By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 27, 2019
Luke 18:9–14 (ESV)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This parable is one that I often find myself getting caught up in. There are days where I identify with one character or another. This is one of the reasons I often encourage us to use our imagination when we read scripture. It allows our spirit to more fully engage with the Word.
Last Wednesday during our mid-week service we had a discussion revolving around one of the queries found within our faith and practice. We often have one of these discussions when one series ends so we can start fresh with the next study. I love these discussions because the queries become a tool to assist us in examining our spiritual lives. This week we discussed the first query from our faith and practice. That query states:
Do you earnestly seek to maintain a life in fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you practice the daily reading of the Scriptures in your families, giving time for waiting upon the Lord? Are you watchful not to be unduly absorbed by temporal affairs? Are you careful to avoid all places and amusements inconsistent with a Christian character?
At times we do not always know what to do with the queries. Frequently, we look at these questions and make attempts to answer yes or no. Do we look beyond the surface? We could say yes or no, but what if we were to ask how?
We have two characters in this parable, a pharisee and a tax collector. When Jesus uses these two individuals in a parable, he is asking us a query of sorts. The parable is told to cause us to question ourselves.
It is at times difficult to understand where and to whom Jesus is speaking when we are reading through the gospel accounts. When looking at the context of this passage we would find that shortly before last week’s passage, Jesus was speaking to a group of Pharisees. During that encounter with the religious leaders, Jesus was asked when the Kingdom of God would come. This question is one that is often asked even today.
For two thousand years, the followers of Christ have been anxiously anticipating the coming kingdom. Those of the first century had a similar anticipation. For thousands of years the religious leaders taught about the coming kingdom and one group, wishing to hasten the advent of the kingdom, studied scripture in depth in order to prepare for their coming king. They believed that the hesitation of the coming king was due to the lack of religious piety. This group sought to purify the nation. This group is known to us as the pharisees.
I have often said that we give the pharisees a hard time. We often see them as religious fanatics. But are they much different than us? Their desire was to make the people of their nation holy. Their teachings encouraged adherence to the law, everything they did was to promote greater connection to the teachings they received from Moses. This desire of holiness is an honorable pursuit. It is a pursuit that many religious societies for centuries. Each group sees something within the world that they perceive to be hampering the kingdom of God and they do all they can do to change the course of society. Even our own religious tradition began with this lofty pursuit, the pursuit to encourage a closer walk with God. If the Pharisees were a religious order that encouraged greater devotions to God, why did Jesus continuously oppose their activities?
This brings us again to the parable. I mentioned the context because it is always important consider who is speaking or being spoken to. Since the pharisees were the last group mentioned we might consider that they were the ones who were listening to this teaching. Many scholars say that this is not the case, but I do not know if this is true or not. The only thing we do know for sure is that Jesus was speaking to people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. This is an interesting statement made by the gospel writer. They were not recognized by their denomination but their activity.
Two men went to the temple to pray, Jesus says. One was identified as being a member of a religious order, the other was from a social class that was considered opposed to the kingdom of God. The pharisees were the group seeking to usher in the kingdom of God, while the tax collectors were the ones that collaborated with the kingdoms of the world. I find this symbolism striking.
These men enter the temple to pray. Both those that promote the holy lifestyle and those that seem to be more closely connected to the world. Both come to pray, yet like many of the parables Jesus uses the characters within do not coincide with our perception of reality.
The Pharisee enters, and takes his place in the sanctuary. He stands by himself. Setting himself apart from the others within this holy place, but aware of all who is within. The wording creates this image that this individual set himself up to be the center of attention. Visually dominating the aesthetics. He begins to pray, “God, I thank you.” If we were to stop there, we could possibly write a book about the gratitude of the pharisees, because gratitude is a discipline to desire. It is important to constantly remind oneself of the many blessings that we enjoy. He continues, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” I cannot even at this point condemn his method of prayer, because we are to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves, so to thank God for who you are is ok. I am very thankful that I am a unique individual. I am thankful that I am fearfully and wonderfully made by the God that has known me even in my mother’s womb. But at this point we can sense a problem. This individual is measuring his against others.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” I want to be honest; I think I might vote for this pharisee. But this is not the campaign trail, this is the place of worship, and the worst part is he is directly discouraging one of those within his community. The prayer continues, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” This prayer that started, “God, I thank you” quickly turned into idolatry of self.
