From standing at a distance asking for mercy to coming right up to his feet and lying prostrate with praise, our healed leper goes on quite the journey. The other lepers who are healed do too, of course, but they take a different direction upon the revelation that they are healed.
I don’t want to read too much into why the other nine don’t come back to offer praise—and the story doesn’t lend itself to a lot of details. There are, however, indicators about the meaning we are to make. Take for instance, the questions discussed in the textual point below: the way Jesus asks these questions reveals that the nine responded differently even though they received the same miraculous healing.
Further to the point, Luke identifies the solo grateful man as a Samaritan, implying that the others were Jewish. Jesus calls him a “foreigner.” It’s the only time that this particular word is used in the New Testament, but according to I. Howard Marshall, the word that Jesus uses is a specific one in the historical context: “foreigner” was the description on the sign outside the inner temple, forbidding further entry to non-Jewish men. (NIGTC series, The Gospel of Luke)
So here’s this man who has multiple reasons to be at a distance. He is a Samaritan, a foreigner. He is a leper who must announce his suffering to others whenever they come close—otherwise they run the risk of becoming unclean. (Leviticus 13.45) Even after he is healed of his leprosy, he will still be at a distance.
Except, that is, when it comes to Christ.
There’s possibly a preaching point to be made about the fact that all ten of the lepers had some level of faith because they all went on Jesus’ word and instruction. Jesus doesn’t perform any physical act to bring about their healing, he simply tells them to do the ritual rite of going to the priest for inspection so that they can be declared clean. Being declared clean will allow them to reintegrate into their communities, restoring wholeness and belonging. Along the way, they seem to undergo the transformation. The Samaritan senses this, and perhaps the rest do too. But why is he the one to turn around? Are the other nine who are healed so overwhelmed with the possibility of their restoration that they forget to thank the wonder worker? Are they so focused on getting the okay from the priest that giving thanks can wait until the work is done and the deal is sealed?
Our leper is a Samaritan who likely goes to a different holy place (Mt. Gerizim) in order to get the blessing of a priest. (Darrell Bock, ECNT series Luke 9:51-24:53) Is there something about being alone, being separate, that makes this one more apt to express gratitude? He won’t run into group think or feel peer pressure, but is there also something about the fact that this man knows even more about being held at arm’s length than his fellow lepers, and that this added layer of hardship has taught him the hard way how cruel the world can be—leading him to know what is true for all of the lepers (and us): that Jesus’ mercy is amazing?
Or is it that his hardships and the way the world has treated him has allowed him to gain proper perspective on who deserves our thanks and praise, and service? Instead of getting the institutional clearance, it appears that this man realizes he has just encountered someone more powerful than the “church,” a more powerful agent of God. When he realized he was well—which as a leper could have meant looking at his skin and seeing his sores healed or physically feeling something as his nerves healed and he regained his sense of touch and sensation—he turns right around and heads back to Jesus.
As the story goes, it doesn’t look like he follows Jesus’ instructions to go to the priest. Instead, he returns to the source of this profound goodness in his life: Jesus. And along the way, perhaps a bit like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life after coming back from his adventure with Clarence the angel and he is so thankful to be alive, our Samaritan man is praising God with a loud voice. Where once he had to announce his brokenness, now he is pronouncing his gratitude by glorifying God.
For this Samaritan man, the most important thing seems to be thanking God for what God has done through Jesus. It is more important than checking off a ritual task—even if that ritual task will allow him to at least partially reintegrate with his community. It is more important than returning to his community and showing off his deliverance. First, he wants to say thank you. First, he wants to acknowledge his gratitude to the person who did it for him. First, he wants to worship.
So perhaps this is why Jesus asks what happened to the other nine. He is making a point about how these others decided on something else, some other step, as their first act once they were healed. Have you ever thought of those “the first thing I’ll do” scenarios? The first thing you’d do if you won the lottery? The first thing you’d do if you got the dream job? The first thing you’d do if you no longer had a chronic condition? The first thing you’d do if you could change that one thing about your life? Where does gratitude for the manifold grace of God fit into your plan?
Jesus tells him to “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” He literally says, “your faith has saved you.” And guess what? In the Greek it is in the perfect tense! (The perfect tense is used for one-time actions that continue to impact experience well into the future.) The faith that the Samaritan man is expressing through his grateful praise isn’t a one-off, it is the bedrock. His faith in God will continue to guide and bless him for the rest of his life. Because he knows who to turn to in need and in blessing, this Samaritan man is going to be alright—no matter what any priest declares. Jesus says it is so. Amen.
The questions that Jesus asks in verses 17 and 18 are rhetorical (based on the Greek grammar). The middle question in particular is quite powerful: Jesus literally says, “But the nine, where?”
The Samaritan came back to say thank you to Jesus, and Jesus describes him as being made well/saved by his faith, implying that his gratitude is an expression of faith. The benefits to expressing gratitude are becoming more and more appreciated, and I recently came across an article from a few years ago that talked about what happens when others witness expressions of gratitude: social bonds are strengthened and people are drawn to those who publicly express gratitude. One piece of the article struck me as being parallel to faith: Professor Sara Algoe says, “When a grateful person actually takes the time to step outside of themselves and call attention to what was great about the other person’s actions—that’s what distinguishes gratitude from other kinds of positive emotional expressions.” In expressing faith, we are stepping outside of ourselves and calling attention (to ourselves and others) what is great about God. Read the whole article here.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 9, 2022
Luke 17:11-19 Commentary