ROD Liddle in his Sunday Times column last week eloquently lamented the loss of cultural Christianity.
But today’s Prayer Book Gospel reading shows why cultural Christianity will not do; it does not bring personal salvation.
Admitting that he is ‘not entirely sure there is a God’, Liddle wrote: ‘But I do know that the retreat of Christianity in our country – or more properly our collective retreat from it – has enormously diminished us, both as individuals and as a society.
‘The strictures of the old church may have been confining and rudimentary by our modern standards, but they provided a template by which we could live decent lives in a cohesive society.’
Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel relates Jesus’s miraculous healing of ten lepers on his journey to Jerusalem to fulfil his mission to die for the sins of the world:
‘And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. 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. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole’ (Luke 17v11-19 – King James Version).
Leprosy in 1st century Israel meant the ritual exclusion of those suffering from it from the worshipping life of the community. It served as a powerful symbol of the spiritual and moral uncleanness caused by the sinfulness that afflicts all of humanity.
That was why Jesus responded to the lepers’ plea for healing with a command that they should show themselves to the priests; it was the priests of the Jewish religion who were authorised to declare a leper spiritually and morally clean and thus able to rejoin society and to re-engage with the worshipping community of God’s chosen people.
As they went off to the priests these lepers were cleansed suddenly and miraculously. They noticed as they were walking along that all their terrible symptoms had quite simply disappeared. These men were not merely healed but ritually ‘cleansed’, the word Luke deliberately used. They were now able to rejoin the people of God and to worship him publicly, which they could not before.
But only one of them showed that he truly belonged to the redeemed people of God – the one who, when he saw that he was cleansed, turned back and praised God with a loud voice and fell at the feet of the Christ of God, the divinely-chosen King of the Jews, to say thank you. He came back to thank the Lord Jesus Christ, and so he was the only one who responded in the right way in his heart to God.
Luke tells us that the odd man out was a Samaritan, persona non grata from the perspective of 1st century Judaism both because of his ethnic origins, originally Assyrian, and his native religion which was a hotch-potch featuring some Jewish elements. He had managed to attach himself to a peer group of Jewish outcasts but there was no way he would have been able to join a synagogue, leprous or not.
The other nine Jewish former lepers were able to rejoin the synagogue but they were not saved. They were cleansed from their leprosy but they were not saved from their sins. The Samaritan, ‘this stranger’, was saved because he had a real, thankful faith in the Lord Jesus, the Saviour of the world. His evident, thankful faith was the reason Jesus said to him: ‘Thy faith hath made thee whole.’ (Literally from the Greek: ‘Your faith has saved you.’)
Gratitude to Christ is the essential mark of the real, committed Christian, as distinct from the cultural Christian. He or she is at the core of their being, in their heart, thankful to Jesus because they know that without him they have no hope of being forgiven by such a gloriously pure and perfect God. They know that sin is too hard to cure without the sin-bearing death of the Son of God in the place of lost humanity on the Cross in Jerusalem.
Today’s Collect for the 14th Sunday after Trinity expresses such personal devotion to the living God:
‘Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’