Proper 23, Year C, St. Barnabas’ Church, Tullahoma

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Lk. 17:13).

If you’re an athlete you know about stance: that is, the standing position you assume that will give you the widest range and power as you begin to move. I’m not an athlete, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but the notion of a stance has wider applicability. St. Paul says in the First Letter to the Corinthians that when it comes to the Christian life, he does not run aimlessly, or box as if beating the air (1 Cor. 9:26). We all do what we need to do to prepare ourselves for what’s ahead, whether it’s coffee in the morning or time to pray or both. Whatever’s involved, we take up a stance, and put our feet firmly under us before we begin to work.

The story of the ten lepers who are cleansed by Jesus gives us more than an account of a miraculous healing. The story is meant by the Gospel writer to point to the nature of discipleship. In this section of St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is fleshing out the typical stance his disciples are to take. Last week in our Gospel Jesus began to speak directly to his followers about how they find their footing. We heard that his disciples were not supposed to stand around expecting thanks. Instead they’re meant to practice humility, to say when they’ve completed the task, “We have done only what we ought to have done” (Lk. 17:10).

Our Gospel today expands on this typical stance, giving us three points on which to place our feet. The first comes from the cry of the lepers that stands at the head of our reading. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Lk. 17:13). These ten lepers know their true situation; they know where they’re grounded. They are in need of healing, first and foremost. They are literally begging for mercy. They know that there is a great divide between where they are and where they need to be. They turn to Jesus and throw themselves on his mercy.

As Christians, we begin with our own neediness, our own need for grace. Whatever we need to complete ourselves and to be made whole must be received as a gift. Our neediness is a given. There is nothing owed to us for our own merits. We are called to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, as it says in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:12), but this working out will begin when we acknowledge our need. The typical stance of a Christian is in solidarity with the ten lepers, who turn to the Lord for his mercy.

Ten lepers are healed, but only one returns to give thanks. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him” (Lk. 17:15-16). This gives us a second foothold. One of the earliest lessons we learn as human beings is the responsibility of saying “thank you” when we receive a gift. If it’s owed to us then it’s not a gift, though we may say thank you out of politeness. Here in the gospel reading, however, the thank you comes from the nature of the gift.

Here we take our stand with the one leper who returned. We need to cultivate our capacity to give thanks to God because it will make us more aware of the gift we’ve been given. What would it be like to never be thankful, especially for the really big thing? Not only are we thankful for the life we’ve received but also for the new life we have in Jesus Christ. Sin is forgiven through him. Unlike the unworthy servants last week who are standing around waiting for thanks, we ourselves need to fall on our knees and give thanks for the gifts we’ve been given.

The third Christian foothold is faith itself. Remember what Jesus says at the end of the reading, “Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well’” (Lk. 17:19). Note that the words are addressed to the one who returned to give thanks, but that all ten were cleansed. All of the lepers were healed through faith. Faith is trust in God; that is, trust in God rather than ourselves. Faith is how we know God. For Christians, faith is trust in what God has done for us through Jesus Christ our Lord. He’s the firm foundation on which we stand, the place we find our footing.

Our faith has made us well. Today at St. Barnabas’ Church we fall down on our knees and we beg for mercy; we return like the leper and give thanks to God. We put our trust in God. Faith is the foundation on which we stand, the foothold that means new life for us.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee