Going it Alone

Luke 17:11-19

 

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 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. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

I think we all know the basic tenets of the American Dream. Anyone can succeed (and let me just clarify here at the start, that when I say “succeed” in this sermon, I primarily mean financially, even though I by no means believe that success is defined by how deep your pockets are) – anyone can succeed, as long as you follow your dreams and work hard enough. That’s one of the things they say makes our country so great. It enshrines the individual freedoms we all know we as human beings deserve, and it creates the opportunity for anyone to climb the rungs of the social ladder. You can go from being dirt poor to being a billionaire over the course of a lifetime, or, of course, vice versa; it is entirely possible to change your class, and there are no established social rules that say you can’t do so. Of course, moving up takes individual initiative and hard work; you don’t just get things handed to you. That is the way our society is supposed to work, from a theoretical standpoint. If you do the work, you get the reward. If not, not so much. That’s how things should be, because it’s only fair. At least, that’s what they tell me.

 

So, what about these ten leprous men? According to biblical law, anyone with a skin disease such as leprosy was required to stay outside of the village, away from those who were considered “healthy”. Leprosy was an incredibly debilitating disease, causing not only painful, disfiguring skin sores but also nerve damage to the arms and legs. Understandably, the disease was greatly feared in the ancient world by those who had no understanding of microbiology. Now, as it turns out, the Greek word for leprosy, “lepros”, actually covers a wide range of skin diseases, but all we need to know is that these men – it actually does say “ten leprous men” – were outcasts in their community. This is clear from biblical law, 1st century Palestinian historical practices, and the fact that the text says they “stood at a distance”. They were required to do so, and to warn others of their condition.

 

How did these men get to be where they were? We know that in an ideal society, based on what they tell me, good, honest work is rewarded, and laziness and criminal activity is punished. If everyone is treated fairly, then the good, hardworking people get to be on top, and the bad, lazy leeches get to be on bottom. So, clearly, these ten men must have done something wrong to end up as diseased outcasts, right? I mean, if we believe that hard work is always rewarded, they must not have worked a day in their life!

 

Obviously, this is a ridiculous notion. I’m making a bit of a straw man argument, I know, but I promise I do have a valid point, and I’ll get there eventually. There are circumstances in our lives beyond our control. Clearly, it is not the fault of the ten leprous men that they have leprosy or something like it. Job in particular is pretty clear on that for us, debunking the old Deuteronomic thinking that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, always. Sometimes, Job observes, there are just some really evil people that get away with it. They have all the worldly riches one could ask for, they trample on the weak and they oppress many, and they don’t get their come-uppance. They die a fairly comfortable death. There are also just some really stand up people, the kind that you look at and say – “that is the peak of human existence; we should all strive to be so outstanding!” – who, inexplicably, have awful things happen to them, suffer in extreme poverty, and generally lead miserable lives and die just as miserable deaths. For whatever reason, it seems, God does not always reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Or, according to one popular idiom, “life’s not fair.” Maybe that’s why we like the concept of heaven and hell so much. But that is a completely different sermon for another time and place.

 

No, the leprous men were just ordinary people who happened to catch an unfortunate disease. Who knows where they were in life before this occurred? One could have been a poor sharecropper, barely scraping by even before the disease overtook him. One could have been a wealthy landowner, long ago, before the ravages and stigma of the disease devoured his riches. Perhaps one used to work in the royal court. Whatever their prior circumstances, they all ended up in the same boat. They all now live in a community together, because they weren’t allowed to mingle with other people. Perhaps they had been living together for quite some time, and had become close friends, albeit friends of necessity. I mean, we are told that at least one is a Samaritan, and left to infer that the others are probably Jews, and given what we know about Jewish-Samaritan relations in the 1st century – well, let’s just say that it seems the disease was quite capable of erasing all other social boundaries between those who had it. These ten men; they must have been pretty desperate. I mean, imagine if you were all of the sudden ripped from your life, stripped of your identity, and forced into exile with a bunch of random people you didn’t know, people you would probably otherwise hate, who happened to share your condition. Would you ever be content with your new life? Wouldn’t you do anything you could to get your old life back?

