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Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Luke 17:11-19, The Message or Luke 17:11-19, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
Click here, Luke 17:11-19, for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this note.
The biggest problem with this passage for most preachers is to not wag our fingers at the ungrateful 90%. The other problem will be to not smugly count ourselves among the righteous 10%.
As usual with Biblical stories, it is important not to get distracted by the special effects. How the 10 are made clean is simply not explained in the text, and should not be explained - or explained away - in the sermon. As usual, the crucial element of the story is the relationships between Jesus and the others in the story. Focus on the interactions between Jesus and the lepers.
This is a passage about action; about transformation that happens on the way; and what results in acting on being sent.
It starts with Jesus "on the way," the lepers are made clean "as they went," and both of Jesus' instructions to the lepers (first the 10, then the one) are "Go ..."
Verses 11 to 14. Let's begin by noticing that Jesus does NOT heal the lepers.
Jesus' reputation has gone ahead of him, because just as he enters a village - before he has said or done anything - 10 lepers approach him and call him, "Master."
The 10 keep their distance as lepers were required to do. And they beg - as lepers were required to do. They beg Jesus, "Have mercy on us."
Luke then comments, "When (Jesus) saw them ..."
Now isn't that interesting? I would have thought Luke would say, "When Jesus HEARD them ..." I wonder what Jesus saw about them?
Whatever it is, Jesus sees enough to order them to go and show themselves to the priests: to go and begin the process to be certified as clean and able to return to their homes and families. (See Leviticus 14:2 and following.)
Now notice that in Verse 14, "they were made clean," and in Verse 19, "your faith has made you well."
In Verse 14, the 10 are passive recipients - something is done to them by someone else - they are made CLEAN. In Verse 19, the one is an active participant - it is his faith that has made him WELL.
"Clean" is a socially defined status that can only be given by properly observed social and religious ritual. "Clean" is not something one can achieve by one's own means. That is why Jesus sends the 10 to show themselves to the priests. The priests will supervise the authorized rituals for determining if indeed the lepers are now free of their disease, and, if so, declare them to be clean; declare them to be able to re-join their families and communities.
However, as is often the case with healing stories, it is the person's faith / trust that makes them "well," that restores their physical well-being and safety.
Since we often use "faith" to mean "intellectual agreement," it is probably better to say, "Your trust / loyalty / bond (in God) has made you well." In healing stories, "faith" means accepting / trusting / entering the relationship that Jesus offers.
Verses 15 and 16. Notice that the one who returns praises God and thanks Jesus. Praise and thanks are similar but not the same.
Praise gives honour to the source of the healing, God.
But as Malina and Rohrbaugh note (Page 297):
saying, "Thank you," is a way of acknowledging ... that he is in no further need of healing; he is confident the skin affliction will not recur. ... (And since the leper is of a low social status than Jesus,) thanking (Jesus) is honorable, but signifies (the one who returned) has no resources with which to repay Jesus' kindness.
That is to say, since Jesus has done the leper a favour, this makes him honour-bound - indebted - to Jesus. Thanking Jesus repays the debt of social obligation.
And finally, there is the startling revelation that the one who returned was a Samaritan.
Samaritans were distant cousins of Galileans and Judeans. But in ancient times they did not worship at Jerusalem and there was a civil war between them in the north and the Judeans in the South. At the time of Jesus, Samaritans were despised by Galileans and Judeans. Should we presume from the story that the other 9 were Galileans?
One wonders why a Samaritan would head off to see a priest in the first place, since there is no way a priest would have anything to do with a Samaritan, and vice versa. It could be as soon as the 10 were out of sight, he split from the other 9 while they did as they were told and went to see the priests. These 9 were following what they knew was the accepted way to be officially declared clean and allowed to return to their homes.
Notice that the question Jesus asks in Verse 18 is NOT, "Was none of them found to return and give THANKS to God except this foreigner?"
The question Jesus asks is, "Was none of them found to return and give PRAISE to God except this foreigner?"
Unfortunately, this is not really a lesson about gratitude and thanksgiving. This is a lesson about praising God; about honouring God; about trusting God.
Nor, unfortunately, is this a lesson about being well-behaved. Because the 9 who do not return are the ones who do what is expected of a leper who has been cured. But they do what is expected because they CAN do what is expected - they are Galileans, they can go and see a priest. The Samaritan cannot. (Before they were made clean, being lepers and being outcast from their communities gave them a common identity: Lepers. But after they are made clean, the old divisions take precedence again: Galilean / Samaritan.)
I wonder if it is merely a coincidence that Luke begins this story with, "On the way to Jerusalem Jesus ...?"
We know that when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, he is not going to be welcomed as a well-behaved healer.
He is going to be received as a threat to the authorities; as a danger to peaceful social order. Why?
This story gives us an insight into the danger Jesus poses to the authorities.
On the one hand, Jesus follows the rules: he sends the 10 to see the priests as the Law requires. And so he cannot be branded as an outlaw plain and simple. If Jesus were an outlaw, plain and simple, their case against Jesus would be clear-cut. He would be crucified, no muss no fuss, like any other outlaw was crucified by the Romans.
On the other hand, Jesus breaks the rules: he heals an outsider - a Samaritan - and has the audacity to call a Samaritan faithful, and to declare him well - cured of his disease. ("Your faith has made you well.") And so Jesus acts with the authority of the Temple and priests - which makes him an outlaw, plain and simple. But also still a law-abiding one! Ouch! Not so plain; not so simple.
The challenge to those of us who belong to the 9 is to shift our consciousness from being well-behaved as the first priority, to trusting God as the first priority.
And thereby giving first priority to noticing how God is acting in our lives as we are "on the way;" and then to stopping whatever proper, well-behaved thing we are doing; to letting ourselves be found; and to returning to the source to give God praise.
Closing aside. Luke seems to have a thing for making Samaritans the good guys. (See the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37, which is told only in Luke.) This might have something to do with Luke himself being an outsider: a Gentile - i.e., not of the house of Israel.
Note: Historical background information is primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (see link below), pages 296-297.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, Richard Rohrbaugh, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Luke 17:11-19 (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."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Luke 17:11-19 (The Message)
11 It happened that as he made his way toward Jerusalem, he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men, all lepers, met him. They kept their distance 13 but raised their voices, calling out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
14 Taking a good look at them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests."
They went, and while still on their way, became clean. 15 One of them, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his gratitude, glorifying God. 16 He kneeled at Jesus' feet, so grateful. He couldn't thank him enough—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus said, "Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? 18 Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?" 19 Then he said to him, "Get up. On your way. Your faith has healed and saved you."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
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