Ten lepers and one man saved

Just shuffle. Ideally together.

James Tissot - The Healing of Ten Lepers

As believers, we have received the miracle of life, healing from death. How will we respond? Will we show gratitude? Will we turn to learn more from the master and make him our teacher? Will we demonstrate he is our Lord and superior? Or will we not think, not let him affect our lives and maintain an external unthinking compliance which minimizes the power of the gospel?

V11

Jesus was travelling towards Jerusalem. Luke gives an ambiguous description that he was “passing along between Samaria and Galillee” Luke 17:11. It is probable that Luke is implying Samaria is on their right-hand side and Jesus is heading east along the border between the two regions. It was normal for Jews to avoid Samaria.1 The Jews hated the Samaritans, Koester says that:

“Samaritans were thought to convey uncleanness by what they lay, sat, or rode on, as well as by their saliva and urine”2

Samaritans returned the feeling, e.g. in Luke 9:53 they shun Jesus because he was going to Jerusalem. This dated back to the northern kingdom’s destruction (2 Kings 17). Samaritans were mixture of Jewish and foreign worship. Josephus notes they claimed to be majority 10 tribes and allied to Jews but only when it suited them; both sides greatly disliked the other.3 The antipathy was reflected in conflict in the Maccabee period including the Jews destroying Shechem (their holy place) in 128BC and there were notable incidents of violence around the time of Christ.4 The exact detail of their worship is unclear as The Anchor Yale Dictionary says:

“Samaritan sources seldom mention a temple or provide specific information about one. Archaeological remains are at best suggestive (see above); no local tradition corroborates it, and the Samaritan chronicles are vague”5

We are unlikely (happily) to have any such ingrained racism towards others today so perhaps cannot appreciate all the accumulated suspicion and hatred which attached to the term Samaritan. Oops. Or perhaps we can. Secretly.

V12

Jesus approached a small village. We might imagine a small collection of stone buildings with around 200 odd inhabitants. As he went to enter he was accosted by 10 lepers calling out. There were specific rules around lepers in the Law in Lev 13:45-46: they had to:

  • Tear their clothes
  • Keep their hair unbound/loose
  • Cover their moustache (i.e. wear a hanky over their mouth cowboy style!)
  • Call out unclean to warn others away
  • Live in isolation outside the camp

These ten were together in shame and isolation; the walking dead. Note this is “not limited to what is called leprosy today”6 Hansen’s disease was effectively unknown in the ANE in OT times and extremely rare in NT times (plus the symptoms are different to those described in the Torah7) so exposition based on the symptoms of Hansen’s disease is unwise.

These ten had banded together in some form of group perhaps – a miserable bunch of outcasts even in the region of Samaria – the lowest of the low.

V13

However Luke informs us that they call out to Jesus as master – seeking mercy. Given the Greek for master is “in the NT, only in Luke and addressed in the vocative to Jesus, “Master,” as having the authority of a teacher or rabbi among His disciples”8 It is fair to assume some level of recognition. They knew something of Jesus and recognised he was not an ordinary man. Now this term was also not the greatest expression of the disciples’ faith either. It is often used in moments of fear or doubt rather than their triumphs of faith. Does this imply a middling understanding of Jesus and no more? The wonderful thing is Jesus is far less analytical and demanding of their faith than we might be. Jesus responds to their request.

V14

Go and show yourselves to the priests” was the Lord’s command. Presumably Jesus meant the priests at the Jerusalem temple. At this point Luke is leaving to assume all the lepers are Jewish. There is no promise of healing – nothing. However the men act on the Lord’s command. Here is another token of their understanding. This preacher whom they acknowledge as a lord commands and they obey. Nolland notes that such requests for action with a subsequent healing are not uncommon in Luke having already occurred some five times.9

It’s worth noting that some would find significant echoes of the healing of Naaman the Syrian from 2 Kings 5 in this event. There is overlap given leprosy, an odd command obeyed by a foreigner, and praise to God as a result. However Luke doesn’t make it explicit nor is it in any way the point the Lord draws to our attention.

