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A Thanksgiving Parable

Tom Pennington Luke 17:11-19


Well, as you can tell this morning, as we prepare our hearts for the Lord's Table, and as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I want to step away from our study of 1 John, and I want to study this fascinating account from the life of our Lord that we have just read in Luke 17. Now, to be clear, this story is an actual event from the life of Jesus Christ – it truly happened. It's a powerful demonstration of Jesus' compassion, as well as His deity. It's a story of miraculous healing, of gratitude, of worship, and of salvation. But, at the same time that it is a very real and true story, it is also a kind of parable – a parable that powerfully shows the shocking ingratitude of humanity, and the humble, worshipping gratitude of those who are truly redeemed. So, I want us to, first of all, walk through this story and then, after we've done that, at the end we'll consider its powerful lesson.

So, let's look at this story together – this dramatic story of healing unfolds in several compelling acts, and I want us to see each of these acts as the curtain opens and falls. The first act we see here, let's call a significant journey. Verse 11: "While Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem" – now, it's important to note that this wasn't just any trip to Jerusalem. In fact, six to eight weeks before this event, Jesus had traveled to Bethany, a town just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem – and with all the family and friends of an influential family there, His friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Jesus had publicly, spectacularly raised Lazarus from the dead, and unlike other miracles that Jesus had performed, He deliberately arranged that miracle to be a spectacle – it was to supply the entire nation with one great final proof of His claims to be the Messiah. It was six to eight weeks before Passover, and just two miles from the city of Jerusalem. Many believed in Jesus as a result of that miracle – but, as a result of it, there was another response. The Jewish Sanhedrin called a secret meeting, probably in their chambers on the Temple Mount, and there the leaders of Israel reached a politically expedient decision to kill Jesus. John 11 records it; John 11:53: "From that day they planned together to kill Him." This was a formal decision of the Jewish Sanhedrin, meeting in official session – Jesus has to die. The next verse, John 11:54, says this: "Therefore Jesus no longer continued to walk publicly among the Jews, but went away from there to the country near the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim, and there He stayed with His disciples." Now, the word therefore that begins that verse implies that Jesus knew about the secret meeting, either from His omniscience or perhaps a report from two of His disciples who were on that council – but regardless, He does something unexpected. He went to a nearby town, Ephraim, about thirteen miles north of Jerusalem, where He waited with His disciples for the next six to eight weeks. And then, as the feast of Passover drew near in early April, Jesus truly does something shocking – although He was just a few miles from the city of Jerusalem, He and His disciples headed north from Ephraim, through Samaria, to Galilee, and there He joined a large group of Galilean pilgrims headed to the feast. They traveled across the Jordan, into Perea, down the Jordan Rift Valley, through Jericho, and then on to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus made Himself highly visible, teaching, working miracles, confronting the Jewish leaders. Now, this miracle that we've just read together in Luke 17 happens early on in that last journey to Jerusalem – this is not just any trip to Jerusalem; this is the final one, this is the one in which He will end by laying down His life for His own. Verse 11 says He was "passing between Samaria and Galilee" – literally, He passed through the middle of Samaria and Galilee. In other words, as Jesus and His disciples traveled north from Ephraim through Samaria and the hill country to Galilee, and then when they got just to the border between, the frontier between Samaria and Galilee, they then traveled a road that ran along that frontier between those two provinces. It went past a city some of you visited, if you've been with us to Israel, Beit She'an – and then they went on across the Jordan and joined the crowds headed south.

