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Luke 17:11-19 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 17:11-19. JESUS CLEANSES TEN LEPERS
There are several parallels between this story and the story of Naaman, the Gentile who was also healed of leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-19).
• Both Naaman and the Samaritan leper were foreigners who sought healing from a Godly Jew.
• Both were ordered to perform a small, seemingly irrelevant action prior to the healing taking place. Elisha told Naaman to bathe in the river Jordan seven times. Jesus told the ten lepers to show themselves to the priest, who could certify a healing but who could not heal a leper. In both stories, healing took place only after they obeyed the man of God.
• Both Naaman and the Samaritan returned to praise God.
• Elisha’s closing words to Naaman were, “Go in peace” (2 Kings 5:19). Jesus’ closing words to the Samaritan were, “Get up, and go your way. Your faith has healed you” (Luke 17:19).
LUKE 17:11. ON HIS WAY TO JERUSALEM
11It happened as (Jesus) was on his way to Jerusalem, that he was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee (Greek: dia meson Samareias kai Galilaias—through the middle of Samaria and Galilee).
“It happened as (Jesus) was on his way to Jerusalem” (v. 11a). Earlier Luke introduced Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem with these words: “It came to pass, when the days were near that he (Jesus) should be taken up, he intently set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Jerusalem, of course, is where Jesus will die in accord with God’s plan. Luke reminds us periodically that Jesus is on this journey (9:53; 13:22; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11), which will end when he arrives at Jerusalem in 19:28. With each reminder of Jerusalem, we who know the rest of the story see the cross looming in the distance.
“that he was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee” (v. 11b). Jesus has not made much progress toward Jerusalem thus far. His disciples entered a Samaritan village at the beginning of the journey (9:52), and Jesus is still at the northern border of Samaria, far from Jerusalem, eight chapters later (17:11). We will get our next geographical marker when Jesus approaches Jericho, not far from Jerusalem, in 18:35. Jericho is mentioned again in 19:1, and then Jesus arrives in Jerusalem in 19:28.
Samaria borders Galilee, and there is no region between them. Based on this verse, scholars have often questioned Luke’s sense of geography. However, as noted above, the Greek says that Jesus is traveling “through the middle of Samaria and Galilee.” This border location explains why the lepers include both Jews and Samaritans. Under normal circumstances, Jews would have nothing to do with Samaritans, but these Jewish and Samaritan lepers are drawn together by their common misery.
Samaria had been the home of the ten tribes of Israel (as distinct from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south). When the Assyrians took the Israelites into exile in the eighth century B.C., many Gentiles came to live in Samaria. Returning exiles inter-married with those Gentiles. As a result, Jews loathed Samaritans, whom they considered to be religiously compromised half-breeds.
That makes it especially significant that Jesus would make a hero of a Samaritan, as he does in this story and elsewhere. The most familiar example is the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), but the Gospel of John also treats the Samaritan woman at the well as a positive figure (John 4:1-42).
LUKE 17:12-14. JESUS, MASTER, HAVE MERCY ON US
12As he entered into a certain village, ten men who were lepers met him, who stood at a distance.13They lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master (Greek: epistata), have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” It happened that as they went, they were cleansed.
“ten men who were lepers met him” (v. 12a). Their leprosy was not necessarily Hansen’s disease, the terrible wasting disease that we think of today as leprosy. Biblical leprosy included a variety of skin diseases such as ringworm, psoriasis, leucoderma, and vitiligo (Johnson, Interpreter’s Bible, 338). Some of these diseases were highly contagious (Hansen’s disease and ringworm), but others were less so (leucoderma and vitiligo). Some were curable, while others were not.
Priests were responsible for diagnosing leprosy, and the Torah provided specific guidelines for doing so (Leviticus 13:1-44). A diagnosis of leprosy was treated as a death sentence—in much the same way that a diagnosis of cancer or AIDS was regarded as a death sentence only a few decades ago.
The fate of the infected person was made even worse by the requirement that he/she be isolated from all healthy people. The infected person was required to shout “Unclean! Unclean!” when approached by a healthy person. “He shall dwell alone. Outside of the camp shall be his dwelling” (Leviticus 13:45-46; see also Numbers 5:2-3). The purpose, of course, was to prevent the infection from spreading, but the isolation experienced by the infected person must have been truly terrible.
Also, people also tended to regard leprosy as a sign of God’s judgment. That made them less compassionate than they might otherwise be, because they believed that the person has brought suffering upon him/herself.
The stigma associated with leprosy persists to this day. A newspaper article told of a leprosy clinic at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Patients are often devastated when told that they have leprosy, because they think that the disease will destroy their hands, feet, and eyes—not true today if they get proper medical treatment. Some people also assume that the disease represents a curse imposed on them by God (Rachel Solomon, “At Harborview’s leprosy clinic, doctors treat stigma along with the disease,” The Seattle Times, August 2, 2010).
“who stood at a distance” (v. 12b). This, of course, was to comply with the provisions of Torah law.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (v. 13). If they were addressing an ordinary traveler, their cry for mercy might be a simple plea for alms. In this case, however, they know Jesus’ name and address him as Master (Greek: epistata)—a person of authority. If they have heard of Jesus’ miracles, their plea is surely a request for healing.
At this point they are united in their plea. Soon they will disperse, and only the Samaritan will return to Jesus. We can imagine the other nine going their individual ways to resume their former lives. The end of their crisis brings an end to the community they enjoyed as lepers.
