11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
They were far off, as they should have been. These ten lepers are being devoured by death. Their skin is rotting, so they should be separate from the rest of society. Together the little congregation of ten lepers lift up their voices, “Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us.” When they cry out for mercy, what were they asking for? Did they want some food, water, or money? Were they crying out for healing? Did they know that Jesus was a miracle worker and had cleansed lepers before? We don’t know, and maybe the lepers didn’t even know themselves.
What is important is that they were asking the right one – Jesus – for the right thing – mercy. God in His mercy answers imperfect and imprecise prayers in exactly the right way. In fact, “Have mercy,” is the perfect prayer. “Lord, have mercy,” distills everything you need down to a single petition. Mercy is always what you need.
When you feel guilt over your sin, “Lord, have mercy.” When you, or someone you love and care about, is sick, “Lord, have mercy.” When your bank account is deep in the red, “Lord, have mercy.” When your car breaks down again, “Lord, have mercy.” When a hurricane kills hundreds in Haiti and is swallowing up a region of our nation, “Lord, have mercy.”
When you stub your toe. When you are running late for that important appointment because you had to scrape frost off your windshield. When you are worried that beets are going to fall out of the truck, smash through your windshield, and kill you. Whenever you don’t know what to pray, when you can’t find the ‘right’ words, when you don’t see how anything good could come from a particular situation, “Lord, have mercy,” is always appropriate. Because that petition is asking God to be who He says He is. The most common description of God throughout Scripture is that He is the God who has mercy (Ex. 34:6).
Jesus sees the lepers. He doesn’t ignore them. He doesn’t walk by on the other side of the road. He hears them and answers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Now, their leprosy had made them unclean; they couldn’t go to the Temple unless they were healed. So their going is actually evidence of their faith. They obey Jesus expecting that they are going to be healed and begin the necessary steps to be declared cleansed (see Lev. 13:2-14:32) – a process that took around three months. You had to do all the right sacrifices and certifications. Then, and only then, could you return to your family, your job, your worship.
But one of them doesn’t go. It is somewhat surprising that he doesn’t go, but he couldn’t do what Jesus told him to do anyway because he was a Samaritan. No matter how healed he got from his leprosy, Jesus could have made his skin fairer than Snow White, he wasn’t going to be declared clean and fit to enter into the Temple and worship.
This Samaritan starts off to Jerusalem with the other nine, but as he travels, he notices that he is clean. The disease is gone, his body healed. So he returns to Jesus which looks like he is disobeying, but he’s not. This Samaritan realizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the one to whom the priests and sacrifices and Temple were pointing. He returns to Jesus the true, great High Priest, to the Temple built without hands (Mk. 14:58). He falls at the feet of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world who has shown him mercy.
What about the nine? Why didn’t they return? They had been cleansed. They had been healed. They too had received mercy. But they disappear, and we have no idea what happened to them.
Martin Luther has an interesting theory about why. The theory fits in well with the context of the beginning of Luke 17 (our text from last week) where Jesus says, “Temptations to sin (scandals, things that destroy your faith) are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”
Luther’s theory goes like this: These nine, cleansed Jewish lepers come into the Temple to show themselves to the priests and tell their story. “We cried out for mercy to that Jesus guy, and He just told us to show ourselves you and, wholla.” But the priests, out of their bitterness, hard hearts, and unbelief, convince these men that it wasn’t really Jesus who had healed them. They point the lepers that their own prayers or piety had healed them. “Whatever it was that healed you, it couldn’t have been Jesus.”
Again, we can’t know, but it certainly is an interesting theory. The priests knew the Scriptures. They were looking for the Messiah who was promised – the one who would heal diseases, cast out demons, set the prisoners free. All the stuff that Jesus was doing. So why wouldn’t they believe in Jesus when everything is pointing to Him being the Messiah?
Because when people won’t repent, they recruit. When people are afraid to believe that God really, truly forgives, they make excuses and try to justify their sin. They select a jury of their peers to rule in their favor – even though, when judgment day comes, they won’t stand on trial before a jury but a Judge. And the easiest way to convince yourself not to believe something is to find strength in numbers. If you can align yourself with other people who don’t believe what you don’t believe, it is easier to believe a lie. That’s why atheists evangelize. If atheists really believed there was no God, they wouldn’t care if others do. But atheists find comfort and security when more people share in their atheism. They find shelter in en masse.
Whatever it was that lead the nine Jewish lepers away from Jesus, it killed their faith. Believer, you too will face obstacles to your faith. Will they trip you up like the nine? Will you, like the nine, go on your merry little way, content with just one word from Jesus? Jesus doesn’t want that.
Instead, Christ wants you turning back to Him, always crying to Him, “Lord, have mercy,” because that is who He is for you. He is the place where you find mercy. On this side of glory, faith is never satisfied. Faith wants more of what Jesus gives and wants to be where Jesus has promised to be. In this life, there will be disappointments, sorrows, and plenty of reasons for repentance. But faith continually turns back to Jesus and cries out, “Lord, have mercy.” And Jesus’ mercy endures forever.
Jesus’ statement at the end of this text hits on this too. Our translation misses it. What gets translated “Rise and go your way,” is only two words in the Greek. The word Jesus uses for ‘rise’ is also the word for ‘resurrection.’ And what gets translated as ‘go your way’ can either mean ‘go’ or ‘come.’ And it would be really odd for Jesus to praise the Samaritan for coming back and then tell him to go away. Instead, Jesus is calling the man to journey with Him to Jerusalem where he will see Jesus’ love and mercy. And the last phrase, “your faith has made you well,” is a curious translation. Literally the word there is ‘saved’ – “your faith has saved you.”
So, Jesus invites this man and you, to follow Him. To stay with Him as He continues to travel toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. Because there at the cross, you see God’s mercy for you on full display. You see your salvation purchased with the holy and innocent blood of Christ. You see Jesus, the one who had mercy upon you, the one who still has mercy upon you, the one whose mercy for you endures forever. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.