Luke 17:11-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Ten lepers approached Jesus seeking healing, though they kept their distance. After all, to be a leper is to be an outcast. By leprosy, we’re not just talking about Hansen’s disease, but a number of skin conditions that made a person unclean. While the term might be used more broadly than we might today, the point is the same. When I think of leprosy, I think of the story of Fr. Damien and his ministry with the lepers on Molokai. What is interesting about this story is that in the end he himself contracted the disease, and he became as much an outcaste from society as the people with whom he ministered.
In the case of first century Judaism, leprosy in all its forms not only pushed one to the margins of the community, but more specifically its religious life. In the context of the need for ritual purity, to be so afflicted made one unclean. One remained uncleaned until the priests said otherwise. Then you would perform a set of rituals before reentering community life. Let us remember that unlike today there really was no separation from religious life and the rest of life.
In this story ten lepers approached Jesus and asked for mercy—that is healing. Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, which was the appropriate thing to do. In essence the priests served as both public health inspectors and as religious gate keepers. The procedure for being restored to the community was laid out quite clearly in Leviticus 14, and this is what they would have done (Leviticus 14). Thus, if they let you inside the gates of religious life, then one could be admitted to the rest of community life. When Jesus told them to go to the priests, they did so, apparently convinced that Jesus would heal them. This was an act of faith on their part, and as we see at the end of the passage, it is this faith, this confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal that lead them to head toward the priests.
Of the ten, nine continued on once they discovered they had been made whole (healed/saved). We will assume they went to the priests, performed the prescribed rituals, and then continued on with life. They followed directions. As for the other leper, we learn that he was a Samaritan and thus a foreigner. Unlike the other nine, he turned around and praising God at the top of his voice went back to Jesus to thank him.
It’s important that we pause to consider this turn of events. I find it interesting that while he was a leper, and thus an outcaste, he found community among a group of Jewish lepers. While they were lepers they weren’t too concerned about this foreignness. They shared something in common (marginalization). In this case misery loved company. Would that sense of community continue after cleansing? Would his former friends welcome him or would they accept the view that Samaritans were heretics, foreigners, and thus still unclean? Had the Samaritan continued on to see the priests, it’s unlikely the priests would welcome him. I realize that this involves some reading between the lines, but it is intriguing.
We can presume that the nine received their bill of clean health and were restored to their families and communities. Everything was now as it should be. Thanks be to God! But of course, this isn’t the purpose of the story. There are many other healing stories, but this is really about more than a healing. It has to do with extending the vision of whom God was claiming as part of the family.
As to why the Samaritan returned to Jesus, could it be that he didn’t have a priest to go to? It’s quite likely that had he gone to the Jewish priests they wouldn’t receive him, and as for Samaritan priests, perhaps one was not available. Therefore, even as one barrier was lifted, another remained in place. So, where else would he go to express his thanks to God? After all, it was Jesus who had lifted this burden from him.
Before we continue with the story of the Samaritan’s cleansing, it would be appropriate to once again take notice of how Luke portrays Jesus. For those of us who like a nice calm and compassionate Jesus, this Jesus can get a bit hot under the collar. He can appear judgmental at times. In this case, at least at first glance, Jesus seems piqued because the nine didn’t come back to say thanks. His own people didn’t return. Only the foreigner returned to give thanks. What’s the matter with them? Don’t they know who made them clean? It is good to be grateful. It’s proper etiquette to say please and thank you. But is that what Jesus is concerned about? It’s possible that Jesus was just a bit resentful. It happens to all of us. It happens to me. Hey, I do good things. Why don’t I get any thanks or recognition? But hopefully there’s more to the story than simply resentment that the nine didn’t return.
When reading Luke, it’s always good to remember that the Gospel is but part one of a two-part story. In part two the mission moves into the Gentile community. So, could encounters like this be previews of a sort, reminding us that Jesus has a broader vision than simply ministering to the Jewish community? When we get to the Book of Acts, we discover that the mission of the realm will encompass the world, a little bit at a time (Acts 1:8). If so, then this becomes a hint of what is to come. Perhaps Jesus is himself beginning to recognize the fullness of his calling.
Interestingly enough, Jesus commends the Samaritan for giving praise to God, even as he prostrates himself before Jesus. This act could be seen as an act of worship, or at the very least an act of homage, recognizing that God had worked through Jesus. Thus, for him there would be no need to visit the priest. Returning to Jesus accomplished this for him. Perhaps this is a precursor of what is to come when the message of Jesus is taken outward from Jerusalem to Samaria and then to the rest of the world. Thus, this is less of a healing story and more a mission story! Not only that, but once again one who is considered an outsider is offered up as an exemplar of faith, and as one who understands the importance of giving thanks and praise to God! May we also show such gratitude.