He speaks of his own personal greatness. I am not an extortioner, I am not unjust, I am not an adulterer, there is nothing wrong with me. Even more I fast not once but twice a week and everyone is aware at how much I give. Look at me God, maybe you should be thankful that you were wise enough to create such a spectacular human specimen.
Jesus then shares the prayer of the other man that went to pray that day. The tax collector enters the worship space knowing full well what those around him think of him. He enters and stands far off. He stands looking down, he beats his breast and you almost get a sense that he is barely able to remain on his feet. And he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
I am often caught up in this parable. I sit and imagine the scene. There are times when I read through this passage and I must stop and examine my life and consider who I resemble most. There are times where I imagine I am neither of these characters and am just another member of that congregation eavesdropping on the prayers of others. And as I consider this, it scares me.
It scares me because I am an individual that loves the expression of my faith. I love wearing t-shirts that proclaim my faith. I especially like clever t-shirts that highlight Quakers, and I am still sad that Quaker Gear is no longer making shirts because I need a new one. This parable scares me because I can easily be the man praising himself. Because as far as I am concerned the world would be a better place if everyone would just realize that my way is really the best way. It scares me, because I go around every day encouraging people to come join us for worship, and maybe in my zeal for the church I might come across as judgmental and self-righteous.
It scares me, but it also encourages me. It encourages me because I know who I am. Humility is being honest about yourself. And this parable encourages me because I know who I am and where I come from. It encourages me because I know what God has done for me, and I stand within his mercy speechless.
Through all of that it causes me to pause and consider my life. I often speak of my life, and every time I speak about myself, I am afraid that I might be like the pharisee in the story. But I speak of myself because I know who I am. I know my weaknesses and I know what God has done through me. I speak about myself because no matter how elegant my words there is only one person I can control. Me. And the only person you can control is yourself as well. I can plea and encourage, I can scream and berate but at the end of the day the only person that I have any power over is myself.
“God have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Every religious movement begins at that point. Every religious movement looks out at the world around them and they say this is what is wrong, and I am the reason it is so bad. I have not given enough charity to those in need, I have taken advantage of situations for my own gain. I have sinned and God have mercy. People are attracted to the authenticity of that movement because the leaders are willing to admit their own weaknesses. If we were read scripture, we know that the Apostle Paul even says everything I have done is rubbish, is trash, because I am the chief of sinners and I will only boast of my weaknesses because in my weakness Christ is strong. Every religious movement, even that of the Pharisees began in that place, I am the problem and I repent.
We begin with repentance, but quickly we forget who we are. Those groups that blossomed early in their history become institutions, and those institutions can often begin to forget from where they emerged. They begin to say we are great because we did things right, and they begin to maintain exploit the power they have within the institution forgetting where they began. Their prayers become “Look at me, I am great!” and they forget where they began, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!”
As I drove home from the elders meeting yesterday afternoon. I again drove through the flint hills and I looked out over the rolling his of grass. This time I was reminded of our Friends history. And I thought about George Fox and the struggles he had as he began to seek God. He looked out at the world and all he saw was empty words spoken empty people. He earnestly sought God, he desired God more than anything in the world. Many people believe that Fox had the entire bible memorized because he spent so much time reading it, yet he struggled with faith. He struggled because what he saw in scripture did not resemble what he saw in the church at that time. And in his despair, he went to the wilderness and sat. He basically gave up on the church, yet when he was out in that isolated place, God met him there. I looked out at the hills along the turnpike and I wondered what changed? Fox climbed up a hill and saw a vision of a multitude of light overcoming darkness, and I looked out over the hills of Kansas and wondered what changed? Have we become too focused on ourselves and our institution?
As I drove along that highway, I again considered the query we discussed on Wednesday:
Do you earnestly seek to maintain a life in fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you practice the daily reading of the Scriptures in your families, giving time for waiting upon the Lord? Are you watchful not to be unduly absorbed by temporal affairs? Are you careful to avoid all places and amusements inconsistent with a Christian character?
Are we seeking God, are we allowing time for God to speak to us? Are we unduly absorbed by temporal affairs? And are we mindful of how our lives affect those around us? Are we beacons of hope or jurors of despair? As we join in this time of Holy expectancy let us consider those questions, but not just consider in a legalistic manner of yes or no but pull back the layers and see the core. If we say we are how are we showing it?