It was on that significant journey that we see a second act occur. Jesus received, secondly, a shocking request – a shocking request, verse 12. "As He entered a village" – this was simply one of a number of small villages on the border between Galilee and Samaria; typically, the road would pass through each of the villages, and as Jesus was about to enter this one, verse 12 says "ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him." Now, leprosy is something we're first introduced to all the way back in the Old Testament in Leviticus 13 and 14; the Hebrew word for leprosy in those chapters is a general word used to describe a vast variety of skin diseases, everything from simple rashes to what we think of today when we hear the word leprosy. But when you come to the New Testament and the ministry of Jesus, this Greek word is used exclusively for the disease of leprosy, or as it's modernly referred to, Hansen's disease – this was widespread in the ancient world. Most people don't understand leprosy – Dr. Alan Gillen writes this: "Many have thought leprosy to be a disease of the skin – it is better classified, however, as a disease of the nervous system, because the leprosy bacterium attacks the nerves. Leprosy is spread by multiple skin contacts as well as by droplets from the upper respiratory tracts." The scourge of leprosy is about how the nerves are affected – "Patients with leprosy experience disfigurement of the skin and bones, twisting of the limbs and curling of the fingers to form the characteristic claw hand. Facial changes include thickening of the outer ear and collapsing of the nose. Tumorlike growths called lepromas may form on the skin and in the respiratory tract, and the optic nerve often deteriorates."

Now, here's what's surprising – Dr. Gillen goes on to say "The largest number of deformities develop from loss of pain sensation due to extensive nerve damage. For example, inattentive patients can pick up a cup of boiling water without flinching. The leprosy bacillus destroys nerve endings that carry pain signals; therefore, patients with advanced leprosy experience a total loss of physical pain. When these people cannot sense touch or pain, they tend to injure themselves or to be unaware of injury caused by something else." What a terrible scourge leprosy was, and still is, by the way, in some parts of the world, even though today it can be treated. There was a milder form of the disease that never covered the body, and often healed itself in one to three years, but the more virulent kind covered the entire body, it lasted for ten to twenty years, and at the end it killed you – it was fatal, incurable. So, it's no surprise, then, that the Old Testament required that people with this disease be quarantined without a treatment – that was the only hope to stop its spread. Leviticus 13:45-46 says, "As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn," to indicate he's in mourning, "the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache," that is, he had to cover his mouth, "and cry, 'Unclean! Unclean!' He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp." In the Jewish Mishnah, the rabbis added that lepers could only attend synagogue services if a screen isolated them from the rest of the congregation – but that rarely happened, because if a leper even stuck his head inside of a house, the whole house was considered unclean. It was forbidden by the Jewish rabbis to greet a leper, and lepers were required to stay at least fifty paces away from a healthy person. Josephus, the Jewish historian writing for the Romans, said that lepers were "as if they were, in effect, dead men, no different than a corpse." It was considered the worst of diseases – in fact, the rabbis said that it was as difficult to heal a leper as it was to raise the dead. Only twice in the Old Testament was someone cured miraculously of leprosy – it was Miriam in the Book of Numbers and Naaman in 2 Kings 5.

Here is the problem – on several occasions in the Old Testament, God used leprosy as a judgment on those who had sinned – for example, Miriam in the Book of Numbers, Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26, Gehazi in 2 Kings 5. So, the rabbis wrongly concluded that leprosy was always the result of sin – other diseases were healed; leprosy had to be cleansed. That's the condition of these ten men who approached Jesus. They were miserable, hopeless, desperate men, eking out an existence on the fringes of human civilization – not seen, not noticed, like dead men, corpses walking. Verse 12 says, "As He entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him." These ten obeyed the Old Testament law – they kept their distance from Jesus, and they remained just outside of the city – but they did everything they could to catch Jesus' attention. Verse 13: "And they raised their voices." By the way, leprosy often affects the larynx and therefore the voice; the voice of lepers can be very gruff and raspy. So, with their raspy voices, these ten leprous men shouted at Jesus – verse 13 says, "saying, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!'" Since they refer to Jesus by name, they'd obviously heard of Him – they had heard of His miraculous power, and undoubtedly, they had heard from the others in the leprous community that He had actually healed some in their condition. Master is Luke's equivalent to teacher or rabbi, and to ask for mercy was the normal first-century way to ask someone who had the power to help you to actually extend that help to you. These ten men with the terminal disease of leprosy were asking Jesus to heal them – that is a shocking request to ask of anyone.

