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The Least Likely to Succeed
Luke 17:11-19; 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c…Proper 23C
Rev. Deb Mechler
“The word of God is not chained…do your best…to rightly explain the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:9c, 15c)
Well, I’ll do my best today. We take the Scriptures seriously, don’t we? Which means we have to be willing to look deeply into them. We open our hearts to let the Holy Spirit change us with what we notice in the Bible, how we sense God speaking to us.
The stories of today’s texts are rich with meaning. If we are to take them to heart, it helps to listen closely for what we might have missed before. Surely we take the gospel text to be a lesson in gratitude. Don’t forget to notice what God has done for you, and give thanks to God.
But notice which one of the healed lepers took the time to return to Jesus to thank him. What was does Luke tell us about him? Look back at verses 15 and 16: “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.”
You know about those Samaritans, don’t you? They descended from Jews who did not go into exile with the rest, so they had some pagan blood in their veins. They were scorned by Jews as half-breeds. They tried to combine some of their pagan religion with that of the people of God. They had a different center of worship. They were as good—or I should say as bad—as Gentiles.
But this one out of all ten got it right, according to Jesus. If this were an isolated example, we might pass it off as a lucky guess by someone who didn’t know the right way to worship God.
But it is not unusual. In fact, Luke the gospel writer goes out of his way to tell us the stories of Jesus where the lowly, the outsider, and the unclean are the ones who get it right. Those considered “least likely to succeed” in their graduating classes…well, they Jesus says their faith is an example for the rest of us. Jesus not only blesses them; he is also affected by them.
There is a pattern in the recent gospel stories we have read. We are in Luke 17 today. Working backward, in Luke 16 there is Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, both of whom die and go to their respective places, the rich man to Hades, and Lazarus the poor man in the place of honor at his ancestor Abraham’s side. The poor guy ends up with the prize.
In that same chapter, Jesus tells a parable about a dishonest manager who is commended—commended!—for his ability to short change his master and work his way into the good graces of his creditors. That one is a puzzler.
In Luke 15, the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable gets honored with a feast featuring his brother’s prize calf. The lost sheep gets all the shepherd’s attention.
We continue. Luke 14 has Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, and Jesus chiding the religious leaders for begrudging a cure to someone just because of a legal technicality. In the same chapter, he tells the parable of the generous man who throws a banquet, only to have those invited give all manner of excuses to stay away, so the poor, the blind and the lame find themselves at the party of their dreams.
In Luke 13, Jesus cures a woman on the Sabbath. By touching her! But this is what Jesus was about. He even did it in the synagogue to prove a point.
Which you get, right? Jesus lets the unlikely characters in almost every case have the voice of wisdom and faith. Not enough examples for you? How about the thief on the cross, the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan woman, and the Roman centurion? The widow seeking justice, the bleeding woman, blind Bartimaeus. David, the giant slayer. Gideon, from the least of the tribes. Tamar, Ruth, and Rahab are foreigners or otherwise shady women who become ancestors of Jesus. Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah are all unable to bear children but become the mothers of patriarchs and prophets. Humble people.
In the story of 2 Kings, it was the lowly servant girl, probably a captive in one of Naaman’s raids on Israel. Most likely she lost her family. What possessed her to show kindness to her captors? Imagine her being brought to such an imposing figure as Naaman. I picture Dorothy quaking with fear before the Wizard of Oz. But it was her advice that led to her master’s healing.
Come to think of it, many of these people I’ve mentioned have reasons to be bitter toward God or God’s people, but they reach across unseen barriers to connect with God. For some reason, Jesus prefers to see life, to see the kingdom of God, from their point of view: the bottom, the outside, the least likely to be respected. Not from the position of the wealthy, the powerful, the proper religious people, or those in places of honor.
I have to admit that I have learned more about the love and grace of God from people I didn’t respect or maybe even dismissed without realizing it.
Kathleen was a resident in the nursing home where I was a chaplain. She was mentally challenged and struggled to express herself not only because of that, but because she seemed to have a kind of stammer. She had a huge smile and an equally expansive heart. Her sister was devoted to her, and I could understand why. Eventually Kathleen’s health declined, and she entered the stage of actively dying.
I never anticipated learning anything about God or faith from Kathleen, but I did. In her last hours, I sang to her a time or two. After one song and a prayer, she gripped my hand fiercely. That grip communicated more conviction and faith to me than many of the books I have read or sermons I have heard. That grip not only expressed her faith, it strengthened my own.
Not every story about unexpected saints is heartwarming. There was a man in our assisted living building who came to worship services often. He was pleasant to visit with, speaking of his travels and interests in a German accent that seemed quaint to me. After a few months I learned that he had served the Nazis in the SS. My fondness for him was instantly shaken by this knowledge. Yet he was a man of faith. I could not confront him; that was not my place. I could not know whether he repented of his past behavior or not. I struggled to love him as God surely did. I resolved to continue placing the communion elements in his hand, for his open hand was as deserving of the body and blood of Christ as mine was. I learned more about myself and about God from someone who felt like an unlikely brother in Christ.
Perhaps we need to give people some credit for having faith, people we don’t usually see that way. People you might dismiss as lazy or not that smart. People who struggle to keep up with everyone else. People with a few skeletons in their closet or blots on their reputations. Our brothers and sisters might look and act like us, and they might not. It is not ours to say whether their faith is genuine or acceptable.
Do we depend only on ourselves and our inner circle to know how God works? Or do we trust our friends and co-workers to know a bit about forgiveness and grace even if we don’t like them? Do we listen to people who can tell us what it is like to be poor in spirit—people who can’t pay the bills and have to rely on food pantries, people with no health insurance so they suffer from simple ailments we might solve with a drive to the drugstore? Do we dismiss the many millions struggling with food insecurity, violence, and oppression, or do we seek to hear their voices crying for justice? Or do we think we are the ones that have it all together; we are the ones who have something to give while everyone else is a taker?
Jesus sees them. He hears them. He sees you too. Maybe you are struggling in some way that people don’t realize. Are you carrying secrets of addiction or abuse? Do you do constant battle with depression, anxiety, or grinding financial stress? Is illness or shame crippling you? Jesus sees you. He hears you. He doesn’t consider you the “least likely to succeed.” Instead he calls you “most likely to be blessed.” He gives you credit for having faith, no matter how feeble it feels to you.
As his disciples, he asks us to do the same for one another. I suspect that in the process, he will teach us a thing or two about gratitude while he’s at it. Thanks be to God.