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 20, 2019
Luke 18:1–8 (ESV)
1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Pray, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of the Christian life. For me prayer is more then simply releasing the burdens we bear on our shoulders with the hope that if it is God’s will that he might remove some of those burdens. So often that is the image of prayer that we receive from church. It is not surprising when leaders, even well-meaning leaders, will often ask, “are their any prayer needs?” That one phrase teaches so much about our understanding of prayer. We ask God to remove the burdens from our lives, but so many of us participate in these meeting for prayer, and we have even mimicked the service in our own lives. We do this and so often we are left with our burden, nothing has changed. When we do and activity and the results are not what we expect we tend to do one of two things we either try harder or we quit.
Why do we quit? When we pray and the results are not to our liking, we conclude that we must not know how to pray correctly. We begin to think that the only people that really know how to pray must have some supernatural gift. Maybe they are saints, or these spiritual demigods that are almost not human because for some reason God has given them power to manipulate our physical world. This thought process leads us to approach those individuals and we pass our petitions on to them, they take on the burden for us. We all do this, we ask the pastor to pray, we ask the mature women in the church who are always at the Meetinghouses sometimes more often than the pastor, we ask the faithful men who have weight within the meeting. We ask them, “will you pray for me.” This is an important thing to do, it is important because it reveals to us that we are not alone in our struggles. That is the most powerful force within the church, we unite in prayer, we assist other in carrying our burdens, and when we do this, we often see incredible growth within the church. But there is a negative side to asking others to pray. We do not often realize this negative side because there is so much good resulting from intercessory prayer. The negative side of intercessory prayer is if it keeps us from praying ourselves or if it redirects our attention from God and places it on human individuals.
Psychologically and relationally there is a term that is used for having a discussion through someone else, triangular relationships. In this theory there are rescuers, victims, and persecutors. The victim seeks a rescuer to handle their issues with the persecutor. This is not always a bad thing, but it can become bad when the person that identifies as the victim becomes incapable to speak or act for themselves. I think often in our Christian life we fall into this trap. “I don’t know how to pray.” We say to ourselves, and from that moment on we stop, we quit.
Jesus did not live his life in this manner. Jesus would withdraw often to isolated places to pray. He would go to the top of a mountain to pray, leaving the disciples at the base to protect his time of prayer. If we were to look at the life of Jesus, it would seem as if prayer was the most important discipline to enact in the spiritual life. The Gospel of Luke records Jesus withdrawing to pray eight times, and he teaches on prayer seven times. To put this in perspective the number one thing that Jesus taught about was the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God or Heaven is that area of influence that God has, so it is no surprise that this is the most important thing Jesus taught about. But the kingdom of God is unlike the kingdoms of the world so he would have to explain what is important to his kingdom in comparison to the kingdoms of men. It is not surprising that of the parables he taught the majority were themed around money. Money is the measure of influence in the kingdoms of men, so it is not surprising that this was a topic of interest. But the reason money is important to the kingdoms of men is because of the usefulness of that tool, because of that usefulness we often find ourselves entrusting our lives to it. The point of Jesus’s teaching on money is not necessarily about how to manage but he is illustrating the differences of what we believe and entrust our lives in, or where or what our faith is in. So, Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God and faith.
He then teaches seven times about prayer. Prayer is the language of faith; it is the language of the kingdom. When human beings speak a common language, it is easier for us to interact, trade, and serve one another. That common language is a tool that we utilize for both encouragement and destruction. It is not surprising that the use of language is often spoken about in the New Testament as well, like money. Both language and money can be used in both the kingdoms of men and the kingdom of God, but the difference is how they are utilized.
I mentioned that language can be used to encourage or cause destruction. If we listen to the radio the language we hear is used for a purpose, to encourage and emotional response. It does not matter what you are listening too, it could be music or the news, the words used are put together to convey some information in a way that will encourage you to support some idea. That idea might simply be to buy the newest Taylor Swift album, or it might encourage you to vote a certain way in the election. Language is a tool. Prayer is media of distribution of language within the kingdom of God.
The way we use language will attract or discourage people to the kingdom. Jesus taught about prayer directly seven times according to Luke, and he demonstrated prayer eight. Jesus lived and demonstrated prayer more than he spoke about it. And I think this is very important, because it proves just how important this activity really is.
