Sermon – October 13, 2019 Proper 23, Year C
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Today’s Gospel reading features Jesus healing ten lepers. Leprosy is a disease rarely encountered today, except for some extremely poor areas in the Third World, however it was a scourge for thousands of years of human history. Leprosy damaged your nerves, skin and eyes, causing you to lose feeling in your hands, feet and other extremities. Often this resulted in parts of your body falling off. It was a horrible disease. Because it was so terrible and since nobody knew a cure, once someone was seen to have leprosy they would be quarantined and made to warn anyone who might approach them to stay away. They would be reduced to begging as they were cast out of society to die.
In our story, Jesus was approached by ten lepers who called out to him to have pity on them. Jesus replied by telling them to go show themselves to the priests. In Jewish law, the priesthood was responsible for determining whether somebody had leprosy or not. When Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, they knew that they were healed.
Now this healing isn’t the main point of the story. What comes afterward is. The ten lepers do indeed go to the priests and they are declared to be free of leprosy. But only one, and a Samaritan at that, returns to give Jesus thanks. Jesus responds by saying “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” The main point of this story is gratitude.
When I looked at the commentaries for this passage, I was interested to note that many scholars are puzzled at why this story is placed where it is. However, when I read the verses immediately preceding this passage, I noticed a very interesting context. We read these verses last week together, but it is worth hearing again. Let me read for you two excerpts that set the stage for the healing of the ten lepers.
Earlier in chapter 17, Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.” Jesus is giving context that what he is about to talk about are things that can cause us to lose our way and turn away from God.
Jesus tells his disciples, “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
Jesus is saying that his disciples should not be expected to be thanked for simply doing what they ought to do. Jesus uses the example of employees who do what their jobs are. Doing your job is just what you are expected to do. You should not expect your employer to shower thanks on you for simply doing it.
Do you see the interesting inversion here as compared to today’s Gospel passage? Last week we read about Jesus telling his disciples not to expect to be thanked for simply doing what is expected of them, while this week we read about the leper returning to give thanks to Jesus. The two passages are almost a mirror image of each other. At root in both of these passages is the proper understanding of who is worthy of praise and thanksgiving. And it isn’t us.
Taken together, these passages give us valuable lessons in how our attitudes can lead us closer to, or further away from God. If we think very highly of ourselves, we will expect to be thanked and praised for simply doing our basic duty towards God and each other. We will become self-focused, perhaps prideful, and forget to properly give thanks to God for what he has done for us. As I thought about this, I realized how this lesson is extremely relevant for us today. You see, we live in a culture that has put ourselves and our individual wants on the highest pedestal. In fact, many studies have shown an astonishing increase in narcissism in our society over the last quarter century.
A 2014 Psychology Today article on this subject states that narcissism “refers to an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others. People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for doing so…and readily trample over others in their efforts to rise to the “top,” which is where they think they belong. ..People high on this trait are often unhappy, angry at the world because of the world’s failure to recognize their superiority. They are generally incapable of forming the kinds of deep, meaningful, lasting relationships with others that we all need in order to live happy, emotionally secure lives.” Sounds like a pretty accurate description of our society, doesn’t it?
This trend toward narcissism plays out in our religious thought. In 2005 two sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, published a book titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. This book sought to study, analyze and accurately describe the religious and metaphysical beliefs of American young people. After conducting a wide-ranging study of American youth, including both a wide variety of Christians and non-Christians, the authors identified a belief structure that was very widely held by young people. In the 15 years since this book came out, many commentators argue that this belief structure is widely held amongst Americans of all ages, not just the young. Some even have described this belief structure as America’s new civil religion.
The authors called this belief system moralistic therapeutic deism, and they described five principles which characterize it. I want you to listen to these points carefully because they don’t necessarily deny God or his existence, but they do suggest something very troubling about the relative value we place on ourselves as compared to God. Here are the five principles:
- A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Let’s think about these principles more closely. First, the existence of God is not denied. God is acknowledged as the creator of the world. Christians can, and often are, influenced by this way of thinking.
Second, God does have some expectations of us, but these expectations sound a lot like our own standards. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other. Who doesn’t think this is a good idea? Who thinks that they aren’t good, kind or fair? This makes me think of Seinfeld, one of my all-time favorite comedy shows. One plot device commonly used in the show involves a personal interaction between one of the characters and someone else while we would get to hear the character’s unspoken thoughts during the interaction. The characters often would be telling themselves how thoughtful and kind they were, when their actions weren’t really thoughtful or kind at all. In fact, the thing that made Seinfeld so funny was that we all knew that the characters were really self-centered narcissists who liked to think that they were far more altruistic than they actually were. Like the Seinfeld characters, we like to think that we are “good, nice and fair” but we really often are not.