“When he saw them” (v. 14a). Jesus saw them. That is a small but significant detail. Jewish law and human nature conspire to make the leper invisible. People are inclined to ignore sick or dying people, because suffering and death make us uncomfortable. We can draw strength from the knowledge that the one who saw the lepers also sees our pain.
“Go and show yourselves to the priests” (v. 14b). Jesus does not heal the lepers immediately, but instead commands them to show themselves to the priests for inspection as if they had been healed. He asks the lepers to step out in faith, just as Elisha asked Naaman to do (2 Kings 5:10). Would they have been healed if they had failed to seek priestly assistance? We have no way of knowing, because “as they went, they were healed” (v. 14b).
The lepers could go to the temple in Jerusalem to find a priest, but they could find priests in other communities as well. When the Promised Land was divided among the tribes, the descendants of Aaron were not given a territory, but were instead allocated thirteen cities with their pasturelands (Joshua 21:10-19). Priests typically served periodically at the temple and resided elsewhere the rest of the time.
Jesus does not specify that the lepers go to a Jewish priest, so it is conceivable that the Samaritan might go to a Samaritan priest.
Priests had great power. Once a priest judged a person to be unclean, that person was cut off from society—cut off from family—unable to hold a job or to engage in commerce—reduced to begging.
To be restored to a normal life required a priest’s judgment that the person was no longer unclean. That is Jesus’ reason for sending these lepers to the priests—so that they might be restored to normal lives. However, he also has another underlying purpose. These lepers will bear testimony to the priests of Jesus’ great healing power. When the priests judge the lepers to be clean, their judgments will authenticate Jesus’ Godly power.
“It happened that as they went, they were cleansed” (v. 14). The lepers were not healed immediately, but instead are healed as they obey Jesus’ command. Just as Jesus earlier exercised the divine prerogative of forgiveness (5:20-21; 7:48-49), so also he now exercises the Godly power of healing.
Jesus healed these lepers of their disease, but this verse emphasizes instead that they were made clean. Healing has to do with the restoration of bodily health. Being made clean includes the additional dimensions of social and religious health. These former lepers are now restored to the point that they can re-enter society—so that they can once again live at home with their families and worship in the synagogue and the temple.
LUKE 17:15-16. ONE OF THEM TURNED BACK, GLORIFYING GOD
15One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice. 16He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks; and he was a Samaritan.
“One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice” (v. 15). Just as Jesus saw the lepers whom others failed to see, this man sees what the other lepers fail to see: (1) that he is healed (2) that God deserves praise and (3) that Jesus deserves thanks.
We need to recover our sense of surprise that this man returns to thank Jesus. No doubt, all ten lepers were thankful for their healing, but their natural inclination would be to seek to be readmitted to their villages—and to their workplaces—and to their homes—and to their family circles. After being cut off so completely, their desire for a normal life must have been overwhelming. It is remarkable that even one man—resisting the urge to go home—turned back to thank Jesus.
“He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks” (v. 16a). This man takes time to give thanks, but this is more than a thanksgiving story. It is also the story of Jesus who is the Christ—a man who enjoys Godly power—a man who is also God. By falling on his face at Jesus’ feet, the healed leper treats Jesus as he would a ruler—or a deity.
• Abraham fell on his face in God’s presence (Genesis 17:3, 17).
• When God spoke out of a cloud at the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John “fell on their faces, and were very afraid” (Matthew 17:6).
• The book of Revelation tells us of angels falling on their faces around God’s throne as an act of worship (Revelation 7:11).
“and he was a Samaritan” (v. 16b). Luke saves this surprise until late in the story. “The model of faith turns out to be the ultimate outsider” (Cousar, 554). Luke is himself a Gentile, a foreigner. He delights in recounting stories of foreigners whom God has blessed, and he makes foreigners (even Samaritans) the heroes of his stories.
Luke will also write the book of Acts, in which he will report the initial reluctance of the church to accept Gentiles unless they had submitted to circumcision, the mark of a Jew. Peter will drop his opposition to Gentiles only when God orders him to do so (Acts 10). Paul will become the apostle to the Gentiles. After chapter 12, Peter is mentioned only once in the book of Acts, and in that instance is defending the incorporation of Gentiles into the church (Acts 15:5-11). After Acts 12, Paul takes the lead.
LUKE 17:17-19. YOUR FAITH HAS HEALED YOU
17Jesus answered, “Weren’t the ten cleansed? But where are the nine? 18Were there none found who returned to give glory to God, except this stranger?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up, and go your way. Your faith has healed you” (Greek: sesoken se—has made you well or has saved you).
“Weren’t the ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there none found who returned to give glory to God, except this stranger?” (vv. 17-18). Jesus’ rhetorical questions draw attention to the nine who did not give thanks and to the “outsider” status of the one who did. Jesus is critical of the nine, and we are tempted to join him in his criticism. How could the nine fail to give thanks? We should consider, however, how eager they must be, after such long isolation, to rejoin their families and to resume normal life. Under the same circumstances, would we stop to give thanks? How often do we stop to thank God for our blessings? How often do we forget to thank God?
“Get up, and go your way. Your faith has healed you” (sesoken se) (v. 19). Luke told us in verse 14 that all ten lepers were made clean, so something more has happened to this Samaritan. The Greek that is translated “has healed you” is sesoken se—from the verb sozo. It can be translated, “has saved you.” Jesus healed ten lepers. He saved this one (Craddock, Interpretation, 203).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated. We are using the WEB because we believe it to be the best public domain version of the Bible available.
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Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
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Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, (1990)
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Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan