Pillars of Christianity

Pillars of Christianity

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

October 9, 2022

Pillars of Christianity

Homily for Sunday, October 9, 2022
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 17:11–19

At first glance, today’s Gospel story of Jesus healing the ten lepers might look less like a specifically Christian teaching and more like a morality tale that any religion (or, indeed, any parent) might tell about the importance of saying “thank you.”  “Were not ten made clean?” asked Jesus.  “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Given Luke’s propensity for “feel-good” stories with readily-accessible morals—such as the Good Samaritan, for example, the moral of which might be “Help your neighbor” (Lk 10:25–37); or the Rich Man and Lazarus, the moral of which might be “Give to the poor” (16:19–31); or the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, the moral of which might be “Do not think yourself better than others” (18:9–14)—we might think that Luke’s story of the ten lepers is yet another example of what we might call Luke’s “civic religion,” of his promulgation of what he thinks to be appropriate neighborly conduct.

While Luke is a master story teller, and though Luke’s stories often do have a readily-grasped teaching or moral, to regard Luke merely as a gifted teller of moral stories is to underestimate Luke.  For behind Luke’s “feel good” stories and their seemingly benign universal morals is a firm backbone of Judeo-Christian religion.  For example, if one of the pillars of Jewish piety is prayer, so does Luke often place important events in the life of Jesus within the context of prayer: after she was with child Mary, for example, prayed the Magnificat (1:46–55); after the birth of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah prayed the Benedictus (1:68–79); and at his crucifixion it was Luke’s Jesus (and only Luke’s Jesus) who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34).  Further, if Deuteronomy calls on the faithful to “love the stranger” (10:19) and to care for the “the alien… and the widow” (e.g., 24:19–20) so does Luke’s Jesus pay attention to the widow and the stranger.  Luke’s Jesus raises up the son of the widow of Nain (7:11–17); and Luke’s Jesus commends more than his fellow Israelites the faith of Naaman the Syrian, a “stranger” or “alien” if ever there was one (4:27).  And if the Jerusalem Temple and the local synagogue were the locus of Hebrew worship, so in Luke are the Temple and the local synagogues at the center of Jesus’ life and ministry: in Luke it was to the Jerusalem Temple that Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus (2:22), it was in the Jerusalem Temple that Mary and Joseph found the twelve year-old Jesus teaching (2:46), and it was at the synagogue in Nazareth that Luke’s Jesus began his public ministry (4:16).

In today’s story of the ten lepers, the firm Judeo-Christian religious backbone supporting this otherwise seemingly benign lesson about the importance of saying “Thank you” is all three: 1) prayer, 2) love for the stranger, and 3) the centrality of the synagogue.

First, prayer: “He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.”  In Luke, saying “thank you” to Jesus is not merely good manners or good neighborly conduct; giving thanks to Jesus is a deeply Christian spiritual practice.  Recall, for example, how Paul often begins his letters with an expression of thanks: 1 Corinthians—“I give thanks to my God always for you”; Philippians—“I thank my God every time I remember you”;  I Thessalonians—“We always give thanks to God for all of you.”  And at the Last Supper, the Synoptics report that Jesus gave thanks: Matthew and Mark—“Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them”; Luke—“Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them.”  And we Christians gather every Sunday to celebrate Eucharist, which in Greek means “to give thanks.”  Even today in Greece when someone says “thank you” they say, “Ευχαριστώ!” or, “Eucharist!”  Giving thanks is not merely good neighborly conduct but a deeply Christian spiritual practice.

Second, behind today’s seemingly benign lesson that on the surface looks to be merely about saying “thank you” is the Judeo-Christian value of loving the stranger.  Of the one who returned and gave thanks, today’s Gospel reports, “And he was a Samaritan.”  Not for nothing does Luke’s Jesus make the hero of the parable to be the “Good Samaritan.”  Samaritans were age-old enemies of those who lived in Judea;  Samaritans were not merely not liked, they were loathed, their feud with Judeans dating back to Old Testament times and disagreements over  worship.  For Luke to single out the one leper as a Samaritan suggests the extent to which Luke would have us not merely “welcome” or “co-exist with” or “be kind to” the stranger in our midst, but (as Deuteronomy says) to “love the stranger.”  In this love Luke is consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew (also found in Luke) to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44, and also Luke 6:27, 35).  And in Luke’s (and only in Luke’s) account of the Last Supper, Luke’s Jesus announces over the cup that it is not only “my blood of the covenant… poured out for many” (as do Matthew and Mark (see Matt 26:27 and Mk 14:24)), but that it is, simply, “the new covenant in my blood,” suggesting that for Luke the covenant is new and can be entered into by all, Gentiles included.  For Luke it is important to emphasize that all, including strangers, can participate in Jesus’ love.

Lastly, behind today’s story of the ten lepers that on the surface looks to be about the importance of saying “thank you” is the centrality of the synagogue.  “Go and show yourself to the priests,” Jesus told the lepers.  As in his earlier stories of the aged Simeon and the prophetess Anna in the Jerusalem Temple (1:27, 37), or of the disciples after the resurrection being “continually in the temple praising God” (24:53), or in Acts of the early Christians spending “much time together in the temple” (2:46), today’s story of the ten lepers is to end in the local synagogue where the lepers were to “show themselves to the priests.”  Luke may be the evangelist who gives us the story of Pentecost with its unpredictable wind and fire, yet Luke anchors his Gospel firmly in the stability of the Temple and the local synagogue.

Though Luke may seem a radical in advocating the overturning of established norms—such as casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly (1:52)—and though Luke may seem in his writing to convey a message filled primarily with not-specifically-Christian neighborly advice such as “Help your neighbor” or “give to those in need” or “do not think yourself better than others,” yet behind Luke’s writing is a firm backbone of Judeo-Christian religion.  Luke’s story of the ten lepers is more than a morality tale about the importance of saying “thank you”; it is a rich tapestry woven from traditional Hebrew piety in which Luke roots Jesus’ ministry in prayer, especially the prayer of thanksgiving; in which Luke advocates not merely co-existing with but loving the stranger; and in which Luke, who gives us wind and fire and “spirituality,” makes sure to anchor the Faith in religion.

I wonder, if we wish to take Luke’s stories seriously and to take up his compelling vision of what it means to follow Jesus, if a first step might be to take a closer look at our prayer and our practice of saying “thank you” to God.  Perhaps we could consider the ways in which we already say “thank you” and experience gratitude.  Perhaps today we could make a list of, say, five or ten things for which we are thankful in the last week.  Or perhaps we could consider keeping a gratitude journal, in which each day we make a list and give thanks for the day’s gifts.  Or if you are not already, perhaps consider being present for Eucharist weekly, to weekly come and with the gathered community each Sunday morning say “thank you” (“Ευχαριστώ!”) to God.  For, as I’ve heard it said, “Gratitude is the oil that releases any stuck gears in our prayer life,” and that can re-ignite and deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ.

I will leave us with a quote about saying “thank you” that comes from William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Second World War:

“It is probable that in most of us the spiritual life is impoverished and stunted because we give so little place to gratitude.  It is more important to thank God for blessings received than to pray for them beforehand.  For that forward-looking prayer, though right as an expression of dependence upon God, is still self-centered in part… there is something we hope to gain by our prayer.  But the backward-looking act of thanksgiving is quite free from this.  In itself it is quite selfless. Thus it is akin to love.  (William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel, 189)

And any increase in love—the kind of love that is selfless, generous and expects nothing in return—is an increase in our drawing near to Jesus Christ.  Than whom to know, love and follow nothing brings greater satisfaction to our souls.

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