Language is a tool of communication. It is used to build relationships or in some cases the same tool can be used to hinder relationships. Prayer uses that tool to deepen our relationship with God. It is through prayer that we communicate with God, and it Is also through prayer that God can communicate with us. In the eight instances where we are told that Jesus withdrew to isolated places to pray, Jesus was seen praying before he embarked on his next phase of ministry. Jesus did not decide on his own but acted in cooperation with his Father. This speaks volumes to the importance of prayer if even Jesus, God incarnate, prayed before he acted. It also shows us that it is through prayer that the directions of our ministry should flow. Which makes sense if prayer is the tool of communication between humanity and God.
Which brings us to the parable today. We have a widow that is going before a judge to plea for justice. The judge of this parable does not fear God and does not care about humanity either. Which gives us a picture of the world, the world does not care about faith or relationships unless it benefits them.
This woman faced an injustice, a burden, a struggle like so many of us face. What does she do? She uses language to plead for relief. We must speak about our burdens, acknowledge them or they will just stay in the periphery of our being poisoning our lives. We do not like talking about our struggles, we often feel as if admitting our struggles is a sign of weakness. This is one of my own personal struggles. People that know me know I do not really talk that much. In my lack of talking I will often take on a burden and try to carry it, so that I will not cause others to become burdened. This aspect of my personality is often the source of many of my struggles, especially when it comes to management because I tend to do all the work instead of delegating the task to others. This goes even deeper though, I often withdraw into my own mind when I am stressed, trying to figure a way to relieve the burden, as these burdens pile on, I become overwhelmed to the point I begin to forget the most important things. In the corporate world that would be called burn out. I am not the only one that struggles. We all struggle with aspects of our lives that we cannot seem to handle. What do we do about it?
In this parable the woman continuously goes to the judge. This does not mean that we need take every struggle we face to court. He is instead highlighting the persistence of the woman. She does not give up. There is an injustice and she is compelled remedy the situation. Yet she is going to a judge that does not fear God or care for humanity.
This tells us a great deal about prayer. We not only need to go to those isolated placed, but we do need to share our needs, especially if it is about perceived injustices. Often when we are in the heat of a difficulty, we are not able to make the best decisions. Our bodies are producing hormones that are pumping through out our bodies that hinder our brains from functioning properly. Derek Brown spoke about this at our retreat a few weeks ago. Our bodies produce adrenaline that is necessary to give us quick bursts of strength and energy so that we can ward off an attack, but while our bodies are in this fight or flight mode, our brain’s reasoning is shut down. We need to be able to shut this hormone flow down before we can think again. And at times while we are in the struggle, we cannot do this alone. Sharing our struggles with others, brings them into our lives so that they can help. Our friends are not in the heat of the situation so their brains are drenched in adrenaline, so their calmness can assist our worked-up bodies to relax. And as we share together, we can assist each other make better decisions.
That of course has nothing to do with prayer directly, but there is more. When we encourage ourselves and those around us to pray, calms us even more. And as the stress levels diminish, we can begin to listen again. Our minds engage, we begin to remember the things we knew before, and at times we can sense leadings from God that we may not have even thought of before. Prayer is a power discipline for this very reason. It is in those moments of prayer that Jesus speaks to us the very words that he spoke to the disciples when he surprised them in the upper room, “Peace be with you.”
We acknowledge our struggles, we speak about our struggles, we share our struggles with others, and we pray about our struggles. This is the beginning of healing, because it is identifying terminal poisons of sin that flow through our bodies. Sin are the things in our lives that distract us from God. The things that cause us to turn from God. Often, we regard sin as a breaking of the laws of God, but that is a symptom of a deeper problem. When Israel was bitten by the vipers in the wilderness, the snakes were there because they turned from God, they grumbled against God. They were bitten by these snakes and the only cure from that venom was to turn a look upon the bronze snake that God commanded Moses to erect. Sin comes in many forms, but most often it is simply a lack of faith. We rely on our own wisdom, and our own strength instead of turning toward God. That lack of trust is like the viper’s bite, and if we do not acknowledge, speak, share, and pray that venom will overwhelm us.
