Trinity 14: From Masked with Impurity to Unmasked In Purity

Jesus Heals a Leper
Christ healing a leper. Woodcut by an unidentified cutter, 1571, after Jost Amman, based on Matthew 8:2-3, Mark 1:40-42, Luke 5:12-13

Lessons: Proverbs 4:10-23, Galatians 5:16-24, Luke 17:11-19
Hymns: LSB 849, 797, 713, 708, 895

Listen to the entire service here (the sermon alone is above).

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      I would like to begin today by bringing up something I said last Sunday. Last week we heard about the beheading of St. John the Baptist. I pointed out that the events in Afghanistan and Hurricane Ida ought to drive people to come to Church to pray. I then asked, “If this does not motivate them, what will motivate them?” My question could be misunderstood to suggest that the Holy Spirit plays no role in motivating people to come to Church, only tragic events. Of course, that is not what I was intending. Instead, what I was asking is that if the suffering in Afghanistan or hurricanes hitting American soil do not motivate people to come to Church to pray, how bad must events get before people will realize that they must come to God’s house to pray? Twenty years ago this coming Saturday, we experienced an event that drew many to Church. While we will not forget September 11th just as we have not forgotten December 7th, the draw that many had to go to Church that following Sunday has long been forgotten.

      In today’s Gospel, there are ten leprous men who are outside a village. As Jesus enters the village, the lepers cried out to Jesus, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Their suffering drew them to the Lord in prayer. Because God uses all things for the good of those who love Him, even suffering has a divine purpose. In the case of these men, they have ever since served the Church as examples to bring our petitions before the Lord in boldness. And the Samaritan serves as an example for us to return thanks to our bounteous Lord.

      Yet, a strict reading of the Law may suggest that these men broke the Law. Hear the regulation as recorded in Leviticus 13:45-46, “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” So, strictly speaking, these men were supposed to shout out, “Unclean, unclean!” Instead, they pray to Jesus for mercy.

      You see, these men knew who Jesus is. They knew Jesus would know who they are. They knew Jesus already understood that they had leprosy. So instead of warning Jesus of their leprosy by shouting out, “Unclean, unclean,” they make their request before the Lord. They pray a model prayer, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

      Mercy was certainly what they needed. Not only was their skin disease contagious and likely painful, but they were separated from the rest of society. They could not enter villages. Without our modern health and disability insurance, they relied on the mercy of others—those who would have compassion on them for their survival. This compassion, by the way, is what God also expects us Christians to have toward those who suffer. We are not exempt because we have insurance and government programs which provide help. After all, kindness and goodness are fruits of the Spirit.

      It would be easy to look at lepers with disgust and make any excuse to avoid helping them. Naturally we won’t want to come into contact with those infected with contagious diseases. The events over the last year-and-a-half demonstrate that.

      And the lepers looked bad. The Law we heard from Leviticus instructs all lepers to put on the display of mourning. They were instructed to wear torn clothes, have disheveled hair, and cover their upper lip. That is, they wore face masks, as is indicated in the artwork on our bulletin cover—a woodcut carved in 1571. Thus, the leper cannot be seen expressing anything but remorse. Any smiles he might have would be covered by his mask. These instructions for lepers match the customs of those who grieved the death of loved ones. Yet for these men, a loved one didn’t die. They were socially dead—in a hopeless situation, and separated from their families and loved ones. This is often a lifelong sentence, for many were never cured.

      However, if a leper is blessed to be healed of his disease, he is released from quarantine by showing himself to the health officials of the day—the priests. A priest would go outside the camp to examine the leper and then the rite of purification would begin, which lasted over a week and involved the sacrifice of animals (Leviticus 14:1-32).

      When the ten lepers come before Jesus in today’s Gospel and request His mercy, Jesus says, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” In faith, they go, still covered with leprosy. Jesus performed a great miracle, for as they went, they were cleansed. Nine of them evidently continue on toward the priest, but one returns to give thanks to Jesus. He’s a Samaritan, a bit of a foreigner, hated by the Jews. In their leprosy, the cultural barriers were torn down. Strengthened by their numbers and cheered up by camaraderie, Jewish and Samaritan lepers would band together, even as they were cast out by society.

