Sermon for the 14th Sunday after TRINITY, September 17, 2017
“And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan”
EVER SINCE there were fingers and toes, one of our chiefest joys as little children was counting them and finding out there are five on one hand, and five on the other. The advanced student of fingers and toes finds out that five on the one hand adds to the five on the other to make ten. And after mastering the art of counting up from one to ten, we get to graduate-level studies in the science of the countdown.
It was a real gift to my generation to be a child in the space age. Children today are deprived of the pleasure of shouting out “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – Blast off!” Every child in America felt the power of T minus 10 seconds, as much as the roar of Saturn boosters exploding as derricks and cranes fell away and a manned space flight rose in the Florida skies followed by a mountain of smoke.
Numbers are magical, and because they are symbols, they mean more than just digits. Ten is a magical number because I have ten of these (fingers). Ask any three-year-old how old she is, and three fingers shoot up in the exact number of the times she’s orbited the Sun. In fact, she is more like NASA than you are, because she knows the exact fraction of an orbit that’s more than three where her space travel stands at this very moment.
Before we delved into space, another countdown was popular, known as Ten Little Injuns. (1868, Septimus Winner) It was an old minstrel number, chanted by children for generations. “Ten little Injuns standin’ in a line, One toddled home and then there were nine; Nine little Injuns swingin’ on a gate, One tumbled off and then there were eight…” It counted down to “Three little Injuns out on a canoe, One tumbled overboard and then there were two. Two little Injuns foolin’ with a gun, One shot t’other and then there was one; One little Injun livin’ all alone, He got married and then there were none.” My apologies to all the Injuns.
Numbers mean something. They can be oranges in a bowl, or Apostles at dinner with Jesus, three crosses on a hill, four Gospel accounts, or the number of tribes in Israel. Numbers can mean fightin’ words. Deny our Three-in-One God, and you are not a Christian. Biblical numbers are charged with meaning. One is God’s number, as there is but One and only One God. His number means unity, as St. Paul writes there is only One Lord, One Baptism, One Father of us all. It also means beginning, as the first day when light was created. One means sovereignty, for only One God rules the world. Two may mean union and it may mean division, as with Jacob and Esau. Two witnesses are required to establish a legal fact. Christ sent His disciples out by twos. Three is the number of Persons in the Trinity, so it means divine completeness and perfection, and also relationship—a society begins with three. Christ rested in the tomb three days, and then arose.
Four is the number of creation, the world, God’s creative works: the four points on the compass, four winds, four great land masses, four seasons, four types of soil for the Sower. Five is the number of grace, God’s goodness. Moses’ books number 5. Six is the day of man’s creation, and symbolizes the fall. 66 is idolatry, and 666 is the number of Revelation’s beast, the incarnation of satanic evil.
Seven is a real magic number. How do we come to number the days of a week as 7? Well, the moon phases come in four quarters of seven days, and God brings spiritual perfection in sevens, and the Holy Spirit flames are seven. Eight is new birth, resurrection, beginning again. In a fallen world, 8 is the hoped for number. Eight persons survived the Flood. Circumcision is on the 8th day. Nine are the fruits of the Spirit, and we read them today in the Epistle: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance: 9.
Ten comes as Law and human order, an earthly governance. Egypt suffered ten plagues, 10 virgins show wisdom or foolishness, and there are 10 clauses in the Lord’s Prayer. 12 makes a divinely established government, as the 12 tribes or 12 apostles. And twice twelve—24 means priesthood, as 24 elders sit before God’s throne. 40 can mean a trial, test or probation—as forty years wandering or forty days’ fast. 50 is Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Ghost.
When Jesus used numbers, people listened and they enjoyed the numeric symbols He used, often playing one off against another to show, by contrast, the good or the evil way. In a miracle that was like a parable, Jesus encountered a band of ten lepers on a day He was traveling south to Jerusalem from Galilee. Lepers stood apart from healthy people, draped in rags, festooned with small bells to warn children not to come near, crying: “unclean!” They were feared to be contagious, and more than that, they were cursed with a dreaded skin disease. It was a judgment on them that this befell their lives, or so folks believed. No one touched them. Jesus did, but that’s another story.