There is even more to prayer. The woman in the story was persistent. She sought justice. Prayer should lead us to something. When we go to a doctor when we are sick, we go for a reason. We go because there is something wrong, some illness that is hindering our ability to live our lives to the fullest. We have tried all that we can think of, but the problem is still there, so we go and hope that a remedy can be found. We seek that remedy so that we can move forward, so we can go back to work, or so we can do the errands we need to do. While we are at that office, we might also find out something else. The doctor might say something we are doing should probably change. When I was a senior in high school, I had a headache every day for over three months. I went to a doctor and after trying many things and we did not find great solution. The doctor said that I might be allergic to something, but we could not figure out what that might be. While I was in Ukraine I did not have as many headaches and we soon figured out that the artificial sweetener in the chewing gum in America was a trigger for my migraines. After years of struggle we got an answer. I still need more answers but that’s another topic.
Our prayers should be like that. We pray and that time of prayer should lead us to the answers we need. And those answers should lead us to action. The woman in the story persistently sought an answer. That persistence is what Jesus is encouraging in prayer. Not to change God’s mind, but so we can with God, find the direction forward. This is a skill that the Friends church has been known for. When we enter a meeting for business, or to be more accurate, a meeting of worship in which business is conducted, we are to enter that meeting prayerfully. We are to enter with the expectation that God will lead our decision-making process, giving time for concerns to be voiced and time for prayer. A business meeting should never be a debate, because there should not be an agenda that any individual is pursuing. Our goal is to be led by the Spirit of God. We should enter that meeting just like this story, but the characters are reversed. We are not the woman; we are the judge. It is spirit of God that is the woman seeking for justice in an unjust world and we are the ones that should respond to her plea.
I know that I have spent several minutes talking about how we should enter prayer, speaking and sharing our struggles both to God and to our community. I even said that at times the community can become a hinderance to our prayer life, because we can look at people within the church as sources of power instead of God. Now I am saying that we are not even the woman that is persistently seeking justice but the judge. Have I confused us all? The point is that we live in a world that is often opposed to the ways of God. We seek wisdom but the wisdom we often seek is our wisdom. Wisdom from the kingdoms of men. Human justice is often not justice at all. We can justify the killing or enslaving people for many reasons, we can even quote scripture to support our views. We can justify many terrible things for many good reasons. But if we are not seeking the wisdom of God, we will always find ourselves in the same place. The spirit of God is crying out to us to correct the injustice we know is going on around us, but are we listening? Are we even allowing the Spirit a place to speak?
Prayer is a powerful tool. It can bring clarity and healing in our lives. And it can inspire us to action. It is the mode of communication that can take us out of the stress of our temporal realm and show us the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Do we pray?
As we enter this time of Holy expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, I want to encourage us each to silence our spirit before God. Imagine yourself within this parable as the one to whom the woman is speaking and listen to what she is saying. Maybe she is encouraging one of you to share a struggle with a trusted friend, maybe she is encouraging you to speak out for the justice of another, or maybe she is simply saying “Peace be with you.” Prayer is deeper than sending our requests to God, prayer is listening to God and responding to what he has to say.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 13, 2019
Luke 17:11–19 (ESV)
11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
I find the narratives about leprosy very interesting in scripture. Today we do not hear a great deal about this disease, which is odd since it is something spoken of often in scripture. The disease is a bacterial infection that damages the nerves causing numbness in the affected parts of the body. The most common symptom seen is pale or pink patches on the skin. As the disease progresses and the numb areas increase in size and scope other infections often enter the area and because the individual cannot feel pain in the area the infections often become worse and cause additional damage. When we think of leprosy, we often have the idea that the disease causes deformities and the loss of fingers and other parts, basically the image of a zombie. These stereotypical symptoms are not actually caused by leprosy but are the results of secondary infections that took hold because of the lack of feeling in those areas. I do not want to make light of the disease; it is very serious and even today they do not know much about it. But leprosy does not have the same terror that it once had. It is a bacterial infection which means today we can cure the disease. What was once a death sentence now can be managed although much of the damage it causes remains.
While I was reading about this disease, I did find out some very interesting facts. In the 1980’s there were approximately 5.2 million cases of this disease, at the end of 2016 this was reduced to 173,000 cases globally. What is more interesting is that in 2016 there were 216,000 new leprosy cases, across fourteen countries, and over half of those cases were in India, of those new cases 43,000 were cured that same year. And over the past twenty years over 16 million people have been cured of this disease that was once considered a death sentence, and 200 cures have been here in the United States.
