READ : Luke 17:17-18
Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Luke 17:17,18 RSV
It’s hard for us to take in what it meant in the ancient world for someone to have leprosy. AIDS is perhaps our closest parallel today. Leprosy was physically debilitating. Here’s someone’s description of how it affected the body: “The hair falls from the head and eyebrows. The nails loosen, decay and drop off. Joint after joint of the fingers and toes shrink up and slowly fall away. The gums are absorbed and the teeth disappear. The nose, the eyes, the tongue and the palate are slowly consumed.”
I’ve seen people like that in the country of India recently, faces contorted, limbs deformed, skin sometimes red, sometimes deathly pale.
In first-century Israel, the disease also carried an enormous social stigma. Lepers were banished from normal human society. They were compelled to live on the outskirts of towns and villages. Since any contact with them made others ritually defiled, lepers were compelled when anyone approached them to put their hands over their mouths and cry, “Unclean, unclean.” They must have felt like a suffering man to whom I spoke this past week. He said he felt like “a piece of garbage waiting to be picked up and hauled away.”
When you contracted leprosy in ancient times, you lost everything: family members, home, occupation, friends. You became a nobody, a human derelict, someone from whom all non-lepers recoiled in horror and refused to touch.
In those very infrequent cases when the disease was arrested or cured, the recovered leper had to go through an elaborate process of cleansing and sacrifice. He showed himself to the priest, and then if certified as clean, he got his life back again. That was the one faint hope left for anyone with leprosy. If only someone, somehow, somewhere could make me clean!
One day in a village between Samaria and Galilee, Jesus was accosted by ten of these sufferers. We read about that in Luke, chapter 17. They discreetly kept their distance, but stationed themselves where He would be sure to see them when He passed by. As He drew near, they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They got His attention. They made their appeal. They wanted some token of His pity, some expression of His power. Could He, would He, do something out of His kindness, even for them?
Jesus looked at the ten, saw their need, understood their condition, and felt compassion. His response must have taken them by surprise. “When he saw them,” writes Luke, “he said to them, `Go and show yourselves to the priests.'”
On the surface, it wasn’t clear just what that meant. According to the Old Testament statutes, lepers had to appear regularly before a priest who would pronounce from time to time on the character of their disease. This could have been for these ten just another checkup. That gave little to be excited about. Another depressing examination. Another hopeless diagnosis. They didn’t need that.
But there was another reason why a person afflicted with leprosy might go to see a priest. In one of those rare cases of healing, he or she would report to be declared clean and thus readmitted to society. That would be like beginning to live all over again. Could Jesus have meant that? All they had was His cryptic command, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
Every one of the ten left immediately, each to find his local priest. This was instant obedience to the Word of the Lord. Remember what His mother Mary said to the attendants at the wedding in Cana about Jesus? “Whatever He says to you, do it” (see John 2:5). That’s exactly how these lepers responded. As soon as they heard His word, they were on their way.
And surely this was, at least in some way, an obedience of faith. They would hardly have begun the journey without some quickening of hope. They had heard about this Jesus and what He was able to do for people. Maybe what they scarcely dared to hope for would come true in their case. Perhaps it would be seen that their disease had been arrested. Perhaps the priests would detect some signs of healing. Someone has described hope as “an expectation greater than zero of achieving a goal.” That kind of hopefulness seems to be a necessary condition for any action. The lepers had enough of it at least to get them moving.
Jesus once called a rich young ruler to follow Him. Remember that? He was to go and sell all that He had, with this promise to cheer His heart: “You shall have treasure in heaven.” But the young man, we read, went away sorrowful. Why? Because he loved his riches too much? (see Luke 18:18-23). Yes, but even more perhaps because he believed Jesus’ promise too little. Whenever we get up to obey, whenever we rise to follow, it’s because we have some stirrings of faith in this Jesus and what He can do.
Something absolutely marvelous happened while these lepers were on their way. One man happened to look at his hands and found that his fingers were whole again. Another saw the flesh on his arm. It was pink again like that of a little baby! Gasps of astonishment, then shouts of joy. They looked at each other and celebrated. All had shared the miracle.
Nine of these, as far as we know, kept right on going, perhaps with greatly quickened pace. Their prayers had been answered, their dreams fulfilled. A new world was opening up for them: family members, work, marriage, travel, happiness – all now within their grasp. They hurried on to show themselves to the priests. That was exactly what Jesus had told them to do, wasn’t it? They may not have thought much about Him afterwards. They apparently didn’t connect Him in a direct way with what had happened. They simply went on to fulfill the requirement that would restore them to society. So full of joy and excitement were they at having been healed that they forgot, at least for a time, to be grateful.
