A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Temple
“And when [Jesus] saw them He said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed” (Luke 17:14).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A funny thing happened on the way to the temple. Not “funny” in a humorous sort of way, but “funny” in the sense of peculiar, unexpected. On His way to Jerusalem, Jesus passes between Samaria and Galilee. As He enters a village, ten lepers come out to meet Him. Well, not exactly “meet him.” They stand at a distance. You see, leprosy is a terrible disease, so contagious that its victims are quarantined until death. They have to leave their families, friends, homes, and livelihoods to spend their last painfully dying days isolated in the wilderness. And if anyone walks toward them, the law demands they warn them away. Logically, such a quarantine also means a leper isn’t able to go to the temple of the Lord for worship and sacrifice, either. Therefore, leprosy becomes symbolic of the killing sinfulness, which keeps a sinner out of God’s presence.
As Jesus draws near the village, the lepers do not yell the standard warning: “Unclean! Stay away!” but rather, they beg for His attention: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” The Word about Jesus and His miracles has spread, and they believe that Jesus can heal them. In fact, since He’s healed so many by simply speaking, surely He can heal them without even coming close if He wants.
Some translations have the word “pity” rather than “mercy.” But mercy is a better word. In a recent Bible study, we discussed the difference between mercy and pity. We decided that “pity is feeling sorry for someone; while mercy is actually doing something about it.” That’s why it is more accurate to say the lepers ask for mercy, rather than merely pity. They know that not only will Jesus empathize with their plight, but He also has the power to do something about it.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” This is a prayer of faith—or at least, the beginning of faith. The lepers know Jesus through the wonderful stories that have been told about Him. That Word of Christ has worked faith in their hearts. Their plea for mercy is an expression of this faith. They realize that they cannot buy or barter for the blessings that Jesus brings, but can only beg for it.
And Jesus, seeing them, and fully aware of their miserable plight, simply tells them to show themselves to the priests. It was commanded in the Law of Moses that those who supposed themselves to be cured of leprosy must present themselves to one of the priests on duty at the temple, in order that their healing might be confirmed. If it was determined they had been cured of their sickness, then they were required to bring a sacrifice (Leviticus 13:2; 14:2). The sacrifices in the temple included the shedding of blood, looking forward to the cleansing atonement of the Messiah, who, at that very moment just happens to be on His way to Jerusalem to offer His blood as the final, once-for-all cleansing. Jesus wants the priests to confirm that the miracle has taken place. It will confirm that Jesus is who He says He is: the merciful one who cleanses the entire sins of humanity.
The priests were those men who were appointed by God to stand between God and sinful man as they carried out the duties at the temple. According to the Law, they sacrificed the blood of bulls, sheep, and goats, presenting those offerings before the Lord. Once the sacrifices were made and accepted by God, they would then announce to the people that God would not hold their sin against them.
Priests served as intercessors, mediators between man and God; but they also stood between leper and society. If a leper thought he had been healed, he couldn’t just go back home; he had to first show himself to the priest. Only after he was cleansed in ceremony, and only after sacrifices were offered to God, and only after he was declared clean by the priest could a leper go back to his home and family. That’s why Jesus tells the ten lepers, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
So, the ten depart at a run, confident that they will be healed as they follow Jesus’ command, sprinting to find the priests and to start the cleansing ceremony. And, a funny thing happens on the way to the temple: they are all healed!
You know what happens next: nine keep on running, and one turns around. He comes to Jesus, falls at His feet, worships his Savior, and glorifies God. This, of course, prompts Jesus to observe, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” To the one, Jesus says, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
That takes care of our review. Now, for a pop quiz: in the text, how many of the lepers go to the temple to show themselves to a priest as Jesus commands?
The answer is… one. Not nine, but one. The text does not actually say that the nine make it to the temple to show themselves to the priests, although it’s a fair assumption that they do. What is very plain—and cause for joy—in the text, is that the one man turns and returns to Jesus, falling at His feet.
A funny thing happens on the way to the temple: ten lepers are cleansed, and one, after the cleansing, returns to give glory to God—God in the person of Jesus, whose presence in the world and whose atoning sacrifice will bring an end to temple worship and the whole sacrificial system.