Even though we can now cure this disease, it is still shrouded in fear and disgust. This is largely because it most often occurs in impoverished areas. Those that live in extreme poverty have the greatest risk, mainly because of high population density and malnutrition. Those in extreme poverty are at greater risk and they are also more likely to succumb to the disease because they have less access to proper treatment. The lack of means does not only increase the risk of this disease but most diseases and is one of the reasons many people avoid contact with poverty-stricken groups and is often a leading factor used to limit immigration because we fear illness.
The thing about these fears is that they are largely unfounded in fact. Yes, there are epidemics that occur, but most of these can be limited with proper hygiene. And most epidemics today are virial not bacterial in nature. Which brings us back to leprosy, 95% of those exposed to the disease will not contract it, which means even though it can be spread through close contact between people it is hard to contract. And although they need to do greater research in the ways that leprosy is spread, they are concluding that it is spread through upper respiratory systems and not through contact with skin. And once treatment is started a person is no longer a threat after 72 hours. This is amazing.
But what is more amazing is what we find in scripture. Those that were found to have this skin disease were quarantined outside of the community. This quarantine limited the contact that those who had the infection had with others. This limits the spread of the disease, but what I found most interesting was how those infected were supposed to act when they were approached by others. According to Torah, they were required to warn approaching individuals, and to warn them they were required to cover their upper lip and yell “unclean”. So often we focus on the quarantine and fail to see the other aspects mentioned in the law but requiring them to cover their upper lip means they are limiting the potential of the spread of the disease through the upper respiratory system. I find this fascinating, because the law tells us how the disease is spread.
Jesus is walking toward Judea from Galilee, and on the road, they come across ten individuals with leprosy. These individuals make the proper announcement while they are at a distance, crying out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” These individuals know who Jesus is, they had heard stories of the many miraculous deeds performed by Jesus and they believe that he can cleanse them.
I want to pause for a moment here so we can reflect on this for a moment. These ten individuals had a problem. They came to a point where they realized that nothing, they could do could change their situation and they needed mercy. They lived in a time where many believed that illness was a curse brought upon them by God’s displeasure. These individuals were cast out of the community, rejected and unseen. They had no physical contact, no encouragement, and the only interaction they experienced with others was often highlighted in fear. Even their families rejected them. These people were literally living lives without hope.
But why were people afflicted with this disease so feared? This disease was not pretty. Because they could not feel pain, they would often injure themselves without knowing it. They would lose mobility, and infections would cause ulcers as the body attempted to heal the individuals would become scarred and grotesque. Some say that people were afraid to look at these individuals because they were a visual and physical reminder of the wages of sin. They were the living dead. And it is often the colonies of these afflicted ones that became the image of hell, because they were cast out of the communities, on the outside. It was in these areas where the community would cast out their garbage and as the garbage would pile up fires would be set to it, and it would burn seemingly forever. These individuals were living in hell and were without hope. Yet, when they saw Jesus approach, they took a chance.
They did not simply yell, “unclean.” I am sure they probably began by stating this, because the travelers knew they were lepers. But they did not simply leave it there. They cried out to Jesus to have mercy on them. It is common for outcast to make requests for mercy, because they live on the generosity of others, but most scholars believe that since they addressed Jesus by name, they were not simply asking for alms but were requesting that Jesus make them clean.
And Jesus saw them. We all have struggles at times. Amid those struggles we often feel alone and unseen. Sometimes we almost hide from those around us because we do not want others to know that we are struggling. When we are caught in this loop of despair we withdraw and wither, we become self-absorbed and wonder if there will ever be a time where we will be happy again. While we struggle alone someone sees us, they make eye contact, and at that moment we are seen. We are left in our hopelessness until that moment, the moment someone else looks at our eyes a door opens, and we can begin to share. If you have even taken the time to speak to those that are homeless, one of the greatest struggles they have is that they feel unseen. That perception of invisibility is tough to deal with, and they begin to feel as if they are less than human. And those of us that happen to notice them standing with their sign struggle too, we do not like looking at them, we avoid eye contact because once we look at them, we have a choice to make.
These ten individuals are as isolated as one can be. They are living through hell. And Jesus sees them. He opens a door of communication, and they are given the opportunity to interact not as the afflicted but as human beings. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” See us in our struggles and offer us hope.
Jesus sees them and responds, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
When someone is afflicted with this skin disease, they are removed from society and isolated. They are rejected and cannot be accepted back into the community again because they are unclean and contagious. They must remain outside the community until their affliction passes. They can only be accepted back into the community if the priest authorizes it. And if they happen to be freed from their affliction, they are to offer sacrifices to God. While they look at Jesus, they are still afflicted with their disease. They are still ill, even while they cry out to God until they turn in obedience.
