In the name of the God who makes us well, the Christ who suffers with us, and the Sprit who accompanies us. Amen.
“Your faith has made you well.” In some ways, these may be some of the most problematic words Jesus speaks in the Gospels.
Oh, don’t get me wrong – Jesus says and does a lot of things that are controversial, at least to our modern way of thinking. We’ve talked about a lot of these statements and actions this year, as we have worked our way through the Gospel of Luke Sunday by Sunday.
But this one…at least in modern America, this one is definitely among the most problematic.
Close your eyes for a minute, and just think about what it means to you to be well.
I can imagine that for many of you, a picture of wellness involves being free of disease, being relatively fit, blood pressure or blood sugar under good control, no aches and pains. If you’re troubled by arthritis or some other ongoing issue or disease, perhaps a picture of wellness involves not dealing with any of these chronic, and sometimes debilitating, concerns.
And then we think about the story in our Gospel reading for this morning, and we think about being healed of leprosy, and being made well. There’s a kind of instant connection between health and wellness, between being healed and being made well, isn’t there?
You may be thinking, ok, but how is this problematic? What’s the issue here?
I want to you to think about something specific now. Instead of thinking about someone who is living with arthritis, think about someone who is living on dialysis. Or who has stage four cancer. What do you imagine their future looks like?
For many people with a terminal disease such as these, their futures include what can feel like endless appointments and tests, hospitalizations, and increasingly feeling weak and physically ill.
Often, people who are terminally or chronically ill and their loved ones pray for healing. Usually, what we mean when we pray for healing is to be free from disease, to be free from the signs and symptoms, to be free of the endless appointments and tests, the poking and prodding, to be returned to life before the weakness and the pain and the debilitation.
But what happens when we pray for healing, and are not healed? What happens when the person who is sick continues to suffer from whatever illness is impacting their quality of life, or is drawing them closer to death? What happens to our faith, to our prayer life, when our plea for a return to health goes unanswered?
“Your faith has made you well.”
Do you ever think, “maybe I didn’t pray hard enough?” Do you ever think, “maybe my faith wasn’t strong enough?” Or conversely, do you ever think, “this must be part of God’s plan. God must have had some sort of purpose behind all this suffering, weakness, and pain?”
When we pray for health – for wellness – and do not see our prayers being answered in a way we recognize, that can be challenging to our faith. We can sometimes begin to worry that we are failing some sort of litmus test Jesus set to determine if our faith is strong enough, if we are worthy enough, for our prayers to be answered. Or we can begin to see God as the cause of disease and suffering, a not-so-benevolent overlord who punishes our sins or causes some to suffer so that others can prosper.
Either road leads down a path that God does not intend us to take. When we believe we are not faithful enough to merit God answering our prayers, or when we believe our suffering is caused in service to some divine plan on a cosmic scale, we move away from belief in grace, a belief that God loves us just as we are and seeks to be in relationship with us. We move toward belief in a God who keeps score, who keeps track of how faithful we are, how many good things we have done, how often or how rarely we have doubted. We move away from belief in a God of comfort and forgiveness, and toward belief in a God of anger and retribution.
I want to propose an alternative. Instead of our modern brains translating “your faith has made you well” to “your faith has healed you,” perhaps, Jesus was not referring to health or sickness at all.
Perhaps, Jesus was referring to a spiritual wholeness.
Let’s think about this with an eye to the whole story in this morning’s Gospel. Most of us have some sort of basic understanding of what it meant to be a leper in Jesus’ day: lepers were people who had any one of a number of skin diseases that were thought to be highly contagious. They were forced to live outside of the community, leaving their families behind. They had to mark themselves as lepers – both by wearing torn cloths and disheveled hair, as well as by shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” when they saw people approaching. They could be declared clean only by a priest.
There are really two sections to the Gospel reading this morning, and I think it’s helpful to figure out where one section ends and the other begins.
In the first section, Jesus and the disciples are walking toward a village, and are approached by ten lepers. They acknowledge Jesus as one who can heal them and ask for mercy. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests to be declared clean, and they turn away to do so. According to Judaic law, the priests were the only ones who could declare someone clean from leprosy and permit them to reintegrate into society. It is at this point in the story that all ten are healed of their physical disease – the point at which they turn away from Jesus and toward the priests.
The second section of the story is when this becomes more than just a simple healing. In this section, the healing has already happened; the disease is gone. One of the ten, a Samaritan, turns back, “praising God with a loud voice” and thanking Jesus for healing him. Jesus acknowledges that all ten were healed, but that only one – a Samaritan – has turned back to give thanks. It is in response to this that Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”
What was different about the Samaritan?
He had been an outsider as a leper. However, now that his leprosy was cured, he would be able to rejoin society – once he was declared clean. But as a Samaritan, this opportunity was denied him. He was still an outsider. He could not go to the Jewish priests to make his sacrifices and be declared clean, because the Israelites did not recognize the Samaritans as adherents of the same religion or as subject to the same laws. He was still an outsider – a man who believed in God, living in a community of others who shared his condition, but for whom a return to society through the Law was not an option.
How often do we feel like outsiders? Feel like no one around us understands how we are feeling or what we’re going through? This is particularly true when we are dealing with ongoing health concerns, or when we are accompanying a loved one on their own health journey. We often feel alone, abandoned, stuck in our own suffering, distanced from God. We may find ourselves being sucked into the trap of feeling like we have done something to deserve our suffering, or that our faith wasn’t strong enough. “If only…”, we might say. “If only I had stronger faith, God would answer my prayers and I wouldn’t be suffering like this.” “If only I had been nicer to people, or more generous with my time or resources, I wouldn’t be so alone right now.”
But feelings aren’t facts. We may feel alone, distanced from God, stuck in our own suffering, but the fact is that we are never alone. We are always accompanied by someone who loves us enough to become human, to experience loneliness, frustration, fear, sickness, suffering – even to the point of death on a cross. Because of the humanity of Jesus, because of the suffering of Jesus, because of the death of Jesus, God understands intimately both what it means to suffer and what it means to accompany someone in their suffering.
“Your faith has made you well.”
I think that for the Samaritan, this is what it means to be made well. There was something about his encounter with the Divine in Jesus that made him realize that he was not alone – that even though he was not a member of the Jewish community and could not go to the priests to be declared clean, he was not abandoned. He had one place he could turn, one person he could go to for comfort and grace.
And the difference between none and one is infinitely large.
The wellness the Samaritan has found, then, is not healing from his disease. The wellness the Samaritan has found is spiritual wholeness – a recognition that, no matter what suffering he was enduring, God was with him. And in response to that recognition, he rejoiced and praised God.
And this is the message of grace that Jesus has for all of us this morning. We all suffer. At one point or another, we all feel alone. We all feel as though no one else could possibly understand what we are going through. But Jesus reminds us today that when we feel utterly alone in our suffering, we still have exactly one place we can turn. We can turn to the one who chose to suffer so that he would understand suffering, and could accompany us.
And when we experience God’s constancy and unchanging love, even in the face of our suffering, we, too, rejoice and praise God. We live lives of thanksgiving and, in doing that, we find our own spiritual wholeness.
Our faith has made us well, indeed.