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Where Are The Nine?

Luke 17:11-19

I suppose that the most tragic thing that could happen to anyone in the Biblical world was to suddenly discover that he or she was a leper. Imagine what it would have been like…

Maybe waking one morning, going about the ancient Jewish custom of worship, you might discover a slightly swollen spot on your hand or on your face. You would watch that spot for several days and you would notice the skin begin to lose its pigmentation around the swelling. It would become chalk white. Then any hair in the area of the swelling would become white as snow. Within a few more days, whitish red sores would appear. They would begin to spread and the dreadful realization would come thudding home: “I am a leper.”

Perhaps you would try to hide it for a while, knowing what it would mean. But as the infected sores would spread, you would become afraid that you might communicate the disease to your loved ones—and so you would go to the priest. The priest, who doubled as the local medical officer, would examine you and declare you to be unclean. Then would follow a life of horrible demise.

Of course, there would be the physical effects of the disease: the spread of ulcerated sores, the literal deterioration of facial features and fingers and toes, and then a slow, painful death. The whole process could take years. But as horrible as that would be, somehow it wouldn’t be the worst part. No, the worst part would be the complete banishment from society. There were little villages, filthy slums really, created for lepers outside the districts of the Jews. Some lepers were simply driven out to live in caves and fend for themselves in the wilderness. That would be your fate. You would be ordered out of society. You would be made to dress distinctively. You would be commanded to stay a good distance—a hailing distance—away from everyone else. A bell would be hung about your neck—and wherever you would go, you would have to ring that bell and call out: “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” And most painful of all would be those moments each day or each week when you would plan to see your family. There—a leper’s distance away—would be the ones you love, but you could no longer touch them. A wife you cherished, children to whom you had given life and love—but you could not hold them in your arms. And back and forth, across that invisible gulf of separation would fly the shouted words of greeting: “How are you? How are the children?” A few hoarse shouted questions and a few hoarse shouted replies—that would be all. And life? O, dear God, life would be miserable—nothing but isolation and rejection and decay and slow…slow…slow death.

Yes, I think the worst possible thing that could happen to a person in the Biblical world was to be found a leper.

So, now imagine how they must have felt—those ten lepers in Luke—when word reached them that there was a young preacher and healer loose in the district. Oh, how they must have longed to see Him! And so it was that, hoping to find some security in numbers, these ten outcasts got together and set out in search of this Jesus.

Long since had they ignored the normal patterns of segregation which the Jews practiced against the Samaritans and the Gentiles. I mean, when you’re already declared unclean, how can you be made more unclean? So they didn’t mind fraternizing with one another.

As they entered a village, they prepared themselves for the usual scene. Sure enough, the townspeople, who had been dickering over the price of fish and melons and woven cloth, stopped their chattering and leveled cold, hateful stares at those grotesque figures from the foothills. But then the ten lepers saw a man walking in their direction. They thought surely it was Jesus. They called out to Him. Clinging to nothing more than a slender thread of hope, they cried out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus turned and saw them—this walking ten-fold nightmare—and His heart welled up in compassion. Then, sensing the awesome power of God flowing through Him, Jesus said to the ten: “Go, show yourselves to the priest.” Disappointment swept over them. They wanted to cry: “But, we’ve done that! They know that we are lepers.” Yet something in the tone of his voice compelled them to obey His command. Then Luke writes: “As they went, they were cleansed.”

Can you imagine what it must have been like, down the road then, when one of the ten suddenly cried out: “Wait! Look!”? Can you imagine what they must have felt as they looked at their hands and saw flesh restored to their bones—flesh that was as smooth and soft as that of a child? Well, nine of them hastened on as quickly as they could to get to the priest and have this terrible pall of isolation and rejection lifted from their backs. But one, only one, out of a depth of gratitude in his heart, decided to put that off for a moment. He turned, and praising God with a loud voice, he came running back to fall at Jesus’ feet and give Him thanks.

And Jesus said to him: “Were there not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” And then, turning to His disciples, with a note of irony in His voice. He said: “Is there no one who comes back to praise God except this foreigner, this outcast?” Then, with all of the love and acceptance that can ever flow from a human heart, Jesus said to that man: “Go in peace, your faith has made you well.”

