What can really be accomplished with just a kernel of faith? -- Apparently, the Holy Spirit struck a bit of a nerve last week. I cannot tell you the number of times that people told me how that Gospel passage from Luke had been used as a bludgeon. It is clear that some blame their inability to effect miracles in their lives on a lack of faith, that their faith is too low on the sliding scale to deserve any response from God. As I talked about the passage with members of the parish this week, I heard over and over again that the passage had been used by parents or pastors or others in authority to prove to people that they lacked faith. A few even asked if I had ever heard it preached in the way that they described. Thankfully, if I had, I had forgotten it. Better still, sermons on that part of Luke were not so bad that I remembered them only for mocking purposes. But one question hung over all those discussion. How can you be so sure that your interpretation is the right one? Scripture does not exist in a vacuum. Our passage from last week does not exist on its own. In fact, this week are the next nine verses. Consider the faith expressed by the lepers.
Lepers, as you all know, had a tough existence in the ANE, not that it is easy today. It is important to note that any skin disease or rash could be considered leprosy. Once one was determined by a priest in Israel to be infected by leprosy, life changed dramatically for the one with the disease. Most social relations were immediately severed. That, of course, makes sense. Were someone to come into contact with a leper, they had to undergo a rite of purification in order to go to worship. That is correct, one of the consequences of leprosy was that the diseased was forbidden to come to worship. For anyone else to come into contact with a leper, the consequence was the same! Not surprisingly, lepers ended up grouped in villages together. Those of us familiar with Hansen’s disease might not be too surprised. Colonies of lepers have existed for some time.
What makes this village a bit unique is its location. The village exists on the border between Galilee and Samaria. Samaria, if you will remember, are the half-breeds. Their great, great, great grandparents had married pagans, an express violation of the torah. It also did not help things that Samaritans rejected Jerusalem as the high place for worship. And, if we want to get down to it, their rejection of the prophets did not win them many supporters in Israel. They were distrusted. They were un-liked. They were outcasts. It’s that attitude that would have made the parable of the Good Samaritan so shocking to Jesus’ listeners.
Jesus, as we know from Luke, is on His way to Jerusalem. He is nearing the end of His earthly ministry, and He knows it! He will not be surprised how this journey will end because He has prophesied its ending. Nevertheless, Jesus and His companions find themselves in a village between Galilee and Samaria with lepers. These would have been the outcasts of outcasts, among the most hopeless of the hopeless. The ten lepers, we are told, keep their distance from Jesus. Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us! Can you imagine their hurt? Have you ever felt their pain? Have you ever felt so ostracized, so forgotten, so marginalized? Imagine the desperation which drives them. The Prophet is passing through our village. Do you think he will consent to help us? And so they call out.
Jesus, of course, is compassionate. He tells the men to go and show themselves to the priests. There is no complex ritual; there is no hocus-pocus. Jesus does not put on a show, in the PT Barnum sense of the word. He tells them to go. And they do. We are reminded of a particular lesson about God’s power here. God does not depend on us in any way to work miracles successfully. God is not sitting up in heaven this Healing Sunday saying, “Man, I really want to heal this person or that person, but I cannot unless Brian gets the healing prayer absolutely correct.” He is not restricted by my failures, nor yours. Nor is He in any way restricted by our faith. God can work miracles without any faith. Faith gives us the eyes to see His handiwork in the world around us, which leads us to the Samaritan leper.
As the ten are heading to the priests, one leper realizes he has been healed. Notice the physical action. He is heading that way, toward the synagogue, realizes the healing that has been given him, and he physically turns and heads back to Jesus. We talk about repentance being an action word of turning back to God, and here is a wonderful example for us! Certainly, the Samaritan exhibits something different than the other nine. The Samaritan realizes that Jesus is the source of his healing. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks Him. And what is Jesus’ response? Jesus asks rhetorically what happened to the other nine. He points out that only the foreigner thanked God. Then He says to the Samaritan, “Rise and go, your faith has made you well.”