Jesus’ fame went abroad, and the people came in droves to hear Him, ask favors, and especially be healed by Him. The 10 lepers came crying out to Jesus, “Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus saw them, and as His perception was always keen, He set a test for them along with the grace of His healing. Hebrew law put the Jewish priests in charge of examining people’s bodies for signs of leprosy to certify them either unclean or clean. The question, I surmise, that lay behind the test Jesus set them was: Do the priests make you clean because they hold the official position, or does God? And if God, then why are you coming to Jesus? If the priests heal you, why don’t you go crying to them? It’s really very simple: what are you doing, asking for healing from Jesus except that you know where God is on earth, and that God is in Him?
But He wanted to show the Jews, His fellow countrymen, how enslaved they were to rules, rabbinical tradition, laws that govern well enough when God is in heaven and we have to get along here on earth. But when the Kingdom of God has come, what need have we for conventions? He’s right here. Ask Him. Go to Him. Lay aside your accustomed road and seek the One who is God on earth today.
The people had two minds, and how often do we see that today? You know the religious principles, yet you check your horoscope just to be sure. People say thousands of rosaries, but when they’re in real trouble, they call Madam Ruby. Trust God with their souls, but drugs for the body. It’s not either or—I hasten to add—but our duplicity is turning away from God when it really counts. Jesus walked among men, yet after people were healed, they return to their old lives, unhealed in spirit, not truly whole.
“Go show yourselves unto the priests,” He said, and the habituated Jews turned away and sought out a priest. Walking along, no doubt talking away about how the Master hadn’t healed them, and why was it He sent them to the priests, one of them looked down at his poor hand and it wasn’t leprous anymore. He tore the bandages back and cried out, “Oh! Look! My skin! My hand! Wait a minute.” He tore off the rags that hid his face and neck. “Look at me! What do you see?” They screamed at seeing his face clear and without a blemish. They all began to examine their own lesions. One by one, they found no sign of leprosy. Jumping up and down, hugging each other, looking on each other’s skin for further proof of their healing, they knew for certain they had been touched by a miracle. Did they know it was God? Did they know where God had been? The irony of that very moment was that the Jews turned to Judaism, and the Samaritan turned to God.
Ten lepers sought out the healing of Jesus, for they knew by reputation that miracles were done by Him daily. Religiously, the nine Hebrews had their shame and degradation and eventual death taken away from them, and the only thought that occurred to them at that point was to get their certificate of health. The priests could examine them and they would return to family, loved ones, friends who were not allowed to touch them while they were diseased. Ten lepers stumbled off to seek a priest, but nine of them continued toward the priests after God touched and healed them. Then there was only one.
One. And He was a Samaritan. His was the religion scorned by Jews. He would have no entrée with the priests. They would not examine him, or certify him, for he was a foreigner, a mongrel. The ‘leprosy’ of his racial difference to the Jews could not be healed, even by Jesus. His former mates would shun him now-now that they were Jews in good standing. He realized that the bond of illness which had joined him to them had been severed by health. It was a loss, but what he had gained was everything. The Man in the square had healed him. What if He were still there? He must go back and thank Him.
With a shout, the man returned and at the top of his voice he glorified God. He saw Jesus and ran to him, stripped off the old diseased rags and showed Jesus and the fearful spectators his clear skin. He fell at Jesus’ feet, kissed the ends of His toes, and sobbed while panting out his thanks. “Thank you, thank you Master!” The crowd’s first shock they slowly recovered from, but then they felt a second shock: the man’s clothing showed them that he was a Samaritan.
Jesus always seized a teachable moment, and asked them all, “Were there not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? They were Jews, as you all are, and they believe in God. Why didn’t they return to give thanks? Is the only one who recognizes the Kingdom of God on earth this one you call a stranger? Think about it. A major miracle just happened to ten men, ten lepers healed. And then there was one, just one who remembered where the miracle happened.”
Turning to the one, the only one thankful enough to return, Jesus said, “Get up, my friend. You can go on your way, your new way in peace. Your faith—that you just showed so completely—has made you complete. Not just cleansed, but whole—nothing lacking, nothing alien, nothing wrong with you at all.”
Ten, nine, eight, seven… human governments and religious systems can all count, and they count on this: that we will consider them to be in charge and fully able to take care of us. And it’s untrue. Human systems were never meant for that. God alone can heal you, sometimes by the aid of doctors, sometimes through the prayers of your priest. But it’s God. Thank God. Give God the glory for every blessing you have, and you will be whole. Whole means One. Being One, in the One, you will be all.