What is faith? (A sermon on Luke 17:11-17)


I’ve been having more regular contact lately from some of the men of Manus Island – the asylum-seekers that I met almost two years ago in the detention centre there, though none of them still seem to be on Manus Island, but are now in Port Moresby or in this country getting medical help, though those getting medical help here aren’t expecting to be here long, and indeed have no idea as to where they’ll be going next.

One of the curious things about these ‘Manus men’ (who I’m hoping some of us will still be able to support in the coming weeks and months) is that not only do I still refer to them as the ‘Manus men’ (whether or not they are still on Manus) but they refer to each other in much the same way. Certain experiences impact us in such a deep way that they become a part of our identity, such that you’re no longer just a person who spent time on Manus Island. You’re a Manus man.

Some jobs, in a similar way, become a part of your identity. Being a priest, for example, is not just something you do. It’s someone you are. Being a doctor can be like that too, as can being a professional criminal. Indeed, who amongst us does not use the term ‘murderer’ to refer to someone who has committed a murder. Yes, it is something you do, but it becomes who you are! Likewise, with adulterers, liars, thieves and fornicators – a moment in your history can become your identity.

It was like that with leprosy too. In first century Judea you weren’t a person suffering from leprosy. You were a leper, and that’s exactly how these men are presented to us in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke  – as ten lepers.  We’re not told their names or their nationalities. We have no idea what their former occupations were or whether they had families. We don’t know anything about them but that they were lepers, and that there were ten of them.

I’ve read some learned commentators on this passage who suggest that some of these men probably didn’t literally have leprosy. Some of them may have had eczema or some other not-so-serious skin condition, but to the average Judean in first century Palestinian society they were all just lepers. They were all the same.

It’s called ‘outgroup homogeneity’. When the group you’re referring to is not your group, all the members of that group appear to be the same. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about black people or white or rich or poor or Christian or Muslim or about a church or a leper colony. They are all the same – always – and in the case of lepers, they are all equally unclean as well.

It’s like that for the Manus men too, of course. They’re all the same. They’re trying to get over here to take what is rightfully ours and steal our jobs and steal our women! Of course, most of us parishioners of the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill probably see these men in the opposite light. They are all a group of persecuted saints, as indeed I believe many of them are, though probably not every one of them.

In truth, I don’t think depicting the Manus man as being all virtuous is a lot better than depicting them as all villains, as it only takes one negative experience to flip your evaluation. We thought they were really special people but …

“Ten lepersapproached [Jesus]. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  (Luke 17:12-13)

They approached Jesus, and yet they stood at a distance and shouted at Him. Why? Because they were lepers and that’s what lepers do, because they are unclean.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t approach them, talk to them, ask them their names, let alone embrace any of them, as we might have expected. Instead, Jesus shouts back at them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”, which they apparently set out to do BUT, we are told, “as they went, they were made clean” (Luke 17:14)!

This is where the miracle takes place, and it’s beautifully understated, as are so many of the miracles in the Gospel stories.

I have fond memories of my late friend, Clifford Warne, telling a dramatized version of this story, where he’d begin by explaining the problem with leprosy – how it destroys your ability to feel pain, so that when you get a pebble in your shoe, for instance, it can dig a great big hole into your foot before you realise that it’s there.

At this point in the story, as they all head off to see the priests, Clifford would imagine one of the ten struggling to keep up with the group and calling out to his friends, “Hang on a second. I’ve got a stone in my shoe”

However it happens, the ten lepers are suddenly lepers no more. They have become whole people again, fit to be readmitted into normal human society. Whether this great truth impacted them all simultaneously or whether some of them stood around bewildered for a while, trying to comprehend what had happened, we do not know. All we do know is that one of the ten turned around and presumably never made it to the priest. Instead, he went back to thank Jesus.

“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.” (Luke 17:15-16a)

Then the Gospel writer drops a clanger: “And he was a Samaritan.” (Luke 17:16b)

Well … perhaps that explains why he never made it to see the priest. The priest would not have wanted to see him. This man was from the wrong religion. He was a Samaritan! Interestingly, when we first met him, he was a leper. Now he’s a Samaritan. His identity has shifted from one outgroup to another!

When we’re talking about ‘us’ and ‘them’ – about ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’ –there is no more archetypal ‘us’ and ‘them’ division in the New Testament than that between Jews and Samaritans. It’s not our history, and so we may find the animosity between Jews and Samaritans a little hard to understand, but the feud between these two peoples had been seven and a half centuries in the making!

If you know your Old Testament history, you know that after the death of King Solomon, the kingdom of Israel split into north and south, with the north having its capital in Samaria and the south having its capital in Jerusalem. And if you know that history, you know too that three centuries later (in 721 BC) the Assyrian army under Tiglath Pileser III conquered the northern kingdom and destroyed Samaria, just as the southern kingdom would eventually be conquered by the Babylonians about 150 years after that.