How do I know that faith does not work on a sliding scale? How do I know that Peter is not standing up there waiting on us with some kind of percentage grade determining whether our faith was “enough” to get us into heaven? Look at this example which follows immediately the teaching which so challenged many of us. What kind of faith do you think this Samaritan had? Culturally, he would have rejected Jerusalem, the very destination of Jesus. Heck, culturally, he should have rejected Jesus! Unlike the Jewish lepers, who had been taught by the prophets that a messiah would come, the Samaritan leper was taught that only the torah was inspired by God. Everything else, from their mindset, would have been a heretical add-on to the Word of God. The added those prophetic books to keep us down. They added those prophetic books to preserve their power, to keep the Temple on the wrong mount. Life had also taught him a bitter lesson. Likely, he had been forced to leave family behind. In addition to being a Samaritan, he was now a Samaritan leper. And for those crimes he had been relocated to a village between Samaria and Galilee--not exactly the gated community of Bettendorf! Do you think it likely that his faith was amazingly confident? Do you think it likely that those outside the lepers’ home really admired his faith? Do you think it likely that his faith was “big enough” to warrant an “A” from God?
There was present, however, the ability to see God at work. The leper realizes the gift of healing and turns toward Christ. The other nine, Jewish by birth, continue on their way even after they have been healed. Something, however, prompts the Samaritan leper to return to Jesus and fall down in front of Him. Faith and salvation are intertwined. Jesus commends the man for looking beyond the blessing of the healing. The other nine experienced the same blessing; yet they were oblivious to its significance. Only the foreigner grasps what has occurred and what it truly means. The One who can heal such a disease must be sent from God, truly. Having experienced that blessing for himself, the man realizes the significance of the reports they have heard. The dead rise, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the mute speak! Food is provided, and God’s voice thunders from the heaven. Like the other nine, he knew enough to think that Jesus could heal him. Unlike the other nine, he realizes that the power to heal him signifies something far more significant. And it is in that recognition that he returns and falls at Jesus’ feet. He might not have a well-developed soteriology or Christology; but he sure knows who the Healer is!
Brothers and sisters, it is often difficult to read such passages and then head into the Healing liturgy, especially knowing that some will blame the lack of God’s response on their own lack of faith. I am here to remind you this day, this day when we anoint with oil and lay on hands, that we are praying for far more than blessing. Yes, I know there are diseases and pains and broken relationships and countless other parts of our lives that we all want restored and blessed. We will pray for those evidences of God’s power in our lives in just a moment. What we should be far more concerned with, however, is the salvation that He offers.
You see, God’s power does not depend on our faith. The Lord gives; the Lord takes away. Blessed is the name of the Lord. Our faith, however, informs our relationship with God through Christ. Do you believe He was and is who He said He was and is? Do you believe that He rose from the dead, as a first fruit of those who will join Him for all eternity? Our baptismal rite does not depend upon some magical number of faith. All He asks is “Do you believe?” Even if our answer is “Yes, Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” He is satisfied. I know it defies logic. I know it makes no sense. I know we want it to be so much harder. But the Gospel news is that He has done the harder part for us. All He asks is whether we believe. And once we are baptized into His suffering and death, we know we have a share in His resurrection and His glory!
From that small kernel of faith can grow the most incredible of relationships. Yes, sometimes He will act in miraculous ways. But He does that for those who believe and those who don’t. Faith gives us the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to understand when He is working through the mundane as well as the miraculous. The nine lacked faith and missed the obvious lesson of their blessing. How could they ever hope to see God in the ordinary, in the day to day? And it is that faith in the Samaritan leper, which Jesus commends. It is that faith which causes us to trust the Lord. It is that faith that allows us to accept that our suffering might be for the benefit of others. It is that faith that allows us to see that God cares every bit as much for us and our problems as He does for the sparrow or the flowers in the field. It is that faith that causes us to claim Him as Lord and trust that He intends great things for us. Where else can we go, Lord? Only You have the words of eternal life. It is even that faith which causes us to approach the throne of mercy, like a nagging widow before an unjust judge, hopeful and expectant that He will redeem all our suffering to His glory!
So, brothers and sisters, once again I invite you to come. Come to the rail. We will anoint and lay hands and pray. We will pray that diseases are miraculously healed. We will pray that broken relationships are miraculously restored. We will pray that we all get a share in that next gigantic Powerball so we are all well-provided. We will pray that those emotionally or spiritually drained will be miraculously restored. More importantly, however, we will pray that He will nurture our faith. We will pray that He will give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand His work in the world around us. We will pray for the realization that our suffering, and our faithful response to suffering, may serve as the invitation to others in our lives to come and see and meet this GodMan from Nazareth. We will pray that our faith will inspire others to follow Him and cause all kinds of rejoicing in heaven!