Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Introduction: Living Thankful Lives
As you know, Thanksgiving is the season during which we reflect on the blessings we’ve received this past year and express our gratitude to God and to each other. On that note: thank you for your gifts, cards, and letters for Pastor Appreciation Month, thank you for the kind words you share with me and my wife Emilia, and thank you for your continued patience toward your new pastor. And I praise God for each of you for the work you do, and for the saving faith He has given each of you.
If you read my article in this month’s newsletter, you might remember my exhortation that we all should practice thankfulness in our daily lives rather than putting on the façade of gratitude for a couple days every year. As I put it in the article:
Ironically, we spend some time saying what we’re thankful for, then we go on a large shopping binge the day after Thanksgiving on Black Friday to get the things we don’t have enough of. After being full on turkey and our self-congratulations for being thankful people for a few hours, we go to the nearest marketplace to gorge on more stuff. Our thankful words don’t match our thankless behaviour.
Our culture doesn’t know what it looks like to live thankful lives before God, and this thankless demeanour has unfortunately seeped its way into the lives of Christians. Thankfully, the Samaritan leper in tonight’s Gospel reading teaches us a few things about giving thanks.
The Thankful Leper was a Marginalised Person
The first point to this leper’s thanksgiving is who he is. First, he’s a leper. The Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-27 taught that lepers were to be separated from everyone else not for the purpose of marginalising them from Jewish culture and society but for practical purposes of preventing other people and homes from getting infected. Call it social distancing if you’d like. This is why the lepers stood at a distance from Jesus. But by Jesus’ day, the Jews had corrupted this law to the point that lepers ended up being social outcasts and were left alone in their affliction.
And second, this leper was a Samaritan. This might not seem significant to us today, but if we were first-century Jews or Gentiles witnessing this event, seeing what this Samaritan did would have astounded us.
You see, Samaritans were Jews of a different ethnicity. The Jewish Samaritans were the result of Jews intermarrying with pagans after their Babylonian captivity. The Jews in Jesus’ day also twisted God’s Law regarding interracial marriage. In Exodus 34, God prohibited interracial marriages not because non-Jews were to be considered lesser human beings but because God knew that if they intermarried, they would go after their false gods. So, the issue was not their race but their false worship. And indeed, the Israelites intermarried and followed after false gods numerous times, which was the root cause of their captivity in Babylon.
But the Jews twisted this Word of God as well when they forbade not only interracial marriage but any kind of interracial relations with Gentiles—especially Samaritans—because they were lesser people. What they did is similar to the saying that people falsely attribute to the Bible, “Hate the sin; love the sinner.” Not only is this not in the Bible (it was Gandhi who said it), but by hating the sin we always end up hating the sinner, just as the Jews did.
But what separated Samaritans from the Jews even more was their religious practice. Samaritans rejected “Jerusalem as the locus of Yahweh’s presence and activity” [Green, 89]. Instead of worshiping God at the Temple in Jerusalem, or Mt. Zion, the Samaritans worshipped God at Mt. Gerizim. They hated this “sin” so much that they ended up hating the Samaritan people and marginalising them from society with the help of Roman political favour. By worshiping God at Mt. Gerizim instead of Mt. Zion, the Jews assumed the Samaritans were outside God’s covenant and they took drastic measures to avoid them in the social sphere.
So, this man was doubly marginalised. Religiously and politically, he was a social outcast. As a leper, he was unclean, and it was best to avoid him. Even worse, he was a Samaritan leper, so he is to be doubly avoided at all costs. With all this in mind, then, imagine the sight of a Samaritan leper, suddenly cleansed, prostrating himself before a Jewish man named Jesus, worshiping Him as God, and thanking Him. Here was a man born from forbidden intermarriages, and therefore a lesser Jew, committing the heresy of worshiping a man instead of Yahweh. Yet unlike most Jews, and unlike the other nine lepers, by faith this Samaritan realised that Jesus is God, so he worships Him. And Jesus recognises this faith. Here is where the ESV’s translation needs to be corrected. In the original Greek, Jesus does not say, “your faith has made you well.” What He actually says is, “your faith has saved you.” But more on that later.
