“Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)
At a first glance this appears to be a straight forward little story. Jesus heals ten lepers; one of them returns to praise God and thank Jesus; and Jesus commends him for his faith.
Yet there is a lot going on in these few verses.
1. Jesus transcends boundaries. The setting is the border between Galilee and Samaria on the way to Jerusalem (Luke 17:11). While it is unclear if the ten lepers calling out to Jesus are all Samaritans or a mixed group, they recognize that he can help them as they call out, “Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13). At the end of this scene, Luke is quick to point out is a Samaritan who returns to give thanks (Luke 17:16). Luke’s message is that faith and gratitude can come from anywhere and that Jesus is Master of us all. Remember it was the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable (not the priest or the levite) who stopped to help the injured man on he road (Luke 10:25-37).
This little story reminds us that there is no one unworthy of our attention, care and inclusion in God’s reign. While for good reasons the lepers were excluded from the community and lived outside of it – it is to them that Jesus visits, responds and whose lives are transformed. This story reminds us also that inspiration can also come from the least of these among us.
Are we open to them as Jesus is?
2. “Show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14). Leviticus 13-14 highlights the way to handle in the community. While leprosy was a blanket term for just about any skin condition, the health concern was that it would be contagious. Practical steps of removing. the person from contact with others was the standard, and as medicine was much different in he ancient world, the responsibility rested on priests to determine wellness. It becomes easy to infer that mixing physical wellness and spiritual leadership could become confused. As in our own day, being labeled “unclean” carries with it a moral judgment as much it does a medical diagnosis. When one gets sick or injured people often ask what they have done to deserve it or feeling guilty about something else justify why God did it to them.
Jesus challenges all of our assumptions, as he heals them without question and restores them to community. By telling them to show themselves to he priest, they will be given a clean bill of health and allowed to return home. Jesus essentially gives them their lives back. These lepers would have lived outside of the community, likely without much assistance or resources. Others would have been afraid of them. They either would have to get well on their own, help one another, or die. This is a death and resurrection story.
Where do we respond to needs out of fear and judgment?
Where do we respond to others like Jesus out of compassion and mercy?
3. The nine and the one. Jesus asks the one who returns, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17) and it may become easy to dismiss or judge them for not coming back also. It sounds like Jesus is scolding them. However, we are not told anything about them, other than Jesus healing them and sending them home.
Jesus told a story of searching for a lost sheep while ninety-nine are accounted for and searching through the house for a missing coin when one has the other nine. There will be great rejoicing in heaven Jesus claims when what was missing one is restored (Luke 15:1-10). Here too, the story is more about the one who returns to praise God and thank Jesus than the nine who simply followed Jesus’ directions who were made clean as they went (Luke 17:15). It becomes easy to judge them as ungrateful or as focused only on themselves, but perhaps that is a better indictment of our own ingratitude than theirs. These healed lepers were given the gift of new life by Jesus and there is no reason to assume they went anywhere else than to their families and communities which is in itself goodness! But he message of this story centers on the gratitude of the one who returned as an example of faith.
In an age where so many of us are burdened by the pain and suffering we see all around us or experience ourselves the question becomes for us: for what can we be grateful?
Our calling becomes to call out to Jesus for mercy, while also laying at his feet giving thanks. We may find that placing our faith in mercy and thanksgiving is restorative in more ways than we can imagine.