One was different. He turned back. At the top of his lungs, he kept on praising God. There was such an upwelling of gratitude in him that he had to find Jesus. When he did, he fell on his face at the Lord’s feet. He kept saying it over and over again, “Thank You, Lord, thank You, thanks for what You’ve done. How can I ever thank You enough? You have made me well!” Jesus’ first response to that was a series of questions: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
We get the feeling that He wasn’t asking this of the man who had returned. Maybe He was raising questions with His disciples or with the surrounding crowd. “Remember what happened here?” He said. The ten lepers all had pled for mercy. Jesus knew without anyone reporting to Him that all had been cleansed. But where were the other nine? Did only one come back to give glory to God – and that one a Samaritan?
We would have thought that the Jews, the chosen people, would know more about the call to be grateful than anyone else. Didn’t they sing it in their worship, “Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Ps. 103:1-5). That sounds like what all the Jewish lepers should have been singing. No, only this one. He was a surprise, this Samaritan. He was scarcely expected to know anything about the true God.
Yes, all ten had been cleansed, but the others hadn’t stopped to consider, hadn’t retraced their steps to give glory to God. They had met the test of obedience but failed the test of gratitude. In their concern to go to the priests and get on with their lives, they forgot the One who had done great things for them. They didn’t think first, if at all, about giving glory to God. The Samaritan man, on the other hand, had done that by going back to Jesus, prostrating himself, giving thanks. Apparently, to thank Jesus lavishly is to honor the living God.
Have you ever felt what Shakespeare calls the “winter wind” of ingratitude? Perhaps you spent yourself to show hospitality to a group of guests in your home. When they left, there wasn’t a hint of a thank you. And you’ve never heard from them since.
You helped a young man in business when he was on his way up. It was a considerable sacrifice for you, but you believed in this boy and wanted to see him make good. Now that he has “arrived,” he’s forgotten all about you. He doesn’t even acknowledge you when you pass one another on the street. He’s a “big operator” now and you are in his eyes “small potatoes.” Remembering you, thanking you – the thought never enters his mind.
“Blow, blow thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” You parents, have you ever said with King Lear, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child?” Here’s a son or daughter into whom you’ve poured your love, your life and now they seem to hold you in contempt. All you did, all you gave seems as nothing to them. That’s bitter. That’s desolating.
We hear something of that same pathos in the Lord’s question, “Where are the nine?” Apparently, there’s something in God that corresponds to the human yearning to have our gifts of love met with gratefulness. Our thanks must mean something to the Lord of the universe. When they aren’t forthcoming, He – imagine this – misses them! “Where are the nine?”
Then He spoke to the Samaritan, the thankful soul at His feet. I’m glad He did. I’m glad that Jesus is not like some of us preachers who weary the saints at a worship service by scolding sinners who aren’t there. Here’s the Lord’s word at the close, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Or better still, “Your faith has saved you.”
The miracle of healing is not the same as salvation. The miracle in itself may be unclear, ambiguous. It’s not properly experienced unless it leads to an inner change of heart. The miracle is meant to lead people to a relationship with Jesus, a faith in Him. That faith may be sparked by the miracle but it’s not tied to it.
The other nine didn’t totally lack faith, did they? But their faith was incomplete because it didn’t issue in gratitude. It didn’t lead to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. They were healed, restored but they didn’t become worshipers, disciples, followers, those who love and thank Jesus with their whole lives. They got health of body but not the total wholeness they were meant for. They received a great gift but they didn’t receive the Lord as their portion and their joy. They never came near to Him as the Samaritan did. They remained at a distance. There was no close connection.
This man, in the midst of his healing, found the Lord. He could say in the psalm I was reading just this morning, “I have said to the Lord, `You are my Lord, from you alone comes the good I enjoy. . . Lord, you are my allotted portion and my cup, you maintain my boundaries, the lines fall for me in pleasant places, I am well content with my inheritance'” (see Ps. 16). Blessed are those people who amid all the marvelous gifts that God gives them find Jesus as their Savior, their portion, their all in all. They are the ones who hear Him say as He did to the Samaritan, “Rise, and go your way, your faith has saved you.”
Prayer: Father, we want to make that prayer of my friend our prayer today. With all the other blessings we ask of You, Lord, give us truly grateful hearts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.