Every year (in both the one- and three-year lectionary), the appointed Gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day is the cleansing of the ten lepers. That’s too bad, for there are many Gospel readings that could help us give thanks. It also presents a challenge for both reading and preaching on this text any other day of the year. We’ve been trained to think about this text with pumpkin pie in the oven and a sense of guilt for not being more thankful.
It’s true, of course, that we aren’t as thankful as we should be. But a sermon on this text can easily be reduced to an exhortation to be more like the lone Samaritan. “Be more thankful” becomes the focus, and the result is that hearers go home thinking more about their need to give thanks than Jesus. If you want your hearers to be thankful, I’d suggest avoiding the exhortations to give thanks and focus instead on proclaiming on the promises of God in Christ.
What is the promise of Christ in this text? Because it is a narrative, there are no direct promises to today’s hearers. But there are several works of Jesus in this reading that could provide metaphors for proclaiming the Gospel today. Healing is an obvious candidate. Jesus healed the lepers, and he heals us. Welcoming the foreigner is another. The Samaritan was an outsider, and so are we. Taken together, you might describe the work of Jesus in this text as an instance of and promise toward the end of all his works, namely, his restoration of all things.
Attention to the leprosy could help you do this. Don’t focus too much on the specifics of the disease. Commentaries suggest that the term covers a wide range of skin trouble, making it hard to nail down their precise physical condition. Whatever the severity, the rabbis suggested that curing leprosy was as difficult and unlikely as raising someone from the dead. Further, physical trouble was only part of the problem. The social alienation experienced by those living apart from the community was probably worse. Regarded as living under God’s curse (as those who were “unclean”), these people existed on the margins of society, ostracized and avoided.
Note also Jesus’ words to the grateful Samaritan in verse 19. His faith did not simply make him well physically. It saved him (σέσωκέν). This salvation consisted of restoration—first to physical health, and then to the life of the community.
Which brings us to your congregation. They need to be restored, too. Sin has had its effect on us all—physically and socially. It should not be difficult to think of local examples. Social alienation may be particularly pressing for your hearers. In his extensive study of those who have left the church, David Kinnaman identifies alienation as a major cultural challenge for the church today. Despite the connectivity at our fingertips, individuals report feeling more isolated than ever. Kinnaman points to the dissolution of the family, withdrawal from flesh and blood community to all things digital, and a lack of trust in traditional institutions as the primary causes. Today you don’t need leprosy to find yourself all alone.
Which reminds me of the comment of the rabbis. Curing leprosy was as unlikely as raising the dead. Perhaps your hearers feel the same way of their isolation, or of their physical condition. Take those feelings seriously. Honor the tragic circumstances many people today are experiencing—whether the cause is their own mistakes or the mistakes of others.
Then proclaim the promise of restoration in Christ. This text gives us only a glimpse, a preview, of God’s plan in Christ to restore his broken creation to its physical and social perfection. The cleansing of the lepers serves as a prelude to what will happen when Jesus returns. With Jesus’ resurrection as the foundation of our hope and the first fruit of a greater restoration, lift your hearers’ vision beyond their present troubles and proclaim the promise of God’s plan to make all things new on that last and great day. You might also invite them to participate in God’s work of restoration here and now by helping them identify people in their lives who are broken and alone.
And who knows? Even if you never mention the word thanksgiving, don’t be surprised if your hearers find themselves more grateful than even the Samaritan in the text.
Concordia Theology- Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 17:11-19.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 17:11-19.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 17:11-19.