What does Jesus mean when he says, “your faith has made you well?” Your faith has made you well. I suspect how we answer this question tells us a great deal about about our own faith, and our own sense of wellness.
You might quickly say to me: “but Mike, Jesus didn’t say ‘your faith has made you well’ in today’s story.” Good eye. Our translation today says, “your faith has healed you.” Translation is tricky. I grew up with the New Revised Standard Version, which does say, “your faith has made you well.” Some of us grew up with the King James: Anyone know what Jesus says in the King’s English? “thy faith hath made thee whole.”
There are entire industries connecting wellness and wholeness. There’s a grocery store down the road called “Whole Foods.” When I was younger we used to call it “whole paycheck.” The joke is funny, in part because it plays with this same idea. Is wellness, something only the wealthy can afford? Do you need to be the perfect image of wholeness, name brand yoga pants, organic deodorant, Subaru Crosstrek? Is that the calculus for health? I hope it is clear from my questions, I think Jesus would tell us the answer is “no.” No status symbol makes you whole. No bank account balance makes you whole. Health should not depend on wealth.
Issues of translation
The Greek here is more difficult. A literal translation would be, “your faith has saved you.” We don’t talk a great deal about “salvation” at Holy Communion. We’re not that kind of church. Isn’t it funny that the word “saved” is associated with a particular brand of Christianity? (A brand with which most Episcopalians do NOT want to be associated). Some of you are hoping I stop saying the word “saved” in this pulpit right now. You’d prefer I hadn’t said “saved” at all. To put you at ease, I’m not worried about anyone’s salvation here.
What does Jesus mean, however you translate this phrase:”your faith has healed you? Your faith has saved you? Your faith has made you whole? Your faith has made you well?” What does Jesus mean?
I suggest we look to the wider story. Today we hear that Jesus is traveling in the borderlands. Jesus is in a liminal space, between one country and the next. There Jesus encounters people who have been edged out. People with leprosy were cast out because their infections posed a real risk to others. Still, whatever the reason, life is tough for those who are excluded. Tougher still if you have an incurable disease.
Pay attention to time and space in this story. First we hear the lepers stood far off. Jesus tells them, from far off, to go to the priests. As they leave they are cleansed. Only one seems to notice. He turns around, praises God, falls at Jesus’ feet (he’s not keeping away anymore). Then we learn, he was a Samaritan.
There’s a lot to say about that last revelation. We don’t actually know whether the other nine were Jewish. The text doesn’t tell us, but since the times of the ancient church we’ve taught this one was not like the others, he was an ethnic and religious outsider. If indeed only the Samaritan returns to give thanks and praise, this passage has a certain rhyme many of Jesus’ teachings. Often it is the outsider, often it is the excluded person, often it is the “other” who shows us the meaning of faith in Jesus’ stories.
Cynically, I’ll tell you I think this reading makes sense for another reason. A Samaritan would have been very uncomfortable being told to visit the priests. Why go visit the center of the institutional religion perpetuating your exclusion? Why submit yourself to the bigoted clergy? It would be like telling your gay kid to visit the Archbishop of St Louis or Joyce Meyer. There’s a reason even when folks know their own clergy person is a member of the LGBTQ community, I end up having coffee with folks and needing to assure them that it is really okay to be who you are in this church. But that makes us counter-cultural. So we might understand this Samaritan a bit. Of course he would be looking for a reason to turn around. What better reason is there than that you have already been healed?
And it is to this man, this outsider, this person beyond the tribe, beyond the covenant, beyond the faith that Jesus says, “your faith has healed you. Your faith has made you whole. Your faith has saved you.” In the religious system of Jesus’ day this made no sense. The Samaritans were not saved. They were not insiders. Samaritans were ethnic, cultural, and spiritual outsiders. Yet Jesus says to this one, “your faith has made you well.” For Jesus, faith is about something bigger than membership in a human institution. For Jesus faith, healing, wholeness, it isn’t mediated by those priests. This healed guy never had to see the clergy after all. No wonder he’s thankful.