That brings us to the third act in this drama, and this is my favorite – Jesus' staggering goodness. Jesus' staggering goodness – verse 14: "When He saw them" – apparently, He had not seen them until He heard their shouts, but having heard them and having turned and seen them in their wretched condition, He responds. We expect that of Jesus, don't we? That's the record of his life. But he responds in a way we don't expect Jesus to respond – what do we expect Jesus to do when these ten lepers call out to be healed? We expect Him to approach them, to touch them, as He so often did, and to say something to them like, be healed, be cured, you're well, go in peace, go in Shalom. Instead, verse 14 says, "He said to them, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.'" Jesus ordered these men to follow the requirements of the Mosaic law for lepers – listen to this – who had already been healed. He tells them to act like they've been healed. You see, the Mosaic Law said that only a priest could declare you unclean with leprosy, and only a priest could declare you to be clean – in fact, the law laid out the exact process in Leviticus 14. The law required this: If you were a leper, and you believed that you no longer had leprosy, that you had been healed – usually it wasn't so much a matter of complete removal of the display of the symptoms, but rather that the disease stopped, it went no further in its destruction of your body – if you believed that was true, then you went and showed yourself to the priest in your town. The priest acted really as a local health inspector and he had to certify in writing that you were no longer unclean. His inspection was medical, it was hygienic – it's the only way a leper could receive a clean bill of health. Once you had received that certificate in writing that you were in fact clean of leprosy, then you went directly to Jerusalem and there you offered the prescribed sacrifices. It unfolded like this: At the temple, you presented – and these men would have presented – two birds. One was killed, and the other was dipped in the blood and released; some of the blood was also sprinkled on the healed leper. Then, eight days later, the healed man returned to the temple and offered three lambs – he offered one of them for a sin offering, one of them for a guilt offering, and a third as a burnt offering, according to Leviticus 14:10-11. Why? Well, there are several reasons for these sacrifices – one, obviously, was to acknowledge his sin and seek forgiveness from God. Even if the leprosy wasn't the result of sin, he was a sinner and needed forgiveness. It also signified that he was being cleansed, ceremonially, so he could now come back into the temple, back into life – it acknowledged that God had healed him, and it was an expression of his gratitude to God for that healing. Now, once all of that was done, the man was then reinstated to society, to his community, and to his family.

But Jesus, in this story, commands these men to initiate that long process to confirm their healing before they were healed – it was a test of their faith in Him; it was a test in His healing power. And verse 14 says – don't you love this? "And as they were going, they were cleansed." It reminds me of Naaman, the Syrian general healed through the ministry of Elisha by dipping seven times in the Jordan in 2 Kings 5. As these lepers obeyed Jesus' command, suddenly and completely, the leprosy of all ten of them was gone. At the command of Jesus Christ, this dreaded disease that had ravaged their bodies for years simply vanished; every trace disappeared. The extremities that had been damaged and worn away became suddenly new. The disfiguring growths were gone, and all of their physical features returned the way they looked before the disease. All function returned to their once-destroyed nerves, and in a moment's time, their skin became supple and soft, like that of a child. Every single bacterium was gone.

Now, don't miss what Jesus has just done – without touching a single one of these lepers, Jesus had simultaneously healed and restored every one of them from all the effects of an incurable terminal disease, and He had done so from a distance and with an intentional delay in time – and He healed ten, at the same moment. Think about what this one healing shows about Jesus – it shows His sovereignty not only over disease, which it does clearly, but it also shows His sovereignty over matter, time, and space. There's the expression of the staggering goodness of Jesus – and don't miss the why. Jesus didn't do this because all of these men were His disciples, or because they would all eventually become His disciples, which becomes clear as the story unfolds. Instead, He did it because, as God and as perfect man, His great heart is full of compassion for human suffering. He responded to their need in the same way that He responds – don't miss this – every day to every human need. That's what He Himself said of the Father – you remember in Matthew 5:45, He says, "Your Father, who is in heaven, causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." He put it even more specifically in Luke 6:35 – "The Most High is kind to ungrateful and evil men."