What’s more, this one who returns is a “foreigner,” an outcast, someone who would not be welcome in the temple courts even after he was cleansed. One of the chief functions of the sacrificial system was to separate Israel, the clean people of God, from the unclean Gentiles. But Christ’s cleansing of the Samaritan and His reception of the Samaritan’s worship demonstrate that He brings a new kind of holiness that is for all people. This is not a holiness based on circumcision, dietary laws, or the Jerusalem temple worship with its priests and sacrifices, but rather on Christ’s own person as the sinless Son of God and on His sacrifice as the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And it is received only by faith.
The nine who do not return, fail to realize the significance of what has happened to them: God’s kingdom has arrived in Jesus Christ! Jesus is the new Temple! Jesus is the very presence of God in human flesh. The place to glorify God and to give thanks for cleansing is wherever Jesus is.
A funny thing happens on the way to the temple. The Samaritan falls at Jesus’ feet and shows himself to the Priest—the one from which all priesthood is derived. Remember: a priest is one who intercedes between man and God, offering sacrifices to the Lord for the sins of the people. Once the sacrifice is made, the priest then returns to the people and tells them that God has forgiven them.
Throughout the Old Testament, the priests at the temple did exactly that. However, as they did so, they foreshadowed the work of the Messiah. For not only did He offer the sacrifice for sin—He was the sacrifice for the sin of the world! He is the one who rose from the dead and returned to the people to announce that their sins are forgiven. He is the one who has ascended into heaven, to sit at the right hand of God and intercede on behalf of sinners until He returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. There is one eternal High Priest, and His name is Jesus.
Scripture declares of Him: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Jesus is the High Priest, who sacrificed Himself and intercedes on your behalf. And because He is risen from the dead, His term as High Priest never ends. Therefore, there will never be a time when His sacrifice no longer covers your sins, and there will never be a time when He stops declaring your redemption.
So when Jesus tells the ten to go show themselves to the priests, we know that at least one follows through by falling at the Lord’s feet. He glorifies God for the healing he has received. On His way to Jerusalem, Jesus takes up the lepers’ uncleanness and disease from them, along with a world’s worth of sin and sickness. He bears awful that load all the way to the cross so that all who believe in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life.
A funny thing happens on the way to the Temple: the Samaritan receives not only physical healing, but also the gift of saving faith. Our English translation robs us of the real joy that was intended. What Jesus really said was not “Your faith has made you well,” but rather, “Your faith has saved you.”
The man returns to Jesus because he has faith. That’s what faith does. It keeps running back to Jesus. Faith always runs back to Jesus for more. This is, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the other nine: Jesus has more to give them, but they run away. They’ve got what they most want—they have their lives, health, families, and home again. They won’t have to beg any more. But they don’t have what they need most—forgiveness, faith, life, and salvation. They run to the temple to see the priests, not realizing that there in their very midst is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrificial system—Jesus the Christ!
The nine get what they want, but miss what they really need. That’s what unbelief does. Faith, on the other hand, keeps running back to Jesus. Faith keeps running back with thanks, and faith keeps running back for more. By faith, this leper knows that it’s not just that he was at the mercy of God; he remains at the mercy of God. And by faith, he knows there’s no better place to be.
The way of faith, then, is ever returning, glorifying God for what He has given. And you will find that He always has more to give. Which leads to even more thanksgiving. The Lord wants this to be an endless cycle and the very joy of your life. What He wants, finally, is to give you nothing less than Himself, and He is, as Dr. Luther puts it so unforgettably, “an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good.” And so today—and every day—you gush forth constant thanksgiving for all the gifts of your Lord to you.
Thanksgiving is worship. Worship is continual repentance and faith—begging for cleansing and salvation, receiving by faith God’s good gifts in His Word and Sacrament. Offering Him thanksgiving and worship for all He has done for you. In this life, you never move beyond that. There is no greater purpose, no greater service that you can render unto the Lord. Not that God needs your thanksgiving. He doesn’t benefit from your thanking Him. You do! The more you thank God the Father through His dear Son, Jesus Christ, the more you recognize how generously and bountifully He deals with you, and the more you are motivated to share His love and mercy with others.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Temple… You came here in need of Christ’s mercy and grace—soiled by sin, dragged down by despair; He sends you away with a Word of promised healing and restoration. There’s no need to show yourself to a priest, you’ve been in the very presence of God. You’ve praised Him and thanked Him and worshiped Him. And now, the great High Priest who offered Himself as the once-for-all sacrifice for your sins sends you out into the world to serve your neighbor. His healing Word echoes in your ears: “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.” You are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.