 

Well, the men finally get their chance. I’m not sure how they know who he is – his reputation obviously precedes him – but somehow or another they recognize Jesus coming into their village – the village from which they have been ostracized – and they seize upon the opportunity. They ask for help. The Greek literally says they “lifted voice”, saying “Master Jesus, have mercy on us!” Notice what they do not say. They do not say, “Jesus, restore us to our rightful place in the world! Jesus, give me what I deserve! If you are really who you say you are, make this life fair, tie my success into my personal achievements! If you are God, you can make it so!” No, they simply ask for mercy. They require grace. They aren’t even specifically asking to be healed. Just, “show us mercy.”

 

And then it just says this: “and seeing, he said to them:” Now, this is an important detail. Luke could have just written, “and he said to them”, but he had to add in that little word. Jesus saw them. That doesn’t mean physically – we don’t need to be told that he saw them if he’s speaking to them. What it means is that Jesus is not blind to their predicament. He does not avert his gaze from their need, even though his own personal goal, explicitly stated in the opening words of this passage, is to get to Jerusalem. Jesus is not so blindly focused on promoting his own individual well-being, on achieving his own personal goals, that he has no time at all to help others. He sees them. And then he helps them.

 

How does he help them? He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Now, if you had a skin condition like leprosy, and you somehow miraculously found yourself one day cured of said skin condition, then, according to biblical law, you had to go and show yourself to the priests, and they had to verify that you no longer had the condition before you were allowed back into the community. So when Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests, he is already setting up the process by which they will be welcomed back into their old lives. But a funny thing happens. The Greek literally says, “and it came to be in the going they were made clean.” Not, “as they went”. “It came to be.” Now, for those of you who don’t know Greek, you’re lucky, because you can still use the phrase “it’s all Greek to me!” Yea, “it’s all Latgalian to me”; just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Seriously, though, there are two words for the verb “to be” in Greek. One, einai, actually means “to be,” “to exist.” It is the language used of the Creator – “I am.” The other, ginomai, means something more like “to become,” “to happen,” or “to come to be.” It is the language used of Creation, that which was caused to come into existence. This is the word used here – “it came to be” – when? “in the going” – what came to be? “they were made clean”. These men are no longer the men they once were; they have been created anew, andonly one of them truly recognizes it! But we’ll get to that later.

 

Right now, this is the question of the hour – how did the ten men find themselves to be clean? Upon whose merit were their lives suddenly improved? Who helped them? Themselves, or Jesus? Now, I apologize, this seems like such a simplistic question. But it is a question worth asking, because nine out of the ten seem to answer incorrectly. And if you go out today and ask most successful people how they got to where they are, I’m willing to bet most of them will give some version of the answer “hard work and determination”. Sure, maybe some will acknowledge “You know, I could have never gotten to be where I am without the help of my parents, or an influential professor, or an unexpected mentor, or my loving spouse, or my best friend…” and so on and so forth. Some will even acknowledge God, sometimes (although, there is a difference between saying God has helped me in spite of my brokenness and God has given me what I deserve). But even so, how often do those people look at others who are not successful and say “if they would just work harder, they could be like me”? How often do we do that ourselves?

 

Of course, there is a lot of nuance to this. There was, undoubtedly, a lot of hard work and determination that went into our success as individuals. Having recently graduated from Divinity School, I can assure you of that. I worked hard. However, I can also assure you, having recently been a graduate student at the Divinity School, that it took a lot of help, and a lot of mercy, and a lot of grace – from my parents, from my wife, from you all, from God, and most certainly from my professors. And, finally, my wife and I having recently had a child, I can assure you, with 100% confidence, that it is absolutely impossible to make it on your own. At some point in your life, somebody did something for you that you could not do yourself, and it helped you to grow. That is true of all human beings, in all times, and in all places. Recently, Owen decided to try feeding himself. Some of you may have seen this on Facebook. For those who did – did it work out? Did he get the food in his mouth? No! Of course not! It ended up all over the floor, all over me, on his forehead, behind his ears, and only God Almighty knows where else. Quite frankly, if we were not there to help him, he would not survive. Like it or not, that seems to be a fundamental truth of human life. We need help, or we will surely perish.

 

So, looking at the news and the internet comments and statuses and conversations between public officials about poverty and the economy and wealth inequality – why do so many of us not get this? Why do we continue to insist that other people are not our responsibility? Why do we continue to talk about bootstraps, when nobody wears boots anymore? Except in adverse weather and to go hiking? Here is a fundamental, biblical truth: We were not created to be individuals who do things on their own with no help. Genesis 2, Ecclesiastes 4, the entire New Testament, for crying out loud! We were created to take care of each other in community. Now that doesn’t negate all those important individual freedoms we hold so dear. It only recognizes the truth that as a human being in God’s creation you can’t go it alone. And if you think you’re going it alone, you are, like the nine leprous men, spiritually blind. Someone – in fact, a lot of someones – have helped you get to where you are. I guarantee it. And the flip side to this is that if you see someone who is not where you are, who is, in fact, a lot worse off than you, it probably means they didn’t get the same help you did.

