Topical Scripture: Luke 17:11–19
Last Tuesday, I was honored to introduce Dr. Tony Evans as the keynote speaker for The Salvation Army’s luncheon in Dallas. Dr. Evans is the founder and senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, a 10,000-member congregation in our city. He has published more than 100 books, booklets, and Bible studies. His daily radio program is heard on 1,400 stations in 130 countries. His sermons are downloaded 20 million times a year.
Baylor University named Dr. Evans one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. His address yesterday was characteristically brilliant and moving. And it was enormously courageous.
You see, his wife, Dr. Lois Evans, is on hospice care. Doctors have no further options in treating her cancer.
And yet you would never know the pain Dr. Evans was in. He demonstrated the joy of the Lord, the power of the Spirit, and an attitude of gratitude for the grace of God.
If he could, we can.
Scripture calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Not “for” all circumstances, but “in” them. Dr. Evans clearly obeyed the word of God last Tuesday.
How can we have true Thanksgiving this Thursday? And every day of the year?
Trust God with your pain
Luke 17 (NIV) tells us that Jesus was “on his way south to Jerusalem” and the cross, traveling “along the border between Samaria and Galilee” (v. 11). Along his journey, our Lord met ten lepers (v. 12). They stood at a distance shouting “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (v. 13). Why?
Lepros is a Greek word which can mean various skin diseases. Psoriasis, lupus, and ringworm probably would have been considered leprosy in Jesus’ day. Leprosy proper, or Hansen’s disease, was common as well. There are three kinds, distinguished by the spots they create: red, white, and black. The disease is seated in the bones, marrow, joints, and nerves, only eventually manifesting itself in the skin.
By that time, it is far advanced. It can cause the nerves to die, so that the patient cannot feel pain, and will damage feet or other limbs without him knowing it. It can cause the joints to separate and literally fall off. Hansen’s disease is always fatal, contagious, and hereditary. It was the AIDS of the ancient world.
And so these lepers stood “at a distance” from Jesus (v. 12). When the leper was windward of a healthy person, the diseased person was made to stand at least fifty yards away. As Jesus was about to enter a village (v. 13), they were required to keep their distance from him.
The Old Testament is clear on this restriction: “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45–46). “Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has a defiling skin disease” (Numbers 5:2).
Imagine being made to live the rest of your life alone or in a camp with other sufferers. Never seeing your family at closer than one hundred and fifty feet; never touching your wife or husband or children or parents again; never knowing a touch of affection or love. An exile for the rest of your life, through absolutely no fault of your own. And this is not to mention the horrible physical suffering when the malady was actual Hansen’s disease, as it so often was.
We can hear and feel their plaintive cry, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (v. 13). Perhaps they heard of his earlier healing of a leper (Luke 5:12–16). Possibly they knew of his larger healing ministry and compassion for those in need. At any rate, they had nothing to lose by appealing to him for help. The worst that could happen was that he would ignore them as did all the other members of their society.
Jesus did exactly what they asked, having pity on their need. He commanded them to go and show themselves to the priests (v. 14), as only a priest could declare them clean and allow them to reenter society. As they went in faith that they were healed, they were.
Thank God for his provision
Now comes the turning point of the story: “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice” (v. 15). They had apparently not gone far, as this man was easily able to find Jesus again to thank him. Note that this episode occurred before the leper went to the priest, so that the priest could make no claim to having healed him.
He “threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him” (v. 16a). Earlier he could get no closer than one hundred and fifty feet; now he fell at his very feet in gratitude. “And he was a Samaritan,” Luke adds (v. 16b). To the Jewish mind, this was a half-breed, a moral and spiritual leper whatever his physical condition. Luke didn’t mention the man’s racial status before. It didn’t matter that he was a Samaritan until he became the only one to return in gratitude. Then Luke pointed out his identity for the sake of irony and emphasis.
Jesus then turned this event into a teaching moment: “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (vs. 17-18). The word translated “foreigner” (allogenes) has been found on a limestone block from the Temple: “Let no foreigner enter within the screen and enclosure surrounding the sanctuary.” A foreigner could not come to the Temple of God, but he could come to the God of the Temple!
