We are awash in polls now. Everyday we hear the results from the latest polls on the presidential election. They usually tell you how many were polled and what the margin of error is. Lately the margin of error is the same as the difference between the candidates making the race a dead heat. But now it's been pointed out that 169 million Americans have no land line phone; they only use cell phones. Since there is no national directory for cell phones, these can't be polled. This, claim some, has skewed all the polls for this election. I'm not much on polls, but I think we can learn a thing or two 2 from polling lepers.
First we can learn the majority can be right. 10 out of 10 lepers surveyed believed they should go to meet Jesus. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem where, as He has announced earlier, He will be rejected by the Church, crucified by the State, and raised again by His Father. As Jesus enters a village, the lepers hear about it and 10 out of 10 believe they ought to go meet Jesus. In Luke 5, Doctor Luke reported that Jesus healed a man full of leprosy. "Full of leprosy" was a first century medical diagnosis for an advanced case of the disease. Jesus had healed other lepers, so 10 out 10 lepers agree they should meet Jesus.
Moreover, 10 out of 10 demand mercy from Jesus. Though they all remember their place as a leper according to the OT Law and so don't come near the healthy, they lift up their voices and call from afar. And 10 out of 10 demanded mercy. "Jesus, Master, you must mercy us." They speak an imperative to Jesus which means from their point of view they know of no reason for Jesus not to have mercy on them.
This is profound. Lepers were the living dead of the 1st century because no one knew how to cure them. The rabbis had no medical, magical, or remedial suggestions. Doctors confessed themselves powerless against this disease. Yet 10 out of 10 lepers believe Jesus is able to help, and more importantly, 10 out of 10 believe Jesus is willing to help. Although God had made it plain in the OT that a leper was only ritually unclean, the people treated them as spiritually unclean. In other words, while God did not think of lepers as necessarily having a moral failure, popular society did. Therefore, they believed God would not be wiling to help them.
Yet 10 out of 10 lifted their voice for Jesus to mercy them; 10 out of 10 commanded Jesus to mercy them; 10 out of 10 demanded that He do it. And this condemns us. Although each year on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost we chant in the Introit, "I sought the Lord, and He answered me; He delivered me out of all my fears. The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles." We do not this; we do not believe this. We don't lay our needs, our fears, our hopes at Jesus' feet.
Instead we say pious sounding things like, "Who am I to ask for such a big thing," which is nothing more than brazen unbelief. What we're really saying is, "The Gospel is not true. Jesus did not really keep the law in my place and pay for all my sins, so my sins and sinfulness are still before God making me unworthy." We piously think, "Who are we to demand mercy," but this is really impious unbelief, it's spitting in the face of the God who promises that His "mercy endures forever."
10 out of 10 lepers polled believed they should boldly go to meet Jesus, take a stand on His power and mercy and lift up their voice insisting that Jesus must help. And their faith condemns our doubts. Doubts don't go forth, don't take a stand on anything, and don't call on Jesus at all. No, I'll tell you what doubts do. They turn your stomach into knots, hang your head, and wring your hands and cause you to stand their whining and stammering, "Who knows? Who knows? If only I knew for sure I could ask or what to ask?" We sing about bringing big and large petitions to our God and King and we bring squat. 10 out of 10 lepers surveyed say we're wrong.
Polling lepers we find that the majority can be right, but we also find that the majority can be wrong. 9 out of 10 surveyed don't believe Jesus is God. We read that only 1 out of 10 returned, literally, "glorifying his God, he fell at Jesus' feet and was thanking Him." Grammatically, this can be taken no other way than the 1 leper believed Jesus is God. Since only God can heal lepers and since Jesus by His Word sent them to the priests where they could only go if healed, Jesus must be God in flesh and blood.
So what did the other 9 think? We know that from what they did. They thought they should keep on going to the priests. This was in accordance with OT Law. Only a priest could declare someone cleansed of leprosy. All 10 lepers were healed right away before getting that far away from Jesus. But 90 % of healed lepers believed this blessing came from their obedience to the command and not from the Jesus who had sent them where they could only go if they were healed.