That’s the story…

But the tragedy is that the voice of Jesus still rings in our world and in our hearts today—and His question still haunts us right down to the very depths of our souls: “where are the nine?”

Now, lest anyone think that thankfulness is a minor virtue, we might consider for a moment how we feel when we run across ingratitude in the course of our family or social or business life. Shakespeare, that master of the human heart in all its passions and hopes and fears, knew how deeply sheer ingratitude can cut into the human soul. He portrays it as one of the blackest of all sins. He writes:

“I hate ingratitude more in a man
Than lying, vainness, babbling drunkenness
Or any taint of vice whose strong corruption
Inhabits our frail blood.”

Ingratitude is the theme of piercing tragedy in King Lear, whose plunge into the depths is heralded by that poignant cry:

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!”

Now, if we are so terribly sensitive to ingratitude in others—and it is wounding—then we do well to think more often about our own expression of thankfulness to God. Think, for example, how Jesus must have felt when only one came back. Think how that must have hurt Jesus—how it must have wounded Him. Think of the pain in His heart that forced from His lips that dark, embittered cry: “Where are the nine?”

But still the question begs: What is there in our experience as Christians that ought to drive us to our knees in gratitude?

First, the Christian can thank God for the good things in life.

God has given us life—heart-pounding, blood-flowing, air breathing life. He has given us minds with which to think, hearts with which to love, spirits with which to aspire. We are made in the likeness of God. We are more than just animals. We know the meaning of the words Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Courage, Right and Wrong. God gave us memory so that we might remember who we are and from whence we have come. He gave us hope so that we might strive toward becoming what He wants us to be. He has given us parents, families, teachers, friends, doctors, nurses, political leaders, policemen, firemen, scientists, builders, grocers, clothiers, and on the list goes. Someone has expressed it this way:

“When you say to me, ‘Thank you,’ remember that I could not have done for you what I did had it not been for what hundreds of other people have done for me. Neither could they have done for me what they did had it not been for what thousands of other people had done for them. And so it goes on to infinity. Therefore, when you say, ‘Thank you,’ you really mean to say, ‘Thank you, God.'”

But there’s something else here. The truly unique thing about the Christian faith is the Christian’s ability to give thanks not only in the midst of the good things in life but also in the midst of the bad things in life.

In the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul writes these remarkable words: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

Did you hear what Paul said? He said, “Rejoice in our suffering…” He continues that same theme in Romans 8 when he states that in every circumstance of life, God works for good. Now wait a minute, Paul. You’re pushing the point too far. Every circumstance in life? Yes. Every circumstance in life. God transforms even that which is tiagedy or sorrow into that upon which a Christian can build a temple of praise in his life.

Do you believe that…really? Martin Rinkart did. In just a few minutes we are going to sing his hymn. Don’t sing it lightly. You see, Rinkart was the only pastor in a little German town which was almost wiped out by plagues and famine during the Thirty Years War. In one nightmarish year, Martin Rinkart buried 4,000 people; and in that same terrible year, he wrote these enduring words:

Now thank we all our God,
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom His world rejoices;
Who, from our mother’s arms,
Hath blessed us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

So stop…today…right where you are…just as the leper did. Think of what God has given to you and what He has done in your life. And then, like that leper, praise God with a loud voice, fall down on your knees at the feet of Jesus and give Him thanks.

But then, I beg you, carry your gratitude one step further. Jesus said that when we meet the needs of others, we serve Him and we praise Him. James Stewart writes: “When you see Christ stretching out His hands to you in every starving child, in every war-victimized sufferer, in every friend of yours who is unhappy or forlorn—when you see Christ there, then your gratitude is expressed in service.”

The story is told of a traveler in Africa watching a young woman dressing the gruesome and repulsive wounds of a leper. As he watched her, he said, “I wouldn’t do that for $10,000.” She looked up at him and said, “I wouldn’t either. I do it in thanks to God for what He has done for me.”

So Jesus cries out today: “Where are the nine?” We cannot answer that. Well then, where is the one? We can answer that. Where is the one? Answer with me: “I am here, Lord, and give thanks to you.”

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