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.”
By the time we reach this part of Luke’s gospel, we readers are none too surprised at the scene presented before us. Jesus, going about his day, is stopped by a group of ten lepers, who ask for mercy. Upon seeing them, he tells them to go to the priests of the temple. Upon following his instruction, all ten found themselves healed.
Those of us who have grown up in the church may be more acquainted with the rest of the narrative. One of the ten, upon seeing himself healed and cleansed, returned to Jesus and thanked him. Jesus asks in return where the rest of the lepers whom he healed are, and declares to the returned leper that it is his faith which has healed him. Sometimes the most overlooked particulars of the story reframe and expand the significance of the passage.
Jesus is not just out for a stroll in a generic town or on a nondescript road. The text very clear locates Jesus (and presumably his entourage of disciples, given they’ve just received a word about the kind of faith required for service in the Kingdom) “on the way to Jerusalem.” No matter what gospel account we read, we cannot seem to escape the gaze of Jerusalem for very long. It seems that Jesus is either making his way to the center of Israel’s life, or away from it. The place where he goes to die and to rise is always on the horizon. It is, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, to remember that Jesus sees in the cross the summary of his whole life.
The individuals with a skin disease know their place. And in the course of their day, while keeping their distance from the wider group, they see Jesus. It is not Jesus who seeks out these “lepers,” but the lepers who recognize Jesus, and recognize him as “master.” Their cries for mercy are as close as most of the individuals will get to Jesus. This group recognizes, whether through word of mouth or divine intervention, something uniquely powerful about the Nazarene rabbi.
Unlike other occasions, Jesus does not touch the individuals, nor does he create mud, but tells the men to go and present themselves to the priests of the community. Whatever might be said of the religion in Jesus’s day, he still sees the value and import of the priestly order in maintaining and organizing the very physical life of its participants. As they depart, they realize they have been cleansed.
Most go on their way. But one returns to Jesus. The one who returns is given an identity. Remember, not only is Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, but the text remarks that Jesus travelled the border between Galilee and Samaria. Samaria, the outcasts, the heathens, the outsiders, the unclean, those who Israel have called outside of the sheepfold. The text does not tell us whether the other nine were Samaritans or belonging to another group. Any reading which would presuppose an answer to that question seems at least on the outset presumptuous.
What we do know is that the one individual who did return is explicitly called out as a Samaritan. And presumably this Samaritan also called out with his associates for Jesus, the Master to show mercy. How odd that someone considered outside the fold of Israel, outside of God’s holy people, would seek out Jesus and give thanks after they had been cleansed. And like countless others throughout the gospels, it is the faith of the leper that has healed him.
In the words of 2nd Timothy, included in this week’s lectionary readings, it is the Samaritan who has correctly interpreted the message of truth (2 Tim. 2:15b). Jesus looks at this man, and asks (whom we can only speculate) if the only person to praise God was this “foreigner.” In a reversal of the healing of Naaman in 2nd Kings, it is a Samaritan who comes to and recognizes a prophet in Israel for the sake of healing (cf. 2 Kings 5).
To comment on the motivations of the other nine individuals would enter high speculation. But we can see with some degree of confidence that the Samarian, the one who was considered Israel’s “other” not only sees rightly, but responds in a manner faithful to the person of Jesus. Faith, it seems, is not only limited to those within the fold of the predetermined holy people. Faith, it seems, knows no bounds between Israelite and Samaritan, between in and out, between have and have-not.
Jesus does not remark about the faith of the other nine. But he remarks that it is the faith of the Samaritan which has healed him. It is a faith, so it appears, that not only sees the power of Jesus, but a faith which moves its participant to run back to the feet of Jesus and worship God. Jesus will not turn this man away. He will not revoke the healing in his life, for to do so would to run counter to his very mission: to proclaim the Kingdom of God and call people to repentance and belief. It would remove this individual not only from his healed body, but no doubt his healed relationships, with his immediate community, and perhaps with his people as a whole. So Jesus claims the leper’s faith, the faith which believes, acts, responds, and returns. Let us not be afraid to imitate the faith of those we consider other – we may find ourselves caught up and claimed by Jesus in a renewed and revelatory manner.
Phil resides in sunny Southern California, having moved from Dublin to pursue a Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Phil is passionate about the local church, and wants to encourage and develop deep, theological foundations for the conversations and life in the church. When not writing another paper for class, he can be found expanding his whiskey and coffee palette, composing prayer poems, travelling around a small percentage of the U.S., or engaging in another deep life conversation over a pint or two.