For now, what can we learn from the Samaritan leper so far? It is certainly a miracle that Jesus healed this leper and nine others without even touching them, but I think the greater miracle is that this Samaritan—a person supposedly outside God’s covenant—realises that Jesus is God, worships Him, and gives Him thanks. The Jews assumed the Samaritans were outside God’s covenant because of their ethnic, social, and religious differences. But in this Samaritan’s saving faith, we see his inclusion in God’s covenant through Jesus. So, here we see that no person is outside God’s grace regardless of their ethnicity or social status.
Therefore, let us ask ourselves, “Who are the modern-day Samaritans among us?” Who are the people among us—ethnic or otherwise—whom we make assumptions about being outside God’s covenant? I pray that no one here thinks an ethnic person is outside God’s grace or that interracial marriages are sinful. After all, I, your brown pastor, am the product of an interracial marriage and my own marriage is interracial as well.
But what about social differences? People on both sides of the political spectrum will say you can’t be Democrat and Christian or Republican and Christian. Both these statements are lies from the mouth of that vile serpent, the devil, because it is not this or that president who saves but Jesus who saves. It is not the Democratic or Republican platform that gives you good news but the Gospel that gives you the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Can you be Republican, Democrat, white, black, Latino, Asian, or whatever it is and believe in Jesus and be saved? Yes! Faith in a political agenda does not save you; faith in Christ alone saves you. It’s not that these things don’t matter; it’s that these things cannot save you or bring you peace. Politics and racial divisions have become idols in our lives and have led us to forgetting how to be thankful before God. With these political and racial tensions among us, we’ve entirely forgotten how to give thanks to Jesus. Let us, therefore, tear down these idols and lay ourselves at the feet of Jesus and learn how to give thanks from one of our ancient Christian brethren.
The Samaritan’s Saving Faith Led Him to Worship and Thanksgiving
Which brings us to the second point of the Samaritan’s thanksgiving. The point is not that he was thankful, but what he did with his thanksgiving. No doubt the other nine lepers were thankful for what Jesus did, but other than this Samaritan’s social status as an ethnic person, the other thing that sets him apart from the others is that he returns to Jesus to praise God and give thanks to Jesus, who is God. The Samaritan “fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks” [v. 16]. Prostration is a posture of worship, and this is what the Samaritan does when He praises God and thanks Jesus at His very feet.
Earlier, I noted that Jesus recognised the Samaritan’s faith when He said, “your faith has saved you.” With these words, we learn two other things. The first has to do with the Samaritan’s worshipful activity in response to his saving faith, which is what sharply distinguishes him from the other nine lepers. Of all the lepers, this Samaritan outcast is the one who returns to Jesus to praise Him and give Him thanks. So, we learn here that the response of saving faith praises and thanks God. Rather than continuing nto remain isolated like in his leprous days, the Samaritan returns to Jesus and worships Him in front of His disciples.
So, what else do we learn about the Samaritan’s response to his saving faith? He doesn’t remain isolated; he comes to be in the company of Jesus, which is inevitably in the company of His disciples. Before he met Jesus, he was literally distanced from Him; and now that He is healed and saved by Christ’s grace through faith, he places himself right at Jesus’ feet! Isolation is no longer the way he wants to live, but rather the company of Christ his Lord in the company of the other disciples.
It’s no secret that church membership and attendance are declining in every place. Many things factour into this, one of which is the excuse that we can worship Jesus in the privacy of our own homes. We certainly can worship Jesus at home, and we should, but isolation is not the default position of saving faith. After spending some time in quarantine due to COVID, we know this! We were forced to be distanced from Jesus and the brethren and we yearned to be back together to worship our Lord!
The response of saving faith wants to be where Jesus is, who is always with His church where we meet His disciples and worship Jesus with them. Jesus has promised to be where His people are, and He calls them His church. Therefore, we gather on days like today to worship, praise, and thank Him for all that He has done and is still doing. The lepers teach us that 9 times out of 10, people will choose to remain isolated from Jesus for what He has done, whereas the 1% will return to Him with songs of praise and thanksgiving on their lips.
What We Learn about Jesus
So far, we’ve learnt a lot about what the Samaritan leper teaches us about thanksgiving. To summarise, the first thing he teaches us is that no person is outside God’s grace regardless of their ethnicity or social status, which also teaches us to be aware of the modern-day Samaritans among us whom we marginalise from ourselves and might consider to be outside God’s covenant. The second thing he teaches us is that the response of saving faith does not wish to be isolated but rather unashamedly worships and gives thanks to Jesus in a public setting, which Jesus acknowledges when He says, “your faith has saved you.”
These words teach us another thing. As we have seen by the Samaritan’s example, they teach us how saving faith responds to Jesus, but more importantly they teach us something about Jesus. By acknowledging the Samaritan’s faith, Jesus did the unthinkable: He welcomed him into God’s covenant. Remember what it meant to be a leprous Samaritan. As a leper, he was a social outcast; as a Samaritan, he was outside God’s covenant (a religious outcast). But Jesus crosses the social, ethnic, and sinful divide to acknowledge this man’s faith as a further acknowledgement of his inclusion in God’s covenant.
It’s just as Jesus said when He instituted the Lord’s Supper, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” [Matthew 26:27-28]. By saying “poured out for many,” Jesus excludes no one. As we neared the end of this Church Year, we spent some time in the Book of Hebrews that taught us that the blood of the covenant in the Old Testament was not sufficient to take away sins. But now, the blood of Jesus’ covenant—Jesus’ own blood—covers all sins for all of time regardless of your social status, ethnicity, and sin. Jesus’ blood breaks down these dividing barriers that we erect and welcomes all people in His all-inclusive covenant.
So then, let us consider what takes place when we approach the Lord’s Table and participate in His covenant. At His Table, all divisions are broken. The barriers we build are torn down. When we receive Christ’s covenant in His Supper, enemies become brothers and sisters! People once divided become united in Christ! People once at war with each other become part of the family of God! Imagine that!!! At the Lord’s Table, people at war lay down their arms, renounce their dividing hostilities, and kneel before the one Lord as brothers and sisters!
Therefore, I ask you, what divides you from others? Do you do any dividing? What barriers do you raise? Again, it’s rather obvious that many people use politics to create barriers of division from those we deem to be our enemies, which inevitably creates social barriers as well. In this way, we are no different than the Jews whom Jesus condemned and criticised, and just as He did with the Samaritan, He continues to do the unthinkable today: Rather than taking political sides, Jesus breaks down our dividing walls and compassionately enters our situation to give us saving faith in Him.
After Jesus ascended, the disciples soon came to realise this. Through the teaching of the Holy Spirit, they set aside their bigotries and proclaimed the Gospel to Gentiles like Samaritans, Romans, Greeks, and you and me. Our international student ministry continues this tradition of Christ’s Apostles begun by the Holy Spirit. There at the chapel, any barriers that exist are torn down and they are met with the all-inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And so, here we are today not isolated like the nine lepers but gathered as one people who worship and thank Christ as the united family of God. With your Canadian and Puerto Rican pastors, your brothers and sisters of German heritage, and your brethren from far-reaching places like Finland, South Korea, China, and other tribes and nations of different tongues, you are gathered as one Body of Christ in worship, praise, and thanksgiving. There are no dividing barriers here, as evident in the sermon hymn we sang earlier: “With voices united our praises we offer / And gladly our songs of thanksgiving we raise. / With You, Lord, beside us, Your strong arm will guide us. / To You, our great Redeemer, forever be praise!”
And every Divine Service closes with thanksgiving. Today, we will close with these words of worship and thanksgiving for what Christ has done: “For the harvests of the Spirit, / Thanks be to God. / For the good we all inherit, / Thanks be to God. / For the wonders that astound us, / For the truths that still confound us, / Most of all, that love has found us. / Thanks be to God” [LSB #894 For the Fruits of His Creation]. Amen.
Featured image from A. Pospelov / Pravoslavie.ru
Green, Joel B. New Testament Theology: The Theology of the Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.