And how does that happen – how does the Father bestow all of the goodnesses of this life on us? He does it through his Son. You see, Jesus is the One through whom God created all things. Colossians 1:16: "All things have been created through Him and for Him." As you walk out of this auditorium this morning and you cast your eyes across the world, Jesus Christ made it all. The Father, through the Son, created all things – "by Him and for Him." He's also the One, by the way, who sustains all things – Colossians 1:17 goes on to say, "In Him, all things hold together." Hebrews 1:3 – "He upholds all things by the word of His power." You see, the reason your heart continues to beat this very moment, the reason your lungs process the air you're breathing, the reason your body remains alive, the reason the world continues its course through space and its orbit in the proper way, the reason the seasons come and go, the reason the sun rises and falls, the reason everything happens is because of Jesus Christ. Every good thing you enjoy in this world ultimately comes from the Father, through the Son. I love the way Paul puts it in his sermon in Acts 14:17, talking about God – "He did good, and He gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." If you enjoy a moment in this Thanksgiving week before us, it will be because of the goodness of Jesus Christ. In fact, Romans 3:25 teaches that even the common grace that God shows unrepentant sinners – by common grace, we mean the fact that God doesn't strike you dead the moment you first sin. The reason that God gives good things to those who are His enemies – do you realize that God even doing that could sully His righteousness, His justice? It could stain His justice, because His justice says the soul that sins should die – "In the day that you eat, you shall die" – that's what His justice says. And so, to let sinners live, to let you and me live beyond our first sin, to shower us with good things – that could stain the justice of God.

So, how can God do it? Well, He paid for the right to do it at the cross. Romans 3:25 says that Christ's death made it possible for God to vindicate His justice in passing over the sins of unrepentant sinners and not judging them immediately and showering them with His common grace – He can only do that because of what Jesus did at the cross; Christ's death made all of that possible, so we give thanks to the Father, through the Son. Ephesians 5:20, "Giving thanks always for all things to God the Father, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." And we give thanks directly to Jesus Christ, like the leper in the story, as Paul does in 1 Timothy 1:12, where he says, "I thank Christ Jesus, our Lord," both for the ministry I enjoy and for the salvation that He's given me. So, understand this this morning. Your life, your health – you know, Sheila and I, as we go through this bout of cancer that she's dealing with, I've been reminded of the fact that there isn't a pill for healing. They can give you different medications, they can do surgery, they can send you through various procedures, but they cannot heal you. Only God heals – that's why the Psalmist says He "heals all of our diseases." If you've ever been healed of anything, it's because of the intervention of your Father through Jesus Christ – your life, your health, every blessing you enjoy is a gift bought for you and then given to you through the staggering goodness of Jesus Christ.

That brings us to the fourth act in this drama – it's a sincere thanksgiving. A sincere thanksgiving; verses 15 and 16. Notice verse 15 – "Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back." You see, up to this point, these ten men were very much alike – all suffered from leprosy, all were determined to seek a cure, all hoped Jesus could cure them, all pled with Jesus for His help, all acknowledged Him as Master and Rabbi, all of them obeyed His command and headed to the priests in their towns, and all ten of them were healed. But one of the ten, while on his way to the priest, realized that he had suddenly, completely been healed, and he turned back. I love that word, because it's a picture of repentance – unlike everyone else, on to carry on with their lives, to celebrate the things they enjoy, realize what they owe to God, and that they are undeserving, and they turn back. Rather than continuing on his way, he turned back.

And notice this man does three things that reveal a truly redeemed heart. First of all, it says he was "glorifying God with a loud voice." He understood that his healing was a divine miracle, he was profoundly grateful to God for it, and he wanted everybody to know what God had done for him. So – with a healed voice, no longer that raspy, gravelly voice of a leper – he cries out with everything that's in him in praise of the true God. Secondly, notice verse 16 – "and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet." In this powerful physical gesture, there are a number of points – there's certainly a sense of humility and unworthiness, there's an acknowledgment of his own sin. There's also an acknowledgement of Jesus' identity – this man is worshiping at Jesus' feet. This expression, to fall on your face at His feet, is used most often in the Old Testament for people's response to a visible manifestation of God. The Jews and the Samaritans understood that God alone was to be worshiped – this leper apparently understood that he was in the presence of the Messiah and God Himself. How do I know that? Well, look at the third thing he does – verse 16; "and he was giving thanks to Him." The verb in Greek is eucharisteo – with two exceptions, this verb is used in the New Testament, and it's always used in Luke of giving thanks to God; that's the idea here. By thanking Jesus, he's acknowledging that Jesus is the source of this miracle, and that He's the One deserving of thanks.