The big difference though between the conquests of the north and the south though was that Tiglath Pileser did not just export large groups of his conquered peoples back to his own land (as the Babylonians did). He also imported a lot of his people into the conquered territories, meaning that in the case of Samaria and northern Israel, the people there became racially intermixed.

It was frankly a brilliant strategy on the part of the Assyrians to prevent rebellion in the empire over the long-term, but what it meant for the remaining Jews of the south was not only did the people of Samaria become ethnically distinct from them, but they ended up distorting the religion that defined them as a unified people too!

This wasn’t so much because the Samaritans mixed Assyrian religious myths and motifs into their worship but simply because their Bible stopped at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, presumably because that was as much as had been written by the time Samaria fell.

If you want to get a feel for the religious differences between first century Jews and Samaritans, read John’s Gospel, chapter four, where Jesus dialogues with the woman at the well. She’s a Samaritan, and she speaks of how you have to worship God on the right mountain and of the Messiah who will come and ‘explain everything’ (John 4:25) which indeed reflects the Samaritan Messianic hope for another teacher like Moses who will come back and explain to everyone exactly what is going on.

This sort of Messianic hope was a long way from what the Jews of Judea were looking for, and indeed these two religions, after seven centuries of independent evolution, were poles apart. Religiously speaking, Jews and Samaritans weren’t just different branches of the same faith. They were completely alien from one another. In other words, from our perspective, this healed leper is a Saudi Arabian Muslim.

As I say, before the healing took place, this guy was just another leper. Now he’s not a leper. He’s a Muslim. He’s changed outgroups though, of course, the one thing that Muslims and Samaritans and lepers have in common is that they’re all the same!

And so this man is still an outsider. He’s still one of them on account of his race and religion, or at least he is until he receives his parting words from Jesus: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)

Now … I think it’s easy to skip over those words as if Jesus was just saying, “Good on you, mate. Great to meet you.” But there is more to Jesus statement than that. “Your faith has made you well”, Jesus says, and I think that’s significant!

To feel the full impact of those words I think we need to go back a bit in Luke, chapter 17, to the chunk in the narrative that immediately preceding this story.

Luke, chapter 17, does not start with the story of the ten lepers.  It starts with Jesus teaching His disciples about sin and forgiveness, which prompts a request from the disciples – “increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).

Jesus then talks about what you can do with faith the size of a grain of mustard seed (Luke 17:6), suggesting that size might not be the issue. Even so, the plea for greater faith remains largely unresolved, and then we get this story of the ten lepers.

It may have been that the encounter with the ten lepers just happened to take place as Jesus was finishing up the discussion about faith, but I suspect that whether it happened then or earlier or later, Luke deliberately decided to put this story where it is because it responds very directly to the disciples’ question.

“Give us more faith”, the disciples ask Jesus, and then we get this story of a man of great faith – whose ‘faith makes him well’ and cures him of leprosy! If this man is supposed to be our model of faith, that’s a very uncomfortable thing to have to deal with, as this character is not one of us and he doesn’t look anything like us!

This guy is a leper (or he was) and he’s a Samaritan, and there’s no changing that! He’s from a different culture and a different religion. In what sense am I supposed to model myself on him?

More than that, if this guy really is an archetype of faith, what is it that he does that I’m supposed to emulate? All he seems to do is show up!

I assume that the faith the man is commended for – the faith that made him well – is the faith he displays before he is healed, and the only faith he and the other nine lepers display before their healing is that they all show up and ask for help. Is that what faith the size of a grain of mustard seed is supposed to look like?

He’s a difficult model to emulate, isn’t he? There doesn’t seem to be anything special about this guy, and he’s not one of us, and why would I want to be more like him?

In truth, if there’s one group of people in the New Testament who do come across as being all the same, it’s not the Samaritans or the lepers, and it’s not the sinners or the tax-collectors or any of those people we might want to put in the ‘them’ category. Rather, the most tragically homogeneous behaviour we see in the New Testament comes from us religious people. We are consistently legalistic, judgmental and closed to the outsider.

This story does indeed have something to teach us about what faith looks like, and the first thing we learn here is that faith manifests itself in ways that we don’t expect and in ways that we will struggle to understand.

The other thing we do learn from this ex-leper though that is easy to understand is that people of great faith are also thankful people, and that’s something work taking to heart.

Having a couple of weeks’ holidays has given me time to reflect on the many things I have to be thankful for – my wonderful children, my many friends, having my own boxing ring … I’m living the life!

Some days having faith will mean laying down your life. On other days it will just mean showing up. Faith is going to look different in different people at different times. We are not all the same and faith takes many different forms. Perhaps though true faith always ends in thanksgiving:

Thank you, Lord God, for health and safety, for the joys of community and for the privilege of service. Thank you, God, for the gift of healing, for the promise of better days coming. Amen.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 13 2019.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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