theology of the trinity explains how God the Father, the eternal and infinite creator and source of all that is, became incarnate on our planet in God the Son, Jesus Christ, our redeemer, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the divine man who brought together God and humanity in his person. The energy of the Father is revealed in the Son, providing ultimate meaning and purpose for our lives. This divine energy continues to reverberate in our world through the Holy Spirit.

5. As you may know, I am a strong believer in science, and I reject literal interpretations of Biblical stories, which have been disproved by science. However, my assessment is that the logical scheme of the trinity is entirely valid as a way of understanding reality, and that many miracles of Christ remain credible and cannot be disproved. Jesus was such a unique character that he was able to harness cosmic forces that are beyond our knowledge. The healing miracles, such as our story today, and other miracles such as walking on water, rising from the dead and changing water to wine at the wedding at Cana, are inconceivable to modern science, but perhaps that is because science is too small in its explanations. I believe there are deep mysteries that our knowledge has barely begun to understand. We see this in the mystical visions of the great scientists, for example in the comment of Werner Heisenberg, the founder of quantum mechanics, that he could never doubt the reality to which religion points.

6. God is truth, so when science discovers truth, such as in the story of evolution, we should look there for an understanding of God, rather than dogmatically holding to old interpretations from pre-scientific days. Similarly, science tells us a decomposed body cannot recompose, so the story of the resurrection of the saints at the last trumpet cannot mean dead bodies emerging from their graves. If anything, it must refer to a spiritual return, as Jesus told the Sadducees in Luke 20:38. Along these scientific lines I would argue the meaning of the virgin birth of Christ must be metaphor rather than literal fact, as a man cannot be fully human without a Y chromosome from his father.

7. A problem with scientific readings of the bible is that the skeptics tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting the divinity of Christ. Their argument is that the Bible stories of creation, the flood and the virgin birth are wrong, so everything should be subject to radical doubt. However, you cannot use the fact that the geological record has disproved the six day creation story of Genesis to disprove the miracles and the resurrection of Christ. The skeptics often follow an empirical dogmatism of their own, invalidly using science to suggest that Jesus is not the Son of God. What could it mean, they ask, where the Letter to the Hebrews says God has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed the heir of all things, upholding the universe by his word of power? What could Paul mean in his letter to the Colossians where he says Christ is the image of the invisible God through whom God is reconciling all things?

8. I believe the challenge for the churches is to develop a coherent theology, firmly grounded in Trinitarian understanding of the cosmic place of Christ and fully compatible with modern scientific knowledge. The problem with science, as I see it, is not in science itself, but in the link to a shallow and amoral secular humanism that lacks a spiritual dimension and is unable to explain how our lives can find a meaning in the immensity of our universe. Against secularity, I suggest we should be actively looking for ways to glorify God, to see how our lives can find a connection to God. The question should be how we as human beings can relate to the immense unknown. Christianity tells us the answer to this question is found in the message of the person who best confronted the human situation with impeccable intent, Jesus Christ. Modern atheists, in dogmatically rejecting the story of Christ, remind me of the nine ungrateful lepers who lacked the sensitivity to see what a stupendous work had been done for them by the grace of God.

9. My purpose in the discussion so far has been to explore the Christological foundations that enabled Jesus to perform his miracles such as healing the lepers. I would now like to illustrate these theological ideas by drawing an analogy between life on earth and a huge river. In this river, we can imagine Christ at the centre of the stream where the current is strongest. As we draw closer to Christ we start to see the big picture of the whole river. Travelling with Christ, we see the immensity and direction of God, with Christ the way the truth and the life, just as the centre of the current is the heart of the river. The vitality and purpose of human life become apparent when we live with Christ, buoyed along on the current of the river of God. As we draw away from Christ we lose the whole perspective of God and become prey to temptation and falsehood. A river has eddies, where the current flows backwards, billabongs where the living water stands still, great chasms where tumbling water crashes on hard rocks, and a mouth where it dissolves in the ocean. With Christ our pilot, our challenge is to navigate the shoals, keeping to the centre of the current and avoiding drift onto the rocks. With due respect to other religions, all can benefit from an honest dialogue with Christianity, because the story of Jesus is the central story of our world, its problems and their solution.

10. Continuing the analogy of the river of life, we could say the crucifixion of Christ is like a big dam across the river, an effort to kill the natural flow by imagining that human ways are superior to the way of God. The crucifixion is a symbol of the pathology of sin in our world. Looking at the river of life, we can see the lack of flow in the problems of sin. Like a big dam, sin reduces the mighty natural power of the river of life to a trickle, diverting the true spirit by ignorant human schemes that serve the immediate pleasure of the creature rather than the long-term purpose of the creator. Meanwhile, the lake is rising behind the dam wall. One day the living water will overwhelm the dam of sin and return our world to harmony with God through the return of Christ.

11. In Romans 1, Saint Paul described the broad pagan mentality of the Empire which allowed Jesus to be killed, saying 'they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.' The Romans 'exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.' This worldly mentality is similar to the behaviour of the nine ungrateful lepers who were too self-absorbed to acknowledge Christ as the source of their healing.

