Go See the Great High Priest
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The miraculous healing of the ten lepers is one of the most instructive of all of Jesus' miracle accounts. St. Luke's account is straightforward but full of wonderful details. First he tells us that Jesus is "on the way to Jerusalem," or literally from the Greek, Jesus was "journeying to Jerusalem." This journey is a crucial theme in St. Luke's Gospel. Back in Luke 9:51, we are told that "When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to journey to Jerusalem." That Jesus would be "taken up" means that His journey would eventually take Him up into heaven to sit down at God's right hand and prepare a place for all believers, but before He would enter glory He would have to go to Jerusalem to suffer on the cross for the sins of the whole world. This would be no easy task, for in His death He would bear the punishment for all of your sins; there on the cross He would die in your place, suffering the torments of hell, to spare you from God's wrath against your sins. And so, St. Luke tells us that Jesus "set His face to go to Jerusalem." He set His face, He steeled His jaw with resolution in order to show that He was determined not to stop His journey until He had laid down His life for your sins; He also set His face because He knew that the journey would be hard and painful. So in our Gospel reading today, St. Luke reminds us that Jesus is on that journey up to Jerusalem to die and institute the New Testament in His blood and be our great High Priest, the Mediator between God and us.
But the final stage of His journey hadn't come yet, even though St. Luke reminds us that Jesus is on the journey. In the meantime, in our Gospel reading, Jesus was entering a village and heard the shouts of ten lepers, standing off in the distance. These ten men suffered from a terrible affliction, with their skin literally rotting away. On top of that, they were literally social outcasts. Because of their disease, they were not allowed to enter the village itself, so they would stay outside the city limits and beg. They also weren't allowed to get too close to healthy people, so they shouted at Jesus from perhaps fifty yards away. But somehow they had heard that Jesus was a great healer, and also a rabbi, so they shouted out in desperation, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
Jesus turned and looked at them, and if you were reading Luke's Gospel through for the first time, you might have expected Jesus to walk over to them in order to lay hands on them and heal them, since that is exactly what He had done for a leper twelve chapters earlier, in Luke 5. But He doesn't touch them. He doesn't even go near them. He just hollers to them: "Go, show yourselves to the priests."
There are two peculiar things about this command from Jesus. First, why would Jesus tell them to show themselves to the priests? This is part of the Old Testament context of the account. In Leviticus, the Lord teaches that people who are ritually unclean, such as lepers, cannot have access to God's gracious presence at the Temple. To put it in contemporary terms, they wouldn't have been allowed to go to church until they were healed and ritually cleansed. God's Old Testament Law stipulated that after someone who had been ritually unclean from leprosy got better, they had to go to the priests at the Temple and be certified as ritually clean. And the Temple priests were responsible for making sure that impurity didn't come into God's presence at the Temple, because Holy God cannot stand impurity in His presence, and He would be moved to anger rather than graciousness.
Now given the lepers' state of uncleanness and their knowledge of the Old Testament, when Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests, they would have heard an implicit promise in the words of Jesus. In effect, Jesus was saying, "Go on your way, and by the time you get there, you'll be healed and you can be certified as ritually clean by the priests, so that you can worship at the Temple!"
But what's interesting is that Jesus doesn't heal them right away. The lepers ask for mercy, and Jesus tells them to do something away from Him, out of His sight. Jesus doesn't touch them, or speak a word of healing to them, or even explicitly promise to heal them, but gives them a task; He says, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And that is Jesus' last word to the group.
What we learn from this account is that faith doesn't rely on sight or experience, but simply trusts God's Word of promise. Faith also is not an inactive thing, but after it hears the promise of the Lord, it puts into practice whatever the Lord has said. When Jesus told the lepers to go to the priests, He was calling them to personal trust in Him, trust that would result in obedience. His command really means, "If you believe My Word, show Me that you trust Me. Obey Me as your Lord because you trust Me as your Savior." In other words, if they really believe that Jesus can and will show mercy to them, then they will do whatever He tells them, trusting that He will show mercy to them in their performance of His instructions.
So the lepers go on their way to the Jerusalem Temple, and along the way, the Lord does have mercy on them by miraculously healing them. So we see a continuation of a pattern in so many of the miracles of Jesus: He tells people to do something so that they may show their trust in His Word and realize that He will never mislead them. He tells a paralyzed man, "Rise up and walk!" (Luke 5:24) and the man walks. He tells a blind man, "Go, wash your eyes in the Pool of Siloam" (John 9:7) and the man comes back seeing. He tells the waiters at the wedding at Cana, "Fill the pots with water" (John 2:7), and then turns it into wine. As Lazarus lies dead in the tomb, Jesus tells the citizens of Bethany, "Take away the stone" (John 11:39), and then He calls Lazarus back to life and out of the tomb. In all these cases, Jesus shows mercy to people by having them follow His living and active Word, and through that learn to trust Him.
So all ten lepers were blessed with divine healing as they faithfully followed Christ's instructions to them. But then comes the real surprise. While nine of the lepers followed Christ's command down to the letter by going to show themselves to the priests in Jerusalem, we see one healed leper gain a new insight about who Jesus is; this newfound insight makes him stop in his tracks, turn around, and go back to Jesus. St. Luke tells us, "Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?'"
Here is the greatest miracle of all: the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of this Samaritan, this foreigner, this non-Jew, to realize that Jesus is not only God's promised High Priest for all mankind, but Jesus is actually God Himself. Unlike the nine Jewish lepers, this Samaritan's faith came to rest on Jesus not only as a great healer and prophet sent from God, but as the location for God's mercy and presence in the world. He turns around from going to the Jerusalem Temple to give thanks to God, and returns to the bodily temple where the Son of God dwells, so that he can throw himself at Jesus' feet in an act of worship and give thanks to God personally. He turns around from going to see the Temple priests to be certified as ritually clean, and he returns to the great High Priest of God who declares the man clean from all his sins, saved by faith in the "Mediator of a better covenant, which has been established on better promises" (Hebrews 8:6), as the letter to the Hebrews said.
So in this short scene, we can see several things about Jesus becoming clearer. The time for the Old Covenant is drawing to a close, since Jesus is replacing the Jerusalem Temple with the temple of His own body, and the sacrifices and priests of the Old Covenant are also becoming obsolete, since Jesus is going to be the great High Priest who goes up to Jerusalem to offer up the once-and-for-all sacrifice of His own body and blood to institute the New Testament. After Jesus institutes the New Testament in His blood, the location of worshiping God will no longer be in one specific building in one specific city, but it will be wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus, wherever His Church, His Body, His Temple is, particularly when they are gathered together to receive His precious body and blood in the Lord's Supper. We also see that since the Samaritan has been brought to faith in Christ, the door of salvation by faith in Christ is opening for non-Jews, even Gentiles like us.
Now all those things were still in the future as the Samaritan knelt before Jesus. The Samaritan couldn't know all those things at that moment, as we know by reading the whole Gospel. But Jesus did want the Samaritan to see the fulfillment of Christ's High Priesthood firsthand, so with his final words to the Samaritan, Jesus invites the man to journey with Him up to Jerusalem to watch Jesus die. Our bulletin translation has Jesus saying to the man, "Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you," but the Greek simply says, "Rise, journey; your faith has saved you." Since the introduction to this lesson talks about Jesus journeying to Jerusalem, it seems that Jesus is summoning this faithful foreigner to journey with Him up to Jerusalem to witness His suffering and death as our great High Priest. It is as if Jesus were saying, as He had said in Luke 9, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). That Samaritan now had the opportunity to follow Jesus to the cross.
"Rise and journey," Jesus says to the man, "your faith has saved you." The man can now journey with Jesus knowing that he has not just bodily cleansing, but spiritual cleansing from his sins being forgiven; he has not just bodily healing, but everlasting salvation from Jesus Himself. The man can journey with Jesus in confidence, knowing Jesus as his Lord, Savior, and High Priest.
But what was it about the man's faith that saved him? We tend to hear this and think of faith as something dwelling in us, as some sort of character trait, but really Jesus is saying, "I have saved you, and by your trust in Me, you are receiving My salvation." The man simply took Jesus at his Word, and when he saw that Jesus' Word was true, He did what faith does: it leads back to Jesus to kneel down before Him in worship, praise, and thanksgiving. And such a faith also receives the words of Jesus, "Rise, journey!" as a wonderful invitation to a life of faithfulness to Christ, taking up the cross each day and following Jesus.
So today's Gospel account is wonderfully instructive for our life of faith today. When you, as an unclean and unworthy sinner, cry out to Jesus, "Lord, have mercy on me!", when you pray for Him to deal with your guilt or shame, then it should not be surprising that He doesn't go, "Zap! Pow!" and everything is fixed. Rather, just as Jesus did with the ten lepers, He tells you to go somewhere, to do something, in order to show that you actually trust that He will be merciful to you. In answer to your prayer for mercy, Jesus says, "Go to the Holy Scriptures and to the preaching of the Gospel in the Church, and there you will find the message of My death for all of your sins and My resurrection to win everlasting life for you." He says, "Go to the waters of Holy Baptism and be united with My death for your sins and My resurrection for your life; splash around in those waters and realize that you are a beloved child of God." He says, "Go and confess your sins, and hear Holy Absolution, so that you can know that I have answered for your guilt and it has been drowned in the depths of the sea." He says, "Go to My Holy Supper, where I feed you with My true body given into death for your sins, and My true blood shed for you, for the forgiveness of all your iniquities."
So we learn from the ten lepers that when we have a Word of instruction from Jesus, we must cling to it, follow it, trust that He will bless us, even if we cannot see how. "Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!" Jesus said another time. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed," Jesus says in John 20.
When you come to church, to Confession, to Holy Communion in repentance, sorry for your sins and desperate for forgiveness and salvation, then you are putting into practice your faith in Jesus by showing yourself to your Great High Priest. You show yourself to the Priest as you really are, as a spiritual leper, as a poor, miserable sinner who deserves nothing but condemnation. And then in response, He shows Himself to be gracious and merciful to you by forgiving all your sins through the Holy Gospel, in Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper. And then your Lord and Savior says to you, as He said to the Samaritan, "Rise, journey! Take up your cross daily and follow Me!" And you can go on that journey with Him in confidence that He will never leave you or forsake you, that every path He leads you down will be for your good and ultimately your salvation. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.