Luke 17: 12-19
It is so easy for human beings to find a way to keep score, to focus on where we stand in relation to other individuals and groups. We probably do that in order to feel better about ourselves along the lines of “Well, at least I am not as bad as they are.”
The Jews of the first century had such an attitude toward the Samaritans—the people they loved to hate. And it would be hard to find someone lower in social standing in that day than a Samaritan with leprosy, a skin condition that made its sufferers religiously unclean and complete social outcasts. So just imagine how shocking it was that the Samaritan leper was the only one of the ten who returned to thank Christ for healing Him from that dreaded disease. In that time and place, this was an outrageous story.
Maybe this man was so thankful precisely because he had learned not to expect compassion from anyone and that he could take no blessing for granted. He surely felt out of place walking with Jewish lepers to the temple in Jerusalem, for that is not where the Samaritans worshiped and presumably he would not have been welcome there. Nonetheless, he obeyed the Lord’s command and was healed. And he alone took the time and effort to return to thank the One who had changed his life.
This man’s healing is an icon of the good news that we celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany and that is at the very heart of our faith. The healing of the Samaritan leper from a terrible disease manifests our salvation in the God-Man Jesus Christ, which extends to all who have put Him on in baptism. As the healing of the Samaritan leper shows, God’s mercy extends to everyone who receives Jesus Christ with faith, repentance, and gratitude. Regardless of what anyone else does, we want to be like that leper, receiving God’s blessing in humility and responding with true thanks. But in order to do that, we have to find healing for our sins, the diseases of soul that have disfigured us and corrupted our beauty as those whom Christ has clothed with a garment of light in baptism.
The truth is that we all struggle to wear that robe of light, to embrace Christ’s healing, for we so easily fall back into the ugly sickness of sin. If we are honest, we will see that we fit right in with the Samaritan and the other lepers who were right to call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” We need their humility and sense of dependence upon the Lord’s grace for a healing beyond what we can give ourselves. The daily prayers found in any Orthodox prayer book say the same thing, and the Jesus Prayer should always be in our hearts. Our prayer life is not a matter of just mouthing words, but a true plea for forgiveness, healing, and strength from the depths of our souls concerning the challenges that we face each day. There is nothing more fundamental to the Christian life than daily personal prayer in which we are fully present to the One born and baptized to save us. The more we open our lives to Him, the more fully we will be aware of our personal brokenness and constant need for His mercy.
The struggle to live faithfully can certainly feel lonely and frustrating. Sin so easily isolates us from one another and also from ourselves. Even if we manage to keep secrets from others, the burdens of guilt and shame are profound and can separate us at a deep level from those closest to us. They easily become unhealthy obsessions that make us feel as unclean as a leper who thinks that no one could understand his pain and that no one could possibly heal his wounds. That is one of the reasons why the sacrament of Confession is such a blessing and a relief, such a source of strength in our journey to live the new life in Christ. In Confession we are reminded that we are not left alone in isolation to struggle with our sins, for the priest is an icon of the Lord, conveying His mercy and providing guidance for the healing of our souls. If we want to be healed like the Samaritan leper, we will come to Confession regularly, naming our sins, especially those of which we are most ashamed and which we would like to keep hidden. We will kneel before Christ in humility, bare our souls, and be assured of His forgiveness, if we are truly honest and repentant.
Like everyone else in the Orthodox Church, a priest goes to another priest for Confession. This sacrament is a therapy for our healing, as well as a reminder that we are members of a Body united together in love and mercy. We do not have to suffer alone, in isolation as though we were the only one who ever sinned. We each have a slightly different version of a common struggle. Our sins are not nearly as unique as we are tempted to think, and there is great power in hearing a human voice say that we should give no further care to the sins we have confessed, for they are forgiven in this world and in that which is to come. Christ says to each of us in Confession through the voice of a priest, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”
The Samaritan is also an example for us in his obedience because he actually did what Christ told him to do, to head toward Jerusalem to show himself to the priests. Here we have another powerful image of the Christian life, for we open our lives to the Lord’s healing by obeying Him, by keeping His commandments.
A murderer does not become an icon of Christ’s salvation by continuing to murder. A proud person does not become humble by continuing to be proud. And we will not experience victory over any sin in our lives if we simply give into it or make up excuses to justify ourselves. No, we have actually to repent, to reject actions, thoughts, words, and habits that we know are wrong. We may experience the greatest struggle of our lives in doing so and feel nothing but pain and frustration as we fight our passions. We may fall flat on our faces a thousand times and wonder if we will ever find peace and joy. When that happens, we must take our attention off ourselves and put it on Christ. For if we are obeying Him as we best we can given our current state of spiritual health, then we are just like that Samaritan leper going to Jerusalem in obedience to Christ’s command, regardless of how we feel about it. He calls us to obey and be healed, which is different from being perfectly at ease. Have you ever gone to physical therapy after an injury or worked out when you were not in shape? That was probably not much fun. Have you ever done the right thing in life even though it was hard and you did not particularly like it at the moment and worried how things would turn out? If so, you know that there are times to focus on something much more important than your fears. That is what the Samaritan leper did and it is what we must all do if we want to find healing for our souls.
It is never popular, but still true: We simply cannot expect to find strength and transformation if we do not obey the Lord. If we do not pray at home and at church, practice fasting and other forms of self-denial, give to the poor and needy, forgive those who have offended us, keep a close watch on our thoughts and actions, and struggle mightily against our familiar temptations, we really cannot expect growth in the Christian life. If we are not actively seeking to become living icons of Christ’s salvation, we will not grow in holiness. Like the leper, we must do our part in order to open ourselves to the mercy of Christ, to put ourselves in the place where His new life shines in ours. And that is always the place of humble obedience.
We should put out of our minds the thought that we are obeying an abstract law of religion or morality, for our Savior is a Person Who knows us better than we know ourselves. We should turn away from obsessing over whether we are doing anything perfectly, for that reflects only our pride. We should not be bogged down by the thousand excuses that run through our minds about why it is more important do something else than to follow Christ. At the end of the day, we simply need to be like that Samaritan leper who called for Christ’s mercy and then did what the Lord told him to do. Despite our many imperfections and corruptions, that is how we too will be able to hear those blessed words: “Rise and go your way, your faith has made you well.” We should not make obedience any hard than it really is.