 

Now, there is nuance in this too, of course. Some people truly do need to help themselves. Some people have received plenty of help over the years, and it is their refusal to do anything for themselves that keeps them down. Some people are just lazy; or they are sick, addicted, and they are ultimately the ones who need to make a decision about their own lives. Some people. But here is the crazy thing – unless we personally know and care about these people, we do not know their nuances. Unless we are the ones already helping them, we do not get to comment on their circumstances. And while it is completely logical and fair to suggest that the successful person must have had some help at some point in his or her life, it is neither logical nor fair to conclude that the unsuccessful person could be successful if he or she “just worked harder”.

 

I read a fantastic comic strip the other day that perfectly illustrates all of this. It was called “On a Plate” by Toby Morris, and you can find it with a quick Google search. I also shared this on my Facebook after reading it. The comic follows two people throughout their lives, from babies to adulthood. One is a white male, Richard, and he receives loving support at home from his parents, encouragement to succeed in school, money from his parents to pay for college, the benefit of connections his father has at important companies, and so on. The other is an Hispanic female, Paula. Her parents each work long hours to provide for her, so they are not at home a lot. The apartment she lives in is dirty and damp. She does not receive the adequate care she needs; the expectations for her success in school are lower; she must attend a cheap, low-quality school because it is the only one she can afford, and she has to work long hours even to afford that. She drops out of school to take care of her father who is dying, and as a result of all of this is unable to get a loan or a decent job. The strip ends with Richard at a party in his honor responding to the question, “What is the secret to your success?” saying, “less whining, more hard work I say. I’m sick of people asking for handouts. No one ever handed me anything on a plate,” while Paula (a server) offers up to him a plate of hors d’oeuvres.

 

As they were going, they were made clean. One of them, seeing he had been made clean, turned back and glorified God with a great voice. He fell on his face at the feet of Jesus, thanking him. And he is the Samaritan – in order to understand the impact of this detail better, Christians today might think of him instead as a Muslim extremist. Out of the ten, only he is able to see, truly see, the help he has received in his life, and because of this he does two things – two very important things: he glorifies God. And he thanks the one who helped him.

Now, most of us get that we are supposed to be like the Samaritan leper in this story. The Samaritan leper recognizes the help he has received. He ceases to be Richard, because he realizes that he has not created himself anew, but rather is deeply indebted to the helping hand that Jesus has provided him. We, too, are meant to return thanks to God for all that God has done for us. We are also meant to thank those through whom God’s help has come. However, I think we often fail to pick up on the other character in this story we are supposed to emulate – Jesus. When Jesus sees the need of the ten lepers in the first place, he chooses to respond with mercy and grace, not judgment and condemnation. Are we not also called as Christians to be like Jesus? Are we not meant to recognize need in the world and respond with a helping hand? Even though, nine times out of ten, no one will bother to thank us?

 

There’s one final piece to this story before I close, an important one. Jesus tells the Samaritan leper that his faith has saved him – not “made him well” as it says in the translation; in the Greek, it is “saved.” What faith did this man display that the other nine did not? Could it be that, in this passage, Jesus is affirming gratitude as an essential part of faith – indeed, even equating it to faith itself? It would seem so. The man’s faith is found in both his recognition of God’s work in his life and his response to that recognition – overwhelming gratitude. His faith is knowing that he does not have to go it alone, because there is always One who walks beside him.

 

I simply cannot stress this enough. It is not by our own merit that we succeed – not entirely. Hard work, determination, ingenuity – these are all only a small piece of the puzzle that makes up our lives; for some people – those unfortunate enough to be afflicted with the rare disease, affluenza, for instance – they may not even be necessary. The vast majority of the puzzle pieces are actually people – individuals who have shown us grace, who have loved us, who have helped us come to be who we are today. Let us not be like the nine and forget to turn back and thank them. Let us not forget that we, too, belong in somebody else’s puzzle. And let us never cease to always and forever give praise to the One who puts each piece into place. For in this way, we shall all be saved. Amen.

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