Luke 17:11–19 (ESV): Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “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.”
Every version of the Bible I’ve ever read (including the ESV, quoted here) has had some kind of footnotes indicating that when the word “leprosy” is used it refers to any number of skin diseases, not just leprosy in particular. I don’t know if there’s spiritual significance to that fact, but I figured I’d repeat it here.
This passage may look odd to modern eyes, since it focuses once again on a person’s foreign-ness: aside from Jesus, the main character in this story is a Samaritan, and Jesus makes a deal out of that point, which might surprise us. Is Jesus a racist? Why does it matter that this person isn’t a Jew? We should know, however, that Samaritans aren’t just some other nationality, like Greeks or Persians; Samaritans claim to worship the same God as the Jews, they just reject some of the Jewish teachings. For this reason, they were enemies of the Jews of Jesus’ day; they distorted the worship of God. It’s not a perfect example, but it might be analogous to the relationship between Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses: both claim to worship the same God, yet Jehovah’s Witnesses reject enough teachings of Christianity that Christians view their teachings as distortions of the true Gospel.
Note also that Jesus’ treatment of the man doesn’t differ because he’s a Samaritan. Ten people ask Jesus for healing, including the Samaritan, and ten get healed, including the Samaritan. The only difference is Jesus’ surprise, when the Samaritan comes back to praise him while the nine Jews do not. If I use the same Jehovah’s Witness example from above, it would be like if nine Christians and one Jehovah’s Witness come to me for healing, and I say, “In the power of Christ who is God I heal you,” and when they realize they’re healed only the Jehovah’s Witness comes back to thank me. (That “In the power of Christ who is God” phrasing is awkward, but I purposely worded it that way because Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe that Christ is God.)
Jesus used this relationship between Jews and Samaritans in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25–37), which might be the only context in which most modern-day readers ever hear the word “Samaritan.” (I’m sure many people find it odd to ever see or hear the word “Samaritan” without the word “good” in front of it!) In that parable an injured Jewish person is rescued by a Samaritan, after a number of fellow Jews refused to help him, which would have been a stinging indictment to his listeners. But that was a parable, and the passage before us now is an actual event in Jesus’ ministry: He heals ten people—nine Jews and one Samaritan—and sends them on their way, but when the ten realize that they’ve actually been healed, only the Samaritan comes back to praise God and thank Jesus.
I assume, since this passage comes later in the book of Luke than the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that the parable came first in real life, too. If that’s the case, I wonder: were there people who heard Jesus’ parable and thought it was unrealistic that the Samaritan would be the “good guy” of the story, only to find a true life version of a Samaritan having more faith than fellow Jews?
So I’m doing a lot of talking about Samaritans, and that Jesus wasn’t racist against them. Does this mean that the Jews’ feelings about Samaritans were unfounded, and Samaritans were fine the way they were? No. Samaritans really did distort the Word of God; Jesus was right to call him a foreigner, not just geographically, but spiritually as well. The Samaritans claimed to worship the same God, but were far enough apart from true teachings that Jesus couldn’t consider this man a fellow Jew or fellow believer (at first). Undoubtedly, even as he was falling at Jesus’ feet and praising him, the man still believed things that were untrue or incorrect, and we shouldn’t read this account as Jesus somehow validating those false beliefs. However, the man had true and genuine faith in Jesus. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this man is with Jesus right now; after coming to faith in Jesus, he either came to correct his religious misunderstandings, or his religious misunderstandings didn’t get in the way of his saving faith. (The Bible never fully articulates that all of the people healed by Jesus came to true, saving faith, and are now with Him in Glory, but it’s an assumption we make.)
But this brings us back to the topic of “faith,” which has been discussed in recent passages: Jesus didn’t heal one person, he healed ten. He praises this man for his faith, but does that mean that the other nine had no faith? And if they didn’t, how were they healed? Or if they did, what was different about this Samaritan’s faith from the faith of the other nine?
I think all ten of the “lepers” must have had faith that Jesus could/would save them. Could he have healed them without faith? I have no doubt, but the Gospels tend to pair Jesus’ healings with faith in him, so I think all ten must have had faith that, when Jesus told them to go to the priest, they would be healed.
So what’s different about the Samaritan’s faith? Honestly, I think it’s the joy and gratefulness he felt. I think that shows an evidence in the man’s heart that what he feels for Jesus is more than just happiness that he’s not a “leper” anymore, it’s happiness that he’s experienced Jesus, which is a deeper thing.
So again, did all ten of these people have faith that God/Jesus would heal them of their disease? Yes, I think they did—their faith was aimed correctly at God, as opposed to something else. But I think the difference is in nine people who had faith that “God will heal me of my disease,” and one Samaritan who had faith that “God will have a relationship with me, and healing me of my disease will be evidence of that.”