      There was one instruction that Leviticus gives for lepers that does not match those who are in mourning over the deaths of loved ones. Hear again the words of Leviticus: “He shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’” Wearing the face mask not only put on the display of grieving, but that, coupled with shouting “Unclean,” helped protect others from the leper’s severe impurity.

      We would like to think that we live in unprecedented times, but our day is not so unique. Satan isn’t as creative as we are inclined to think. Nothing is new under the sun. Social distancing, masking up, and quarantining were prescribed by God for those suffering from leprosy. The covid variants are revealing to us that this pandemic won’t go away without a fight. We are all wearied by it. We want normal to resume. It is likely that we will simply have to learn to live with the disease among us, as we have done with respiratory viruses and influenza, or as the ancients did with leprosy. Maybe God will end it.

      In any case, just as the lepers cried out for mercy toward Jesus, so also God calls on us to have mercy. Let’s be merciful toward those who desire to wear masks and those who desire not to. Let’s be merciful to those in leadership positions who must make decisions on grappling with this disease. Let’s be merciful to those who work in healthcare and must deal with this daily. Let’s be merciful to businesses who struggle to find enough workers to effectively run their business. If we want mercy, we must also cheerfully grant it.

      Today’s bulletin cover is depicting an occasion in which Jesus is healing a single leper. However, it may be interpreted as the Samaritan in today’s Gospel since he was forbidden to go to the Jewish priests for the examination and the purification rite. Really, there was only One who could release him from his quarantine: Jesus. Jesus is the great High Priest. He is the Lord of life and has control over all things. He can still storms and calm waves, feed multitudes with a few loaves of bread, drive out demons, and even raise the dead. If Jesus can do these things, He can certainly release the Samaritan from quarantine.

      Maybe you are still wearing a mask. I’m not talking about the masks some choose to wear because of the pandemic (or are required to wear), but a figurative mask. Maybe you are trying to cover something, like mourning or remorse. Maybe you are grieving the death of a loved one, yet you are covering that up. Maybe you’re suffering physically or emotionally, but are trying to mask it. Or perhaps you’re trying to hide the works of the flesh, which are evident: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21). Maybe you are oppressed by the shame of your sinful past. Maybe you are fearful of other people’s criticisms as you go against the grain of society to follow Christ and His Word. Perhaps you mask yourself up as you leave these Church doors so that no one will know you are a Christian.

      Whatever it is that you are bearing, see Jesus’ compassion, know of His redeeming work, and hear His comforting words, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Jesus, who cleansed the lepers, can cleanse you, too. He cleanses you of your faults and failures, your sins and temptations, your grief and shame. He even cleanses you of the sins that have been committed against you—the pollution you have received from others.

      Jesus bore your sin and the consequence of your sin as He went to the cross. When Jesus died, He was wrapped in a linen shroud—masked up if you will—and laid in a tomb. Then on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. Those who visited the empty tomb saw the linen cloths that had masked his body, but they did not see Jesus. For He was not there, He had risen. Instead, they saw Him in Jerusalem, in Galilee, and on the road to Emmaus. Our Lord’s resurrection covers all your guilt and shame. In Christ, the burdens of this life are lifted (in fact, we’ll hear more from Jesus next week about that as He teaches us not to worry). Even the pains of death are swallowed up in victory. You are set free from all oppression through the forgiveness of sins.

      Because you are no longer unclean in sin and grieving in your sin through the merits of Christ, you are blessed to be a member of a community—this congregation. You are blessed to be able to gather in God’s house for prayer, hear God’s Word, receive Christ’s forgiveness, sing His praises, and feast on Christ’s Body and Blood. Go your way without the masks of grief or guilt. Your faith has made you well.

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen