Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Ten Lepers

A pastor starts each confirmation class with a jar full of beans. He asks his students to guess how many beans are in the jar, and on a big pad of paper writes down their estimates. Then, next to those estimates, he helps them make another list: Their favourite songs. When the lists are complete, he reveals the actual number of beans in the jar. The whole class looks over their guesses, to see which estimate was closest to being right. He then turns to the list of favourite songs. "And which one of these is closest to being right?" he asks. The students protest that there is no "right answer"; a person's favourite song is purely a matter of taste. He then asks "When you decide what to believe in terms of your faith, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favourite song?"

When I read the gospels, the stories are always odd in some way,  they perplex me. The gospels do not offer us rules, they give us something to wrestle with, to chew on. They are odd. The way of faith that Jesus offers is not prescriptive – it is more like our favourite song than the number of beans in a jar. Sometimes my atheist friends argue with me – they say the stories are so ambiguous in the Gospels that we can take anything from them. They say that the diversity of Christian beliefs is so varied that it is impossible to pin us down. Precisely, I want to say – it is a journey, not a destination. I offer that to you as a health warning for my sermons. When I preach I have been wrestling with a text for a week and I offer my musings for you to chew on, but they are just that – musings… not definitive rules. It is a journey of faith, not certainty, and I believe there are no right answers.

So what about today’s passage – simple? Jesus heals ten lepers and only one comes back to say thanks and Jesus commends him – right? Well… my understanding is that all ten lepers had faith – they asked Jesus to heal them, he told them to show themselves to the priests and on the way they were healed, and so one of them failed to do what Jesus asked and came back to say thanks, and Jesus commended that man and said that his faith had saved him. Saved him from what? Not the leprosy is it? Anyway, what faith? Why does it take faith to go back and say thank-you?

Mmm… so Jesus tells them to do something, one of them doesn’t and he gets commended? Oh and he is the disgusting foreigner who worships on the wrong mountain and has the wrong religion too. It reminds me of a parable by Pete Rollins, of a kind man in a city who one night is woken by someone knocking on his door. It is a man seeking refuge having done the unspeakable crime. He lets him in and goes to bed. Soon afterwards, more men are knocking at the door, they say that God’s law requires for the man to pay with his life for the unspeakable crime. The kind man tells then that he is well aware of God’s law but will not let the criminal be killed. He goes back to bed only to be woken by the elders of the city who command the kind man to release the criminal. The kind man is pretty determined and says no, and goes to bed. So finally, he hears a knocking at the door and when he opens it God is standing there. God demands that the kind man hands the criminal over, but the man refuses. He says that the God that he knows is compassionate and merciful, and he requires God to act within his character and to have mercy on the criminal. To this God replies, ‘you know me better than anyone in this city, and you are right not to release the criminal to me, you are a man of great faith'.

Last week the reading told us about how we can do amazing things with just a little faith. Today’s passage speaks to me of how we can break away from the crowd with a little faith. The ten lepers knew what they wanted and they wanted to be back in society and without their disease. They had enough faith to ask for a miracle, enough faith to move a mountain, and that was great. But the one leper had enough faith to break away from the crowd, break away from the law. When he was healed he didn’t want to go and show himself to the priests to fulfil the law, he wanted to celebrate, and to thank God, and thank Jesus. He was the only one who ended up truly free to be and do his heart’s desire. The nine lepers were saved from their disease, the Samaritan leper was saved from the law.

It reminds me of a passage in Chapter 3 of the book of Galatians:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
Paul is worried that the Galatians are missing the whole point, others are telling them that faith and freedom in Christ wasn’t enough – they had to abide by the Jewish law too. People usually take refuge in the law when they get frightened of living by faith. You know where you are with the law, but living by faith can be a bit of a risk. Is my faith one of following the rules? Is my God a hard task-master, or a loving and forgiving God.  Am I one of the nine lepers, or am I like the Samaritan? Perhaps I need the courage to live by faith, perhaps the courage to be myself.

So may you know that God has given you the gift of faith
May you not be afraid but find salvation and freedom
And may you know joy like the Samaritan Leper

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