So Jesus said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well” (v. 19). It would seem that the man wanted to remain with Jesus; so our Lord told him to “go,” to return to the priest so he could receive his certificate of cleansing and reenter society. With this promise: “your faith has made you well.”
“Well” translates sodzo; when this word is connected with “faith” in the gospels, it takes on a much larger sense than only physical healing. It means to be “saved,” spiritually as well as physically. To be “whole” as several translations render it. To be complete, to be right with God. “Has saved you” is a literal translation.
The perfect tense points to completed action. “You” is singular—only one person was “saved” or made completely well. The other nine were cured of their physical disease—this man of his spiritual malady. The others were cured, one day to die—this man was cured, to live eternally. And the reason? He returned to Jesus in faith, to give thanks.
Recognize your need for grace
Why do so few follow his example and receive his healing today?
If we do not believe that God has given us all that we have; if we separate Sunday from Monday and religion from the “real world”; if we make God our hobby instead of our King; if we think that we are the source of our possessions and prosperity—why would we be thankful to God? We might say a prayer over a Thanksgiving meal, but we certainly wouldn’t let such religious tradition impede on the rest of our holiday, much less the rest of our lives. Why not confine the meal to halftime of the football game, to be followed by an early start on Christmas shopping? If God is irrelevant to our lives, how can he be relevant to Thanksgiving?
It’s easy to condemn those who have turned Thanksgiving from a holy day to a secular holiday, to refuse shopping this Thursday and even this Friday, but is that all God asks of us? As we have seen, his word says to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). How are we doing with an attitude of gratitude? When last did you take even ten minutes to express thanks to God? When last were you guilty of joining the nine thankless lepers? I’ve had to ask the same question of myself.
Why are we so seldom with the one? I think I know some of the reasons.
- The nine perhaps thought they deserved God’s favor, for they were Jews. We think we deserve life and gifts and goodness, but we don’t.
- There would be time later, after they saw the priests and then their families and friends and rejoiced in celebration. They could always come back later to give thanks. But they didn’t. Usually we don’t.
- They lost sight of Jesus. They were so focused on their newfound health that they forgot the One who gave it to them. So do we.
- Giving thanks doesn’t really matter to Jesus. He’s God—he’s above that sort of thing. But his response to their thanklessness proved otherwise. God does care. And so do others.
- I don’t need to give thanks. There’s nothing really to be missed. But there was. They missed salvation—eternal relationship with God. Their bodies were healed, but their souls were not. They were never made whole and well, because they were thankless men. Thanksgiving makes us whole.
You see, we “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). When we are thankful, we recognize and submit to the Source of our life and blessings. We are empowered by his Spirit. We manifest his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. An attitude of gratitude marks us as the children of God and enables him to use us for in his service.
One grateful leper is still changing lives twenty centuries later. Thanksgiving honors God and extends his Kingdom.
How do we develop an attitude of gratitude? By trusting our needs to God and thanking him for his provisions. Every time we have a need. And every time he gives us his provision.
I mentioned last Sunday that the previous Sunday I was away from our Chapel to preach at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler. Janet and I accepted their invitation in part because they are a remarkable, global congregation, the largest church in East Texas and one of the most effective anywhere.
The other reason I accepted their invitation is that two of our grandchildren live in Tyler. Even though Green Acres is not their church, they came to worship on Sunday. And seeing my granddaughter in her beautiful red dress at church was worth it all.
I saw another person that morning who also caused me to “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.”
My father died of a heart attack in 1979 at the age of fifty-five. On the first day my brother and I came back to our college campus after his funeral, Linda Sharp found us. Her father had died six months earlier of cancer and her pregnant older sister a few months earlier when she was killed by a drunk driver.
Linda put her arms around us and said, “Time helps. It doesn’t heal, but it helps.” I will never forget her grace that day.
I saw Linda at Green Acres. I had forgotten that she and her husband are members there. When I saw her in the hallway, my heart was flooded with gratitude for her. And to the God who used her so beautifully in my life.
If we’ll give every need to God and thank him for every provision, there will never be an hour when we will not be grateful. This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.