And then Luke adds the shocking statement, "And he was a Samaritan." The Jews and Samaritans, as you know, hated each other, usually had nothing to do with each other – the hostility went back 750 years. When the Assyrians had destroyed Samaria in 722 BC, they had deported most of the Jewish people, and in turn, they had brought people from all over the empire to repopulate the land. And those outsiders, those pagans, began to intermarry with the few Jews who were left, and the result was the Samaritans. Initially they were polytheists, but their polytheism faded, and over time, they became worshippers of Yahweh, but with some very strange twists – they accepted only the first five Old Testament books, they refused to worship in Jerusalem, but built their own temple on Mount Gerizim in about 400 BC. To the Jewish people, the Samaritans were half breed idolaters – and so, Jewish readers reading Luke's gospel would have found his statement at the end of verse 16 to be utterly shocking. They would never expect God to heal a Samaritan of leprosy, and they certainly would never expect God to save one – and yet Jesus does both. You remember the first person to whom Jesus revealed that He was the Messiah in John 4 was a Samaritan woman – God is no racist.

That brings us to the fifth act in this drama of redemption – a sad heart. A sad heart, because in three rhetorical questions, Jesus reveals His grief and disappointment in the nine. Verse 17 – "Then Jesus answered," presumably to someone in the crowd accompanying him, about what had just happened, "and He said, 'Were there not ten cleansed?'" The way the question is put in Greek calls for an affirmative answer – yes, there were. Second question, verse 17 – "But the nine, where are they?" I love the way it's put in the Greek text – but the nine, they are where? Now, Jesus knew where they were physically – they were on their way to the priests and their towns as He'd commanded them. He's simply pointing out that the nine should be doing what this Samaritan was doing – they should be praising God, they should be worshiping and giving thanks to Jesus – but the nine, they are where? Athanasius, the early church father, puts it so powerfully when he says this: "They thought more highly of their cure from leprosy than of Him who had healed them." Verse 18 – here's the third question. "Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?" Jesus' grief wasn't self-serving; His grief was that they failed to give glory to God. He was grieved because of what it showed about the Jewish people – that most of them, like these nine lepers, had not accepted their Messiah, and He was grieved about the hearts of the nine and what their failure to do so showed about them. Leon Morris writes: "The nine were so absorbed in their new happiness that they could not spare a thought for its source." Like so many, then and now, their interest in Jesus was purely selfish and superficial – I just want something from Him, and when He's given it to me, I'm happy; see you later, Jesus. I'm confident that it still saddens the heart of Jesus when all the people on this planet, when you or when I fail to give God glory for His constant generosity, and to give Jesus thanks for mediating those gifts to us, for having purchased them at the cross, in addition to our salvation. Ironically, this Greek word for foreigner that Jesus uses here was the same Greek word that was used on the famous keep out signs at the temple, on that little, short wall that said to Gentiles, you can't go past here – keep out, foreigners. There's great irony here – this Samaritan couldn't enter the courts of the temple to worship, but here he falls at the feet of God incarnate and worships, in the person of Jesus Christ.

The final act in this drama is a spiritual verdict. A spiritual verdict – verse 19: "And Jesus said to him, 'Stand up and go.'" He says, now that you've done what you ought to do, now that you've praised God, now that you've worshiped Me, now that you've given thanks, stand up, go now and show yourself to the priest. And then you've got to love what He says at the end – "Your faith has made you well." The Greek word for made well here is not the same as the two words He's used before; it's not the same as the word for cleanse that's used earlier, it's not the same as the word for healed that was used earlier. The Greek word here is the normal New Testament word saved – Jesus said to this man, your faith has saved you. When Jesus said the same thing to the repentant, immoral woman a few chapters earlier in Luke 7, he makes his meaning there crystal clear – in Luke 7:48 and 50, He said to this woman, "Your sins have been forgiven … Your faith has saved you; go in Shalom, go in peace." So, Jesus was assuring this leper that in addition to the physical healing – the radical, miraculous healing of his leprosy – he had also experienced spiritual salvation from guilt and sin. Why? Because he had repented in humility at Jesus' feet, because he'd acknowledged Jesus as Savior and Lord, because Jesus knew this is what this man wanted. He wasn't just after physical healing; he wanted his soul to be made whole.

If you're here this morning and you're not a follower of Jesus Christ, let me tell you, you have something far worse than leprosy – you have leprosy of the soul. It is eating away at who you are – it will destroy you; it will damn you to eternal hell; you are without hope. There is only one person in the universe that can save you, and the only thing you can do is throw yourself at His feet, pleading for His mercy and grace – and here's the great news. He's never turned anyone like that away, and He won't turn you away if you will acknowledge your need and come to Him. Otherwise, the leprosy that you have will destroy your soul forever.

So, there's the story – but what's the parable, what's the lesson? Well, it comes in two parts; let me give them to you. The first part is this – the unregenerate heart is inherently ungrateful for all of God's physical blessings in Jesus Christ. It's exactly what Paul says in Romans 1:21, where he says, "Even though they knew God," that is, even though mankind knows there is a God, He's written it in the creation, they look around and they know there's a God – even though they know that, Paul says, "they do not glorify Him as God or give thanks." At the core of human sinfulness is an unwillingness to glorify God as God in your own heart and soul, and a refusal to give Him thanks. Os Guinness writes, "Rebellion against God does not begin with a clenched fist of atheism, but with the self-satisfied heart of the one for whom 'thank you' is redundant." Almost every person in our country this week will celebrate Thanksgiving – but how many of those will really express their thanks to the Father, through the Son? Even those who try to list what they're thankful for still won't take the time, in most cases, to actually express gratitude to God for those things. There's a huge difference between saying "I'm thankful for" and "Thank you, God, thank you, Jesus Christ, for what You've given me." Sinful man does not, as a habit of life, give thanks to God – the nine lepers are a perfect parable of an unregenerate heart. If you're here this morning and you're not a follower of Jesus Christ, look in the mirror – this is you.

The second part of the lesson, the parable for us in this story is this: The redeemed heart is filled with worship and gratitude to Jesus Christ for His physical and spiritual gifts. If you're a Christian, the one leper in this story is a perfect parable of your redeemed heart – your faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord has saved you, or more directly, Jesus Christ has saved you through your faith, and now your heart is filled with trust and gratitude and humility and praise and worship and love for Jesus Christ, just like this leper. This week, if that's you, then take time to express who you really are in Jesus Christ, take time to express your thanks to the Father and to the Son and to the Father through the Son – for what? For all of the physical blessings you enjoy in this life, the general expressions of God's common grace that everyone on this planet enjoys, as well as the unique physical blessings that are yours. I love, as I said, the way Paul puts it in Acts 14:17 – here's a framework for your expression of physical thanksgiving: "He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." Everything good you enjoy in this life comes to you from God the Father, mediated to you through the Son, purchased at the cross for you. Secondly, if you're a Christian, not only give thanks for the physical blessings you enjoy, but all of the spiritual blessings you enjoy in Jesus Christ. If you want a framework for that, go to 1 Corinthians 1:30 – I love it, Paul writes this: "By God's doing, you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us" – here's how you can thank Jesus Christ – "He became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption." Just spend some time thinking about each of those words, spend time expressing your gratitude for what Christ has done, that He has cleansed your soul from the disease of leprous sin, that you now know God – you've been reconciled to God the Father through the Son – that you have an assured eternity, that you've been forgiven, that the guilt of sin is gone, that you've been adopted by God into His family, that you have an eternal future filled with joy that will never be done away with. That's the parable of a thankful heart – may God produce that in us, and we have the opportunity now to express our gratitude in the way He gave us, through the Lord's Table.