Are gratitude and faith the same?
I read a commentary from the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long who says this passage questions what we mean not just by healing, but by faith. She writes, “To have faith is to live it, and to live it is to give thanks…One might almost say, in fact, that ‘faith’ and ‘gratitude are two words for the same thing.” Faith and gratitude are two words for the same thing.
The kids in children’s chapel today are creating a “dance of joy and gratitude.” If you see one of our kiddos later on today, ask them to show you their “dance of joy and gratitude.” I’ll probably have to bribe my son to get him to show me. Don’t worry, I won’t make you do one here in grown up church.
But maybe I should, because, as Brene Brown, Episcopalian and Social scientist points out, gratitude is something you have to practice. Having an “attitude of gratitude” she says, doesn’t count for much. Having an attitude of gratitude is like wearing yoga pants and not doing the yoga. You have to practice if you’re going to make a difference. (There are a lot of yoga pants in this sermon). Still, you have to practice.
The Samaritan practices gratitude. He gives thanks, scripture tells us, “in a loud voice.” He falls at Jesus’ feet. I know some of us are good Protestants, Luther taught us we were saved by faith and not works. But friends, let me tell you in the words of the epistle of James, “faith without works is dead.” James goes on:
Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.James 2:14-26
So maybe I ought to have us all practice a joy and thanks dance. Or maybe that is what you are doing here today, by coming to church on a perfectly beautiful October morning. Maybe your practice of faith is a practice of gratitude. Maybe all the standing up, sitting down, and kneeling we do is your joy and thanks dance. Maybe that is all the dancing you need. (If so, good for you, but frankly I think most Episcopalians could stand with a bit more dancing).
Before I let you go, I want to notice one more thing about this text, one more thing about gratitude, and faith, and salvation, and belonging. I introduced a new word: belonging. This is a man who has been told, because of his health, because of his ethnicity, because of his religion, that he doesn’t belong. This is a man who was pushed to the edge of the edge of the edge by factors beyond his control.
Jesus so radically centers the people at the edges. Part of what makes Jesus’ teaching so powerful is that it still challenges those of us who think we are religious insiders. Brene Brown, who I mentioned earlier, writes about belonging. Much of our anxiety, much of the difficulty of life today she tells us comes because so many of us are made to feel we don’t belong.
There are two ways to use religion to reinforce your sense of belonging. The first, unfortunately, is the most well known. People often use faith to exclude others. By counting some out, they try to count themselves saved. I wonder if lot of the exclusion that happens in the name of the church, isn’t just an attempt to shore up a sense of belonging for fundamentally insecure people.
There is another way for faith. It’s counter-intuitive, but friends I think it is what Jesus is trying to teach his followers in this story. The other way for your faith to support a sense of belonging is simple: let your faith be the reason you include someone else. Let your faith lead you to the edges. Have you ever intentionally befriended someone who looked a little lost? Have you helped give a newcomer a tour? Have you seen someone standing alone and walked up and welcomed them at work, at school, in the neighborhood, at church? If you haven’t lately, I invite you to try soon. Notice the next person looking a little lost at church. Helping someone new learn the ropes has this powerful side effect, it shows us how deeply we belong. Our belonging doesn’t have to be dependent on someone else not belonging. It turns out including others can help us know we are included. God doesn’t need us to keep folks out.
What does it mean when Jesus says, “your faith has made you well? Your faith has made you whole? Your faith has healed you?” I want to suggest, it is more than physical. Jesus’ healing is more than any one individual’s diagnosis, ethnicity, or faith. Jesus’ healing is about helping us recognize that all of our divisions are only hurting us. Deep down, every one of us belongs, every one. Beneath all the games we play on the surface, we are already whole. Sometimes we need to be welcomed. Sometimes we need to do some welcoming, so we can cut through the noise and know. Practice faith. Practice gratitude. Practice including others. Because these practices are the gateway to knowing wellness, wholeness, and salvation.