Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Healing of the Samaritan Leper: Homily for the 12th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

            The gospels of the New Testament give us many accounts of Jesus Christ doing and saying things that shocked and challenged people who thought that they were better than others, who thought that they were holy and blessed and that others were evil and condemned. And today’s gospel reading is no exception. We read that the Lord healed ten lepers, but the only one who came back to thank Him for the life-changing miracle was a Samaritan.  Samaritans were hated by the Jews as religious and ethnic half-breeds who had mixed the worship of the true God with paganism.  And since lepers were also outcasts and considered unclean, this Samaritan leper surely had no standing at all in that time and place.  So imagine how shocking it was that he alone returned to Christ to thank Him for this miracle and to give glory to God.
            Perhaps this man was so thankful precisely because he knew who he was and how others viewed him.  He would never have thought that a Jewish messiah would help him in any way.  He had probably learned the hard way to expect little compassion from anyone and that he could take nothing for granted in any area of life.  He likely felt out of place walking with Jewish lepers to Jerusalem to show themselves to a priest at the temple.  But as he went along, he was healed.  And he alone gave the sacrifice of praise by taking the time to return to thank the One who changed his life.   And then Christ said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”
            This man’s healing is a sign, a glimpse, of the fulfillment of the good news that we celebrated at Christmas and Theophany (Epiphany) and that is at the very heart of our faith.  The healing of the Samaritan leper from a terrible disease is an icon, an image, of our salvation, of our fulfillment and transformation in the God-Man Jesus Christ.  And of course, this great blessing extends to all who have put on the New Man in baptism, regardless of their nation, race, sickness,or health. 
            As the healing of the Samaritan leper shows, God’s mercy extends to everyone who receives Jesus Christ with faith, repentance, and gratitude.  We want to be like that leper, receiving the blessing in humility and responding with true thanks—regardless of what anyone else does.  We want our lives to be signs, glimpses, icons, of the eternal life that Christ has brought into our world of death.  But in order to do that, we have to put to death the sins, the corruptions and diseases of soul, that have taken root in us.  These are the ways of the old man, the ways of corruption that lead only to despair and death.  They are like spiritual leprosy which distort and disfigure us, that destroy marriages, families, and friendships, that lead us to worship only ourselves, and make it impossible for us to become icons of the glory of the Lord.
            The leper in the gospel is a model for all of us who struggle to embrace Christ’s healing, for all of us who wrestle with the ways of the old man.  The Samaritan joined with the other lepers in calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  In other words, he began with humility, openly acknowledging that he was sick, needed to be healed, and could not work his own cure.   We should do the same thing in our prayers every day, confessing our sins and asking for the Lord’s forgiveness.  We should also acknowledge our weaknesses daily and pray for His strength to resist temptation, to overcome our bad habits, to calm our passions, and to help us grow in holiness.  And the more we say the Jesus Prayer, the better.
            The struggle to live faithfully can certainly feel pretty lonely at times.  There is nothing like sin to isolate us from one another and even from ourselves.  Even if it’s something that we somehow keep secret from others, the burdens of guilt and shame are profound and can separate us at a deep level even from those closest to us.  They can become unhealthy obsessions that make us feel as unclean as a leper.  That’s one of the reasons why the sacrament of Confession is such a blessing, 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 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 threaten to destroy our relationships with the Lord and our neighbors.  We will kneel before Christ in humility, bare our souls, and be assured of His forgiveness, if we are truly honest and repentant.   Confession is a therapy for our healing, and a reminder that we are members of a Body united together in love and mercy. As we all know, 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.  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 did what Christ told him to do, to head toward Jerusalem to show himself to the priests.   One would imagine that Samaritan lepers were surely not welcome there, but he went nonetheless.  And as he was going, he was healed.  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 thief does not become an icon of Christ’s salvation by continuing to steal.  An alcoholic does not become sober by continuing to drink.  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.  In other words, we have actually to repent, to reject actions, thoughts, words, and habits that we know are wrong.  Of, we will not find perfect spiritually health instantly; we may fail a thousand times, but we must be headed in the right direction.  The Samaritan was going toward Jerusalem in obedience to Christ’s command and we also must be on the path to a holier life through obedience, doing what we know we must do in order to live as those who have put on the New Man Jesus Christ in baptism.
            It’s a hard truth: We can’t expect to find healing for the corruptions of our souls if we do not obey the Lord.  If we do not pray, fast, give to the poor, forgive those who have offended us, keep a close watch on our thoughts and actions, and struggle mightily against our besetting sins, we really cannot expect growth in the Christian life.   If we are not actively seeking to become living icons of Christ’s salvation, we won’t grow in holiness.  Of course, we will not heal ourselves any more than the leper did.  But we must cooperate with the Lord, 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 the place of humble obedience.
            Finally, we learn from the Samaritan leper to be grateful for every bit of progress that we make in the Christian life, for every step of progress in the healing of our souls.  It was not walking toward Jerusalem that healed him; it was the mercy of Christ for which he could take no credit at all.  The leper certainly knew that, which is why he returned to the Lord to thank Him. 
            And what thanks should we offer God for our blessings, for our healing, for our salvation?  Well, we should offer our lives to Him and thus become epiphanies of His salvation in every word, thought, and deed.  For He is the Alpha and Omega Who created all reality out of nothing and on Whom our life is entirely dependent.  We have nothing and we are nothing apart from His mercy, love, and grace.  And nothing fits in its proper place in our lives until it is offered to Him for blessing and fulfillment.
            So just as we offer bread and wine in the Liturgy, let us offer thanks to the Lord by living lives that are pleasing to Him, by living according to the New Man Jesus Christ, and killing the habits of death and darkness that can so easily destroy us and harm others.  For Christ was born and baptized in order to heal us and to bring us into the new life of His Kingdom.  He made a wretched Samaritan leper an icon of His salvation and He will do the same with us, if we follow that man’s example of humility, obedience, and gratitude. 

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