What’s the moral of the story? What is the point of today’s Gospel? I know what your answer is: be thankful. Is that all today’s Gospel is, another voice reinforcing your mom’s voice that echoes in your head: “Say thank you to the nice man!” No!! This Gospel is not a moral tale, a lesson from Miss Manners. Today’s Gospel is about faith and what it does. Faith wants Jesus. Faith forsakes the things of the flesh and of this world if it means being with Jesus.
The leper’s life was not an easy one. Once leprosy was diagnosed, the person was isolated. For seven days at a time, the person had to live alone. Every seven days they showed themselves to the priest, who determined the state of the leprosy. As long as the leprosy remained, he remained in isolation. But not just in isolation. They had to live outside the camp, completely apart from anyone else. And should someone come near them, they had to shout out “Unclean! Unclean!” so the person would keep their distance. Even if you didn’t die from leprosy right away, it was a sort of death. You left your family, friends, community, vocation—everything. You lived outside the city limits, with only fellow lepers. Everything you knew before was gone, and to your family you had to be counted as dead. They couldn’t go visit you, lest they be counted as unclean and have to go through costly sacrifices to be made clean.
So, those other nine who were healed and made clean, were they less thankful than the one Samaritan because they didn’t say “thank you” to Jesus? I don’t think you can argue that in any convincing way. I think their actions show their thankfulness. Look again at what they did: as soon as Jesus said “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” they did it. They knew this meant resurrection and restoration. They got to go back home! They got to reunite with spouses, parents, children, friends. So, just because they didn’t do what the one Samaritan did doesn’t mean they aren’t thankful. I’m sure if we could go back in time and be a fly on the wall, we would see that they were just as thankful as that Samaritan.
So why commend this Samaritan? Why praise him for returning to give glory to God? Because this Samaritan saw in Jesus the merciful God. He realized all of that could wait, life back in his community and everything else. He had found God! He wanted to be with Him. He confessed with his actions that the only thing he truly needed was standing there in front of him.
This shows us that the faith, that being a Christian, isn’t just saying thank you to God once and then going on with your life. True thanksgiving, the true Christian life is doing exactly what the Samaritan leper did. It looks outside of itself and to the work of Jesus. Faith has as its object the Blood of Jesus who atones for our sins, whose strong Word carries us through the valley of the shadow of death, whose resurrection and ascension guarantees the resurrection and ascension of our own leprous, decayed bodies, transformed into the likeness of His glorious body.
The other nine lepers were content to go to Jerusalem and back into their former lives. But one figured it out. “This Jesus who healed me, that’s where I want to live!” So when he returns to give thanks to Jesus, he’s not being polite and saying “thank you.” He is saying “Lord Jesus, You are the object of my faith, the One who shows mercy and compassion. You are God in the flesh. You healed my leprosy, but Your cross will heal my sin, an You only can keep me from bitter death and the agonies of hell. Heaven is where You are, and there is where I want to be! Having You, I don’t want or need anything else. Take me with you, through the resurrection of the body to the life of the world to come!”
And that’s exactly what we should think when we come to the Sacrament. That’ why we sing after: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” Like the leper, we have been ruined, cut off from God, and estranged from our neighbors. Our sins destroy us from the inside out and harm our relationships with all around us. Our sinful nature wreaks havoc within our bodies. The wages of sin is death, and it is creeping upon us always. We come to the Supper and confess, “Jesus, I am lost and afflicted by sin. I know that I deserve death and hell, grief and shame. I have no excuse for my sinful life. And nothing in this world can forgive me or sustain me, nothing I can do can fix this problem. Jesus, Master, have mercy on me!
“Save me from my flesh, from this world, from this hell I deserve. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Speak the word and my soul shall be healed. Wash me with Your Baptism. Nourish me with Your Body. Refresh me with Your Blood. Absolve me. And at the last, carry me home in those same arms once stretched out in death to deliver me from death.”
And He does. He answers every prayer for mercy. He saves you from sin, He cuts out the leprosy of sin, death, separation from God and one another. In His mercy, you are forgiven. In His mercy, you are restored. In His mercy, you are given eternal life. So like that leper, you can give glory to God because He has made you well. Your faith has received His gifts. And that faith has given you the greatest gift your God gives: eternal life with Him.