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” (Luke 17:11-19).
Upon recognizing it as Scripture, many have skipped the italicized paragraph above. It would be best to reverse course and read what’s above before reading what’s below.
The Scriptures overflow with expressions of grace and reasons for gratitude. Yet this is a particularly striking and colorful story. Leviticus 13-15 details God’s laws about leprosy. It was and is a graphic disease, especially for those with no available treatment. It meant physical erosion, societal alienation, and ceremonial uncleanness. The priest was central in the process of analyzing the sickness and certifying any claims to wellness. Even the leper’s home had to be closely inspected and fully cleansed. Consider that three entire chapters of Leviticus are devoted to leprosy law.
Jesus was on His way to suffer in Jerusalem when He encountered a small colony of ten lepers near the entrance of a village near the Galilee-Samaria border. As contagious and unclean members of society, they kept their distance. They were used to separation. Yet they desperately and unashamedly cried from afar, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (why the ESV includes no exclamation point at the end of v. 13 is beyond me).
This is not standard human procedure. We don’t typically plead to strangers from a distance, in public, for help. But these men were not interested in following standard human procedure or keeping up appearances. They were unclean. They were outcasts. They were lepers. Human beings in their position do not ask for help; they plead for compassion. They do not politely request a hearing; they desperately cry out for mercy.
Earlier in His Galilean travels Jesus had healed a pleading leper by reaching out and touching him (Mark 1:40-42). But this time, curiously, He immediately sent the ten lepers elsewhere — to the priests. This appears out of place. But a reading of Leviticus 13-15 quickly reveals that the priest was responsible to examine and confirm any case of leprosy and its healing. So when Jesus instructed these ten diseased men, “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (v. 14), He may have been subtly implying that their healing was imminent.
They may have wondered if this was the first step of an involved process. They may have inferred that the priests would play a role in their healing. They may have doubted if Jesus was going to do anything for them besides sending them on a wild goose chase that would give Him time to escape their unfounded expectations and their unreasonable request. Either way, they must have exchanged subtle looks and confused reactions as they walked away (unhealed) from this remarkable rabbi whose news-flash arrival to their village had inspired such intense hope.
How many times have I read these next seven words? “And as they went they were cleansed” (v. 14). As they walked the dusty streets of their village, before they got to the priests, and without taking any other steps, they were healed — together. Were all ten healed at once, or did it happen one by one? Did it happen instantaneously for each of them, or did they watch a progressive transformation of skin and flesh — the growth of a thumb, the wave-like restoration of a patch of skin, the appearance of a new nose in their peripheral vision? Did it happen near homes, with laundry-carrying women and frontyard-playing children watching their giddy celebrations in the middle of the street? Someday I will ask.
“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” (vv. 15-16). Luke’s description here repays thoughtful meditation.
In his gratitude, the Samaritan leper was alone (“one of them”), he was aware (“when he saw that he was healed”), he was reactionary (“turned back”), he was God-centered (“praising God”), he was expressive (“with a loud voice”), he was self-forgetful (“he fell on his face”), he was humbled (“at Jesus’ feet”), and he was grateful (“giving him thanks”).
And all of this because he was cleansed (v. 14). Jesus’ cleansing precedes everything. This man was not cleansed because he was grateful. He was grateful because he was cleansed. There is no merit in more or better gratitude, because gratitude is not a currency. It is a response.
Strikingly, Luke adds, “Now he was a Samaritan.” The one who returned was an Assyrian-Jewish half-breed, and Luke clearly highlights the surprise that everyone in the story felt, Jesus included. The two-fold outcast — the leper and the Samaritan — returns alone to give thanks.
What happened to the others? Perhaps they continued on their way to the priest after realizing they were healed. Perhaps they were more concerned about finalizing the procedural steps of the law than thanking their healer. Maybe they were so focused on their healing that gratitude was forgotten. Or maybe they just got caught up in a celebration in the streets.
Regardless, one thing we know — there was one who returned, and only one.
There are two times in the account when people cry out — when the lepers see Jesus and cry out to be healed, and when the cleansed Samaritan returns alone to cry out with gratitude. This is our contribution to the gospel: a plea for mercy, and a cry of gratitude. This is our offering to God.
This is why it is so confusing, so disturbing, so devastating that only one leper returned. It is incomprehensible — until I look at myself. I see myself nine times in this story, but I long to see myself once. Yet deeper still, I long to see myself not at all, but only Jesus. I do not want Luke 17:11-19 to stir me toward a personal improvement project in the area of gratitude. I want to see Jesus in all His merciful, compassionate, healing, sovereign glory. And with Jesus fully in sight, I want to be the unclean outcast who returns and falls on my face at His feet, giving Him thanks.