Third, we are told that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ourselves. Come to think of it, this reminds me of Seinfeld also. The central goal of life is all about us. So long as we can convince ourselves that we are being good, nice and fair, we can then focus exclusively on ourselves. This was basically the overarching theme underlying Seinfeld. Fourth, we are told that God does not need to be involved in our lives except when we need him to resolve a problem for us. So taking the third and fourth principles together, we can forget about God and focus on ourselves unless we need God to do something for us.
Finally, we are told that good people go to heaven when they die. Well, we all think we are good, because we all think we are “good, nice and fair” to others. We all think we are worthy of meriting entrance to heaven. So, on reflection, I do think that the mindset of moralistic therapeutic deism is narcissistic. The authors of the study comment that for many Americans “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”
Think about it. These principles do describe the common accepted religious belief system in America today. We value our own needs and wants over those of anyone else, and we feel entitled to pursue those needs and wants so long as we are good, nice and fair to others. And the common belief is that we are all basically good and so entitled to heaven.
I actually don’t think that being good, nice and fair is really a particularly demanding standard. It doesn’t require us to do anything or get invested in anyone’s lives. It really is about us keeping out of the lives of others. We feel entitled to pursue our own self-interest, and we tell God to mind his own business. We only want God’s involvement when we have a task from him to do. Divine butler indeed. On top of it all, we think we deserve the ultimate approval and thank you from God by getting to heaven.
We have really flipped the thank you scales on their head, and this is leading us away from God. Let’s return to the lessons Jesus has for us in Luke chapter 17. Jesus tells us not to expect praise and thanksgiving for just doing what is expected of us. In this, Jesus is telling us two important things. First, we are here for a purpose and that purpose is not our selfish desires or wants. Rather, our purpose is to serve God and others. Being nice, good and fair is woefully incomplete in describing what we are called to do. We are called to invest ourselves in others lives. Real love is not always easy or always saying yes or how wonderful others are. Sometimes love means we must take a risk of offending someone. Second, serving God and doing what he asks of us is simply what we are expected to do. Obeying God will not win us God’s thanks, nor does it win us an entry ticket into heaven.
Looking to the story of the healing of the ten lepers, Jesus is telling us that we are like the lepers. We were suffering from the incurable disease of sin that will cause us to wither and decay and to be cast outside of fellowship with God. The only way for us to be healed is to join with the ten lepers and cry out “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” This is the only way that we can be healed from our sin. If we don’t want God involved in our lives, we are rejecting his cure. We either accept Jesus and the cure, or we reject Jesus and the cure. There is no other way. And when we truly understand this, then we will join with the Samaritan who was cured of his leprosy and return to Jesus and give him thanks. We give thanks to Jesus because we know how important it is that he is in our lives.
In our Old Testament reading, we heard the story of Namaan. Namaan was a powerful army general from Syria who came down with leprosy. On the advice of a young Israelite servant girl, Namaan went to see the prophet Elisha for healing. Elisha instructed Namaan to wash himself in the Jordan River, but Namaan thought that that would be a humiliation. You see, Namaan thought very highly of himself, and rather than humble himself before God, he expected God to exalt him as God healed him. Luckily for Namaan, his servants had more sense than he did, and they convinced him to wash in the Jordan as Elisha had directed. And Namaan was healed. Only then did Namaan understand and he went back to thank Elisha and praise God.
Our society today encourages us to be like proud Namaan. To think that we are supremely important, that the world revolves around our wants, and that God owes us thanks and blessings even as we see him as our divine butler who should only intrude in our lives when we need him to do something for us. If this is who we are, then we will reject God’s healing, we will reject his cure for our sins, and we will reject God’s call for obedience and service.
Instead led us heed the lessons from Luke chapter 17. Let us be like the Namaan who heeded the counsel of his servants. Let us turn away from our pride and hubris and humble ourselves before God and each other. Let us accept our proper role in our relationship with God. A role in which we can have no demands on God for blessings or thanks, but in which we can only cry out to God for mercy. And make no mistake, if we cry out to God, he will hear us, and he will heal us. And we will be made clean. And then we will be people who are compelled to give thanks to God in a spirit of humility, like the Samaritan leper who was healed. Jesus, Master, have pity on us.
Let us pray,Merciful God, your Son came to save us and bore our sins on the cross: may we trust in your mercy and know your love, giving you thanks and praise and rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord Amen.