Again let’s reflect on this – it was IN THE ACT of obedience that they were healed. Sometimes we expect a magic wand and no more. Luke demonstrates examples of grace without expectation of action (like the dead widow’s son raised in Luke 7:11-17), however he provides plenty where grace FOLLOWS action. We need healing. We need grace. Sometimes it comes unexpected and unasked. Other times we have to shuffle like dishevelled zombies in an unholy crowd of deplorables in the general direction of the temple, unclean, unloved and unworthy to boot. Grace sometimes comes when we step out (or limp out – whichever!) in faith. We have to work with it. Find it in the act of service – no matter how small – for service often brings healing. Walk to the temple. No more. Nothing heroic. Just shuffle. Ideally together.

Sometimes even staggering to the Temple is hard. Our Lord knows it. He was heading to the Temple too. There the priests would examine him and (if you will allow a little poetic license contextually):

Therefore, to sanctify the people by his own blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp. 13 We must go out to him, then, outside the camp, bearing the abuse he experienced. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. [and to flash forward to the conclusion] 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, acknowledging his name. Heb 13:12-15 NET

There is nothing our Lord has not already felt… hence he is our high priest who understands, who “suffered when he was tempted so that he can help those who are tempted” (Heb 2:18)

V15

The miracle occurs – all ten men are suddenly healed. Can we imagine the surprise, the joy? Luke doesn’t dwell on this though, he has a larger point to make. Many of us (well me) initially look at the reaction of the one man who turns back with some surprise. He breaks the command of Jesus. ‘Go to the temple’ – simple – but instead he (alone) turns back to Jesus. All the men were healed. Can you imagine what transpired next? Do you think this man snuck off the back of the procession? Surely not. Given these few, these happy few, these band of brothers (with apologies to Will Shakespeare) were once together wretched and now simultaneously miraculously healed, it beggars belief to think they split up without discussion. However long or fierce the debate, nine walked on. One was once rejected by the world is now rejected by his brethren – brethren who had received grace from Jesus.

As Evans notes:

Unlike the religious and proud, who assume that their piety guarantees their salvation, the outcasts and sinners assume no such thing10

Surely we could not think the nine lepers were religious or proud, however the trap of mindless obedience is easily fallen into. The other lepers followed the instruction of the Lord but missed the point. Robotic obedience is not the answer – we need to celebrate Jesus as the cause and provider of our healing. All the lepers were healed but for some the healing was skin deep only – one thought more deeply and was touched more deeply.

Sadly the grateful leper, the thinking man’s leper was unable to convince his fellows of the merit of thanksgiving. In community we have a responsibility to encourage each other to thank God. Hopefully the Lord gives me and you the grace to hear the wisdom of our more perceptive and grateful fellows. Unfortunately for this man, he lost the company of his fellows in the process.

Misplaced obedience is not our priority. H Whittaker in his book “Studies in the Gospels” understood this point, our higher duty is praise:

Disobeying the instruction Jesus had already given him and instead giving priority to what he deemed a higher duty, he rushed back to Jesus. His loud shout of praise to God was heard from a distance:

“I cried to Thee, O Lord; and unto the Lord I made supplication . . . Hear, O lord, and have mercy upon me: Lord, be thou my helper. Thou hast turned for me my mourning (Lev. 13 :45) into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; to the intent that my glory may sing praise unto thee. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee forever” (Ps.30 :8-12, a psalm of David’s leprosy; cp. Ps.38)11

It is worth making a further important distinction in this story, forcefully pointed out by RC Sproul:

Jesus’ encounter with the ten lepers illustrates the importance of thanksgiving. Countless sermons have been preached about the healing of the ten lepers, focusing attention on the theme of gratitude. The thrust of many of these sermons has been that Jesus healed ten lepers, but that only one of them was grateful. The only polite response to such preaching is to call it what it is—nonsense. It is inconceivable that a leper enduring the abject misery he faced daily in the ancient world would not be grateful for receiving instant healing from the dreadful disease. Had he been one of the lepers, even Adolf Hitler would have been grateful.

The issue in the story is not one of gratitude but of thanksgiving. It is one thing to feel grateful; it is another thing to express it12

All ten lepers raised their voices to Jesus asking for help. Once that help had been received only one raised his voice to praise God. Only one translated that cry for help into cries of thanks and public displays of affection. Thanksgiving should translate straight into our lives, as Bro Ralph Smalley wrote in The Christadelphian Magazine:

Gratitude and thanksgiving should then arise from our awareness of life’s realities and be a normal and proper expression of our faith. “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6–7).13

How do we abound with thanksgiving? Let us not imagine plodding on to the temple in amazement is thanksgiving. Let us not imagine outward compliance to fulfil traditional forms of worship is thanksgiving. Let us not imagine it is staying with the majority in the name of solidarity. Abounding in thanksgiving is a deep, personal, but public display. It started with our baptism. How does it continue?

V16

The thankful leper returns to Jesus and falls to his feet to thank him. This language is rooted in the then cultural norm of the patron/client relationships, i.e. the relationship between the powerful and their dependents. As Malina notes, commenting on Luke’s application of this societal norm:

Praise is the proper response a client makes for the services of a patron. The gesture of falling at the feet of another is an acknowledgment of servitude and inferiority. In peasant society, saying “Thank you” is a way of acknowledging that one no longer has need of a broker’s services. Thus the leper returns to Jesus and indicates that he is in no further need of healing; he is confident the skin affliction will not recur. He then turns to praise God, his Patron…In honor-shame societies, one does not thank social equals. Thanking superiors is honorable, but signifies that since the inferior person cannot adequately repay the superior, mutual obligation is being ended. The Samaritan thus affirms that he has no resources with which to repay Jesus’ kindness.14

This man has a clear understanding of what he has received and what it is worth. He is not afraid to publicly declare his thanks to God and declare the nature of his relationship with Jesus. When our understanding of our healing is sharpest we perhaps share this readiness to publicly affirm our thankfulness and dependence. Sometimes however we can hide our lamp a little; we can carry the healing touch as only skin deep and not have our hearts changed. Today we have more opportunity to express our thankfulness – whatever ingratitude may mark our yesterdays, today is a new opportunity, followed by many more.

As Melva Purkis wrote in his “Life of Jesus”:

How often our plaintive cry is heard before the Throne of Grace: yet when responsive blessings flow, how many retrace their steps to Jesus, and falling at his feet, glorify his Father? Thankfulness, rendered to God, and manifested in our actions towards men, is as rare as it is seemly. Sometimes a Samaritan teaches us the lesson.15

Indeed.

We are somewhat hampered in our understanding by our knowledge. Because we know the punchlines in the gospel we sometimes miss their force. Luke has deliberately held back what to the Jews was critical information “he was a Samaritan” Luke 17:16. The rhetorical force is obvious when we consider Luke holds this as late breaking news, until we have already identified this one as “better” than the other nine. While we can delve into the history of the Jewish/Samaritan relationship, we do not have the same visceral reaction each of those ancient parties had. Who is your Samaritan? Donald Trump supporters? Lebanese refugees? Palestinians perhaps? (in an ideological way). Australia doesn’t have centuries of Balkan like conflict to have ingrained a similar deep-seated hatred and mistrust. Hence we may miss the power of the Lord’s ministry.

V17-18

In Luke 17:17-18 Jesus goes on to ask three pointed questions which crescendo: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” Of course there is no answer from his audience. Green notes Luke’s careful construction:

By keeping Jesus’ companions offstage, however, or at least in the background, Luke allows Jesus’ queries to be aimed more pointedly at Luke’s audience16

The final question reflects back all the prejudice of his audience:

“Was no one found to turn back and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Luke 17:18 NET

Jesus doesn’t refer to the leper as a Samaritan, Luke has already given us this data in v16. Jesus uses the word “foreigner” –the unacceptable outsider. The Greek word is only used in this place in the NT, but was famously used in the temple Balustrade Inscription barring foreigners17 and warning them that to enter the temple precinct meant death.18

Luke, as the author of Acts, is looking to ground the spread of the gospel to Samaria and beyond in the ministry of Christ. All foreigners – including you and me – are within the reach of grace. As Green notes:

Jesus has countered not only notions of acceptance based on ritual purity but also, and more importantly for this episode, conceptions of election grounded in nationality and genealogy. As the one in whom God’s purpose is manifest and through whom God’s salvific prerogative is available, Jesus is the instrument of healing in the midst of these long-standing and deeply rooted rifts19

Jesus is for unity, for healing, and universal salvation unbound by our prejudices, history, and fears. Observing this is nice but implementing it is more important. How might we better reflect this reality of the gospel?