12. The healing of the lepers illustrates the messianic energy of love and peace that Jesus brought into the world. The lepers gained access to his curing power through their faith, which opened up their connection to God, even though they seem to have forgotten about Jesus as soon as they got what they wanted. In a similar way we today can use faith to allow healing energy to flow, unblocking the barriers we hide behind. We see the power of faith in the role of willpower in recovery from illness, where those who have faith and confidence and vision tend to do better than those who lack these qualities, other things being equal.

13. Jesus cured the lepers through the holy power of God. I find this idea of holiness as a healing energy quite intriguing. The old pictures of the saints with their halos illustrate how a luminous aura is developed by a life of holiness, an aura that is preserved and strengthened by purity of soul, and weakened by impurity. We can see luminosity of soul in the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. These gifts of the soul are central to overcoming the mental and spiritual dimensions of illness and sin, and also the physical and social dimensions.

14. In thinking about the ungrateful lepers, and why they behaved as they did, I couldn't help linking their story to the issues of development and poverty facing our world. Firstly of course, the big message is the unconditional compassionate love that Jesus has for the afflicted. The church has a natural solidarity with the oppressed of the world, springing from its mission of love and the instructions Christ gave for sacrifice and service. The ultimate goal is complete liberation from all suffering. However, the question of how we can actually help overcome poverty and oppression is immensely complex. The indifferent reaction of the nine lepers is worth exploring to help understand these complexities and the problems of change today.

15. The challenge of development through overseas aid is to increase wealth and reduce poverty in a way that people can sustain without further external help. To illustrate the complexity of aid, I would like to talk about the well-known saying, 'give people fish and feed them for a day, teach people to fish and feed them for a lifetime.' If we give food as charity, we are certainly helping, but we often create dependency, like rural Aboriginal people on the welfare payments they call sit-down money. The problem with dependency is that it can destroy motivation and skill and can even create an abusive spiral towards death. We have to be very careful in devising policies that will not undermine people's incentives to fix their own problems. The challenge is to care in a way that liberates rather than suffocates.

16. To illustrate the complexity of development, consider the impact of teaching people how to fish, as the saying goes. The trouble is this can still create dependency by ignoring people's own methods and knowledge, and by failing to address all the systemic issues affecting their livelihood. In a fishing community the constraints can include finance, trade, marketing, culture, management, storage, crime, tax, health, literacy, etc. Teaching people to fish is only a very small part of the story of achieving sustainable economic development.

17. Results only last when people control their own lives. This is why Paul told the Romans (5:4) that he rejoices in suffering because it produces patience, experience and hope. Paul saw that the development of the church required a clear-eyed understanding of its situation, honest internal dialogue, and a focus on transforming the world through love rather than denying problems in some escapist way.

18. The ten lepers would not have expected their appeal to Jesus to result in a cure. The healing miracle would have been a big surprise to all of them, and we can well imagine how it must have changed their lives. All of a sudden they would have to work for a living rather than beg. They would still face the distrust of those who knew them as lepers. Even after this help they would still be left in a difficult situation. Like people who prefer to be in prison or begging on the street because that is the life they know despite its problems, the lepers could have a real fear of change.

19. Some people we help here at Kippax Uniting Church face multiple problems and are at risk of falling through the gaps between government and community programs. It is not just a matter of treating one problem and expecting all the others to go away. Our Community Care Worker Bernice Quinn has said the philosophy is to build community by valuing everyone and caring for the whole person, recognising that people need someone to listen to them and provide information, advice and advocacy in a non-judgmental and safe environment. Listening and helping is just a start to enable people to become self-reliant. Without caring for the whole person we run the risk of wasting resources on fixing one problem, only to see people fail for another reason.

20. When Jesus visited that village near Samaria, he had an appointment coming up with Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem that was quite important, so he couldn't wait around to fix the lives of the lepers. Perhaps, considering his reputation as God and King, it is not surprising the lepers didn't all rush back to thank him. They had a lot to process to work out what this healing miracle would mean for their lives. Maybe they were intimidated and thought Jesus would be too busy to worry about seeing them again. Even so, I think Jesus was fair to be irritated and to note that they really should have come back. Showing gratitude and praise is a mark of sensitivity and manners in healthy relationships, and can be a form of prayer to God. Giving thanks encourages openness and communication, whereas failure to acknowledge help can lead to a reluctance on the part of the helper to continue, especially when they feel they are working in an empty void without appreciation.

21. A little thank you from the lepers might not have made much difference to Jesus' morale as he continued his journey to the cross. But seriously, congratulations are important, in little things as much as in life-changing circumstances. I have a feeling that the Samaritan leper who came back to see Jesus again may have been the one of the ten with the most initiative and drive to really make something of his life. His grateful return was an act of courage, grace, humility, decency, respect and courtesy. These are all qualities that can make a big difference in all areas of our lives. The way we behave in little things is often a pointer to our values, and to our behaviour when it really matters. The lesson of the thankful leper provides a model for how we should express our thanks when somebody does something we appreciate.