Think of the discussion. The 10 lepers start off, and as they go dead skin is restored, putrid flesh is cleansed, missing body parts reappear. What joy! What wonder! One of them turns back to Jesus because he knows this is the God who has done this. The 9 keep going, and you latent legalist know why: They said, "Look He said go show yourselves to the priest. The Law requires us to do this. If we don't fulfill this law our healing might not last."
To begin with, returning to thank Jesus doesn't exclude going to the priests later. But, even though many Thanksgiving sermons have been preached this way, failure to thank Jesus is not the real point. Jesus doesn't say that 90% failed to thank Him, but 9 out of 10 failed to return to Him to give glory to their God. 90% of healed lepers believe that their blessing came from serving the law to the last jot and tittle rather than from the God/Man Jesus.
How about you? Where do your blessing come from? From your keeping of the Law or from Jesus? Your keeping of the Law is always flawed, imperfect, worthy of judgment and damnation. If God blesses me based on how well I keep the Law, then I am damned. Jesus is the only One who has ever kept the Law perfectly. The blessings that come to me from Jesus, for His sake, these alone are sure. But 9 out of 10 healed lepers disagree. They think their doing is what matters. Their blood, sweat and tears while making the journey, paying the expenses, offering the proscribed sacrifices is what guaranteed their healing not the blood, sweat and tears of Jesus on behalf of their sins.
We want to revisit the fact that 90% of healed lepers don't believe Jesus is God. That doesn't mean they didn't thank God. No, they just didn't return to Jesus to do it. That's what Jesus says, "Was no one found to return to give praise to God except this foreigner?" The 9 others did give praise to God, but the only place they thought this could be done was at the Jerusalem temple. The 1 believed the startlingly revelation of the NT that Jesus is the temple of God, the new and eternal dwelling place of God on earth.
The majority is wrong in this case and the minority is right, and so the faith we hold is being commended here. We are right for glorying, praising and thanking God in the Person of Jesus. We are right in pointing people to Jesus in flesh and blood as the only true God. Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary; Jesus in the manger; Jesus welcoming the children; Jesus suffering, bleeding and dying on the cross is our God. We don't point people to an unknowable, unapproachable, God dwelling in blinding light and consuming fire. We point them to Jesus. Jesus is where the true God is knowable and approachable. Jesus is where God invites sinners, welcomes burdens, and promises more grace than people have sins.
Our faith is vindicated by the 1 out of 10 healed lepers that Jesus praises. Jesus praises him for returning to Him to thank God. The faith that we hold is commended here. Where do we constantly call people to God? To this building? Not really. If this building were blown down next week, we would still be here calling people to God. Where exactly do we call them to? To Baptism, where people put on God by putting on God the Son. "As many of you who have baptized you have put on Christ," says Paul in Galatians. We call people to Absolution where the voice of God is heard from the lips of a man because Jesus promises: He who hears him, hears me, and he who hears Me, hears the One who sent me. We call them to Communion where God comes once more in flesh and blood to planet earth in the person of Jesus in the Bread and Wine on our altar.
90% of lepers were wrong for not believing that God worked through the command and promises of Jesus or that God could be thanked in the Person of Jesus. That 1 leper who did believe God worked through Jesus' promises and in the Person of Jesus was told, literally, "The faith of you has forever saved you." Jesus is not praising the faith going on in that leper's heart but the faith, the doctrine, the teaching that leper held to. Believing in itself doesn't save anyone. If it did, anyone who believed anything would be saved. No, believing what God has revealed in Jesus is what saves.
In Jesus is where the true God wants to be approached, known, trusted. Apart from Jesus, God does do mighty works of healing. People are healed everyday and what but the power of God does this? But only in Jesus, by Jesus, through Jesus, does God save. Only about 10 % of healed people ever believe and see that the true God reveals Himself and deals with them only in Jesus. But this 10% are saved, and so keep on returning to where Jesus is in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. As for the 90 % who don't, Jesus leaves this question hanging in the air, "Where are the other 9?" Polls can't tell you that, but you know, don't you? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XXI (October 21, 2004); Luke 17: 11-19