They must listen to the word of Jesus and respond before the healing will take place. It is this cooperation between God and humanity, this relationship between them that fulfills the word. They had to turn and begin to walk toward the priest, because only a priest could usher them back into society. Often in our struggles we cry out to God, and we do nothing else. Are we listening for a reply? And when we sense a response do, we respond? Often, we cry out to God and ask for assistance in our struggles, but we fail to act.
When I first moved to Kansas City, I was a single father, and to be honest I was struggling. I had it in my head that I was damaged. I looked at my coworkers and I listened as they spoke about their girlfriends and wives and I sunk. I prayed a great deal. I did not want to live think I was too damaged for someone to love, yet I did nothing. I remember writing an email to a friend from my trip to Ukraine, we both were single and not happy about it. I had just started attending Willow Creek at that time and I was just starting to journey back to Christ and was praying about the seeming hopelessness of my life. What good Christian girl would want me I thought? And finally, after writing that email to a friend, I sensed something. A thought came to my head, “How can you date someone if you never ask someone?” So, I struggled with that for nearly a month. And finally, I had to answer that question, so I called someone from a family I really liked in church, and that someone said yes.
The healing begins when we start walking in obedience. The ten lepers listened to the voice of Jesus and they began walking toward the priest. They began walking away from that place as lepers, and somewhere along the path something happened. One noticed that he was cleansed, and he began to praise God, and he returned to Jesus. We are not told what happened to the rest of the men, we are told they were healed but nothing more. Did they notice they were healed? Did they go to the priests and start the process to be reintegrated into society? Or did they go back to the colony and return to the isolated life they knew before? We do not know. All we know is one recognized what happened. Only one.
This one, left the others and praised God loudly. He ran back to Jesus and he fell on his face before him. Imagine that scene. This man just moments before would be required to stand at a distance, yelling unclean while coving his upper lip and now he is bowed face to the ground at Jesus feet thanking him. And what is even more interesting this man was a Samaritan.
Jesus asks the man where the others are, he asks his companions where the others are. He asks if only a foreigner saw it fit to praise God for what happened? I find those questions interesting. This man even when cleansed from his afflictions is still an outsider, he is still unacceptable in the mainstream culture. Yet he is the only one that recognized the truth of what really happened.
Do we see God working? In our struggles are we aware that God is listening? Do we realize when He has answered? Or do we expect it because we are part of the church and that is what God is supposed to do? One of the most unsettling questions that is ever asked by those that oppose God is, “why do bad things happen to good people?” To be honest, I ask that question and I really do not know the answer. But I think it is because we are asking the wrong question. The real question is why do good things happen?
We get these ideas in our head that we are all good people, and for the most part we are. But Jesus asked a teacher of the law once, why do you call me good when only God is good? We all miss the mark. We all sin I know that we do not like to think of ourselves like that, but it is the reality. We all do things that interfere with our relationship with God, and we all cast wedges into our relationships with others. We believe we should be blessed because we are sitting here listening to a sermon on a Sunday, but do we realize that God is merciful and gracious. Every good thing we have is a blessing, and every bad thing that has happened is what we deserve, yet God is usually merciful. The other nine, went about their lives because they thought it was due them because they were children of Israel, but the outsider recognized that he was cleansed because of God’s great mercy.
Everything we have. Every skill we possess, every cent we obtain, every breath we take is God’s grace and mercy. We have some of those blessing because we were obedient, and some of those blessing we have because we happen to have been born in the right place at the right time. It is all a gift from God. Do we see it?
As I considered this passage, I recognized that often I live in a state of spiritual leprosy. I am often numb to what is going on and absorbed in my own struggles. I am not always thankful for the grace and mercy that I have been shown. And when I do see God working, I do not always express the praise I should. But I also realized that sometimes there are people around me that are struggling too. Do they know I see them? And do I show them the hope I have in God? Do I loudly proclaim the praises of God for his grace or do I just go on with my life as if I deserved it? Ten lepers were healed that day, and only one outsider was able to really see Jesus, and that faith saved him and made him well. It is when we fully look to Christ that we will be made well and find peace.
As we enter this time of holy expectancy let us consider the one and the nine. Let us consider our blessings and our struggles. And let us pray for mercy and praise for the blessings.