Luke 17:11-19: The Rituals of Mercy

kyrie eleison 2A standard introductory ritual when you meet someone is to shake his hand.  To greet another, you extend your hand.  “Hello, I’m Rich,” as I grab hold of the other person’s hand and we both move them up and down.  So, we grasp hands and shift their movement in a set pattern.

Can we not touch elbows or cluck our tongues?  Well, yes—but we don’t.  For our tradition is shaking hands.  All kinds of customs fill our lives and culture.  Now, whether we realize or not, we are a ritualized people.  From eating noon meals, exchanging wedding rings, or standing for the national anthem at public events, we are full of formality and convention.

Everyday rituals are about stopping for a moment and noticing what you’re about to do, what is about to take place.  Both, as individuals and people, we use them to add value to a particular moment.  These acts show respect for what is about to begin.  Don’t we do this when we answer the phone, “Hello”?  Imagine only grunting—at work!  How long will you last with those manners?

These patterns of conduct contain meaning.  Through them, we learn, and they teach us, while they provide stability in an uncertain world.  The words and actions shape us by where they draw our attention, by their sounds and motion.  So also here, in this place.  For the way we gather around God is also filled with compelling ritual.

The Church’s liturgy isn’t for empty repetition.  Like a handshake, our liturgy comes with meaning and significance.  Through the Gospel contained in the liturgy’s pattern of words, God delivers His grace to us, here and now.  The shape and parts of the liturgy also give us the opportunity to respond back with gratitude and admiration.

Consider today’s reading from Luke.  Toward Jesus, ten lepers approach using the commanded conventions of their day.  For leprosy is a miserable contagion.  Though not always deadly, the disease disfigures and discolors the skin, blocks the mucous membranes, and eats away at the nerves.  How can they approach others, whom they may not touch?  For if you are stricken with such an illness, society barred you from contact with others.  So, the many societal routines to greet and approach others are not available to the leper.  Well, one does exist: “Lord, have mercy.”

Sound familiar?  Yes, we speak the same words in our Service liturgy, which can also shape our speech.  For when sickness sets in, our marriages fray, and our bodies fail us, those familiar words may rise from our lips.  So, when depression and hopelessness take us prisoner, or when stupid choices make a mess of our lives, may “Lord, have mercy” once again become our prayer.

The afflicted call out to Jesus and what does He do?  “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  Hmm, He sends them to Temple.  Without hesitation, they go!  Why?  Here’s why—Jesus is also following the standard rituals of His day.

Let’s scan over Leviticus 14 to find out why.  Normally, the priest goes to where the lepers quarantine themselves and examine the person.  Now, if the disease is no more, he still must go through a ritual.  This formal process includes inspection, shaving, and bathing.  This leper (or former one), needs to shave off all his hair—twice!  Twice also, the priest will examine him, on the 1st and 7th day.

Now, if no longer leprous, on the 8th day, the priest offers a sacrifice of an unblemished lamb.  The 8th day?  Yes, for this is more than practical.  The priest’s ritual of declaring someone clean points to the future life of recreation.  In the first creation, God finished and rested on the 7th day.  The 8th Day is the day of Jesus’ return when He will call forth the new creation.  So, this strange rite and custom also came with much meaning, focusing one’s attention to the resurrection on the Last Day—the supreme healing!

Those plagued with disease call out, desperate.  “Lord, have mercy!”  Full of kindness, Jesus responds.  So also with us.  Every week, we cry out, “Lord have mercy.”  Perhaps, ritual and routine, but never empty or meaningless.  No, we sing with the tormented and all who went before us, asking our Lord to show compassion on us!

Here, we chant or speak those words, which should not die here but continue with us during the rest of the week.  For the liturgy is meant to be lived, not only performed.  Now, if the routines of our ceremony turn mundane or irrelevant, the problem is not with the liturgy.  No more than if we think the Lord’s Prayer is becoming monotonous.

The fault lies with us and our sinful nature.  For if we find “Lord, have mercy” becoming tedious, our boredom reveals we require more of God’s undeserved kindness and graces!  For this unmasks a heart, filled, not with gratitude, but self-interest.