V19

In response to the leper’s thanks and praise, Jesus tells him:

Get up and go your way. Your faith has made you well. Luke 17:19 NET

All ten lepers were healed, however for 9 it was a skin-deep miracle. Only the grateful Samaritan heard the Lord say he had been made well. The Greek word has a wide variety of meanings depending on context and in this instance surely the import is towards “saved”. Hence an interesting thought which Bovon nicely expresses:

This second part of the story, the peak of the narrative, invites the reader to discover the truth that if one’s faith is not accompanied by gratitude, but remains unidimensional, it is not true faith. It remains stuck on the level of the miracle and never reaches up to the level of salvation20

Salvation. This is a higher goal than wellness, than miracle. In this observation we might take a little comfort when we consider the problem of evil. God is more interested in our eternal benefit than the temporal agonies of our life. Jesus was consistently interested in this permanent salvation. When we come to the bread and wine, the memorial emblems, we are reminded that the very same Jesus still operations this way today:

he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them Heb 7:25 NET

Able to “save to the uttermost” in the singsong words of the KJV.

So we all received the miracle of life, healing from death. How will we respond? Will we show gratitude? Will we turn to learn more from the master & make him our teacher? Will we demonstrate he is our Lord and superior? Or will we not think & let the salvation affect our lives?

When can we commence to demonstrate a deeper thankfulness? Well, now actually. Harry Whittaker makes the connection in “Studies in the Gospels” that Luke uses the Greek word

Euchariston, [for] the Samaritan’s giving of thanks…one of the names adopted by the early church for the Breaking of Bread…There, at the Breaking of Bread, let him [the believer] pour out his thanks; there let him be reminded that it is his faith in Christ which saves him; and there let him accept the Lord’s own assurance that he is saved.21

This day and every day may our hearts be in tune with the soaring words of the Psalmist:

Praise the Lord, O my soul! With all that is within me, praise his holy name! Praise the Lord, O my soul! Do not forget all his kind deeds! He is the one who forgives all your sins, who heals all your diseases, Psa 103:1-3 NET

Amen.

Footnotes

  1. Plummer, A. (1896). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to S. Luke (p. 403). London: T&T Clark International.
  2. Köstenberger, A. J. (2007). John. In Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (p. 438). Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos.
  3. Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged (p. 265). Peabody: Hendrickson.
  4. Maiers, B. (2016). Samaritans. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  5. Anderson, R. T. (1992). Samaritans. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 942). New York: Doubleday.
  6. Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Lk 17:11–12). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  7. Heyink, B. (2016). Leprosy. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  8. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
  9. Nolland, J. (1998). Luke 9:21–18:34 (Vol. 35B, p. 846). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
  10. Evans, C. A. (2003). The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew–Luke. (C. A. Evans & C. A. Bubeck, Eds.) (First Edition, p. 366). Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook.
  11. Whittaker, H. A. (n.d.). Studies in the Gospels.
  12. Sproul, R. C. (2009). Does Prayer Change Things? (Vol. 3, pp. 61–62). Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.
  13. (2001). The Christadelphian, 96(electronic ed.), 208.
  14. Malina, B. J., & Rohrbaugh, R. L. (2003). Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Second Edition, p. 297). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  15. Purkis, M. (n.d.). A LIFE OF JESUS: A devotional study (p. 279).
  16. Green, J. B. (1997). The Gospel of Luke (p. 625). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  17. Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 46). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  18. Mccarter, P. K. (1979–1988). Inscriptions. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 2, p. 838). Wm. B. Eerdmans.
  19. Green, J. B. (1997). The Gospel of Luke (p. 621). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  20. Bovon, F. (2013). Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27. (H. Koester, Ed., D. S. Deer, Trans.) (p. 504). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  21. Whittaker, H. A. (n.d.). Studies in the Gospels.

Author: Daniel Edgecombe

Daniel is a lifelong Christadelphian and married to Sarah. They have a poodle and three teenagers. He is interested in apologetics (partly to answer his children’s questions) but suffers from an addiction to all books but particularly history and science.