Sermon for November 27, 2002
Eve (Luke 17:11-19)
The texts for Thanksgiving often remain the same from year
to year. On Thanksgiving Eve I have found myself frequently speaking on this
passage regarding the ten healed lepers, one of whom returns to give thanks
for the healing that has taken place at the hands of Jesus. The story is rich
in meaning. It reminds us of the importance of giving thanks. It reminds us
how thanksgiving wells up in us when we have been delivered from a burden or
illness. It reminds us how easily we can forget to say thank you. It reminds
us how confidence, trust or faith are basic to healing and recovery. It reminds
us of the simple joy that comes when we appreciate the things we have received
at the hands of God.
This year, when I read the story, I was struck by the number "ten." Why ten lepers? I know that this might actually be the correct number for an historical event remembered by the community of faith that preserved the life of Jesus by writing it down. There may have been ten lepers and that is why we have that number in the story.
But even historical facts in the Bible have deeper meaning underneath the surface. Could there be something important for us in this number ten? I think, our sense of thanksgiving may be enriched in several ways by thinking over the significance of this one small detail: the number ten in this story.
First, the number ten is often used in the Bible to mean a sense of completeness or totality. It probably goes back to the ten fingers on our two hands. When we use all the fingers we have a complete set of something. Multiples of ten are used to describe the furnishings of the temple. Before the flood there were ten generations in Genesis. After the flood in Genesis there were another ten generations in the story. The two sets of ten generations tell the complete story of the founding of the people. Ten is sometimes the number of complete holiness, a combination of the two basic sacred numbers: seven (as in the seven days of creation) and three (as in the three dimensions of God. God in the Hebrew Scriptures is the God of the beginning, the ending, and the meantime or the present). Behind the number ten and our ten fingers is a sense of completeness. In healing ten lepers, Jesus offers healing to all lepers and all indeed all in need of healing. No leper is to be left out of the healing in the kingdom of God. And who are those lepers? Well, we are. We are the ones who encounter Jesus in the stories of the Bible. This is a story about complete healing. Healing for all of us, and complete healing for each of us.
This healing comes to all, and is complete for each one whether we are thankful or not. God's mercy does not depend on the gratitude of humans. Complete healing for all is the goal of God witnessed in the number ten.
The number ten has another significance as well. In the Bible, the people are called to set aside some of their possessions in gratitude for the gifts received from God. The portion set aside is a called a tithe. A tithe is one-tenth of the total amount. On days such as thanksgiving we think of thank offerings, gifts to God, and tithing. The one-tenth of the leper population that returns to God to say thanks is a distinct reference to the need for all of us to return a portion of that which we have received. Not every leper will return to say thanks. But the tithe is kept in this story. Not every thing we possess need be given in thanks. But each of us is called to give a portion, or to return thanks, for the healing in our lives.
Further, probably again because we have ten fingers, the ancient people of the Bible focused on Ten Commandments as the best description of our relationship with God and with each others. The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue as it is sometimes called, is a complete vision for building a relationship with God and a foundation for building society. It, too, is built on two tablets one of three commands, the other seven. Three commands shape our relationship with God. Seven shape our relationship with each other. The number ten is a reminder of the relationships we have that undergird all of life and the responsibilities we face in sustaining those relationships.
The story suggests that at the core of the Ten Commandments is a thankful heart willing to set aside a portion of life for God's use. When we offer thanks to God, we are at the core of our relationship with God. And as we live the ten commandments as best we can, then we are giving thanks.
The number ten reminds us of the completeness of God's healing
and forgiveness. A healing that is offered to all. It may not come to all in
the same way or at the time we want. But the healing and deliverance is offered.
The number ten and the one-tenth who returned reminds us of returning a portion of our lives back to God in joyful thanks giving.
And the number ten reminds us that people who have been healed have been given a way to live, a holy law that makes for good living and defines the way we relate to God and other people.
Tonight ten lepers are healed. One returns to give thanks.
Our story reminds us to give thanks, how thanksgiving follows deliverance from
a burden or illness, how easily we can forget to say thank you, how confidence,
trust or faith are basic to healing and recovery, and the simple joy that comes
when we appreciate the things we have received at the hands of God. Amen