Think about this—when you shake hands with someone, you understand why—to greet another.  So, one person takes his right hand, grasps the right hand of another, and they shake.  Sometimes, someone tries shaking your hand with his left hand.

Well, if someone’s right hand is carrying something or is injured, you will recognize why he is trying to shake your hand with the wrong hand.  In a way, you realize he is struggling to follow our ritual, to honor you, though he is unable to use the proper hand.  Otherwise, you’ll think the person is odd—and you might be offended.

Young and inexperienced, my father taught me why people shake their hands and how.  So, too, should we learn the liturgy, which also comes with meaning and ritual.  Like placing your hand over your heart during the national anthem, if you don’t learn why, the movement can become meaningless and lose its value.

So, as we need to take in the truths of Scripture, so we also should understand the practices and customs of Christianity.  Now, if you think I’m making too much of this, read Exodus and Leviticus.  Those two books show our God loves and commands specific forms to be in His presence.  Do we not still revere the same God?  Yes, but in our Savior’s New Covenant with New-Covenant rituals.  The Lord’s Prayer is such a ritual, commanded by Christ, as Luke records, “When you pray, say” (Luke 11:12).

One ritual is baptism.  Like circumcision on the 8th day with ancient Israel, baptism begins our journey with God.  Through water and Word, the Spirit washes us clean and names and claims us as His own.

Each Sunday, the baptismal words pour over us in the Invocation.  For they do more than invoke the presence of God—they also remind us in whom we live.  By the triune God, cleansed and forgiven.  By grace, God imprinted “the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” on you in the washing of regeneration.  So, in this same grace, the pastor speaks them to you at the start of the Service.  Again, the words and ritual remind you God is still merciful, which is why He comes to you in this time of grace.

How do we respond when Jesus shows us mercy?  One of the lepers, noticing his affliction is no more, turns back, glorifying God with a loud voice, falling at Jesus’ feet and thanking Him.  The Samaritan returns, “praising God” and “giving thanks.”  For he realizes Jesus answered his prayer for mercy.

“Where are the other nine?”  The healing Lord questions this man.  Is He angry because the others don’t return to thank Him?  No, what concerns Him is only one returning to receive affirmation of his faith.

Does Jesus need our adoration?  No!  For no matter what we do or don’t do, He is still God.  So, why should we bother with thanking or honoring Him?  Through our words and actions in the liturgy, though ceremonial they may be, we become more mindful of divine love and mercy.  Let’s be honest.  Many times, we don’t want to do what we ought to be doing.  In those cases, the rituals teach us by example.

In our life of faith, we should be praise singers and thanks-givers.  By doing so, we are more aware of the gifts of grace God continues to bestow on us.  An attitude of gratitude keeps your heart open and supple.  Like the returning leper, an open heart is not closed to God, but receptive to His gifts and graces.

This thankfulness allows you to exercise your faith in Christ.  Not because you must, but because you want to.  For such gratitude changes why you do what you do, even enlarging and increasing your capacity for enjoying life.  For thanking and celebrating are a result of receiving a gift.  Consider someone giving you a present.  What is the custom parents teach their children to say?  “Thank you.”

In every Service, the liturgy provides us the opportunity to, once again, acknowledge and extol our God.  Why?  For His mercy and forgiveness, which He pours out on us through our risen Savior.  With acclaim and appreciation centered on Christ, those acts help focus us on His continual gifts and mercy.

The words of Scripture fill the liturgy, shaped and formed to shape and form us in the faith.  Full of life and meaning, they direct us toward our Salvation.  Oh, how blessed this is, for this means the life-giving Word will still come your way—even if the pastor preaches a hideous sermon.  Yes, the liturgy focuses you on Christ.  Like Jesus in your life, so is the liturgy, as you live from both in your vocations, serving others.

Yes, your daily lives become a confession, an echo of what you learned and spoke in the liturgy, pointing to Christ.  To live the liturgy becomes nothing other than taking the truth and gifts from the Divine Service with you as you go on your way.  Take the mercy, grace, love, and life Jesus grants to you here, speaking and living out what He gives you.  May this also become a ritual for you.  Amen.