Thought for the day
Inclusivity and inclusion are buzz words in our culture. We find the radical openness of Jesus very helpful today, as we try to see the future of the Christian project. St Paul himself has been called the “founder of universalism” (Alain Badiou). Two comments may help us reflect. Firstly, not everyone is guided by this vision—the evidence for “exclusivism” is all around us. Secondly, in the Christian vision, respect for all is grounded not only in creation (“image and likeness of God” but also in salvation (“God wants all people to be saved”). Both dimensions are important for Jesus, for Paul and for us today.
God of mercy, your love reaches out to all without distinction. As we have experienced your compassion, may we show the same love to all.
Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
Luke 17:11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
This well-loved and familiar story is found only in Luke’s Gospel and in it the writer returns to the theme of God’s mercy and salvation. It is important to note that the scene takes place on the way to Jerusalem, indicating that it has something to do with the destiny of Jesus and with the salvation to be achieved in the Holy City. There are at least four elements in the story of interest: lepers, Samaritans, thanksgiving and faith.
A note on leprosy
The word leprosy is conventionally used to translate a Hebrew expression sara‘at, which almost certainly is not the same as Hansen’s disease. Instead, sara‘at encompassed a variety of conditions which share the feature of discolouration of surfaces, including human skin and the walls of house (Leviticus 14:34-57). People with sara‘at were regarded as ritually impure, a condition which rendered those in contact with them also ritually impure. Consequently, they were to be avoided. See below for the regulations on their exclusion.
A note on Samaritans
The Samaritans were a Hebrew sect, with their own centre of worship on Mount Gerizim. They continue to exist today, claiming to be descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh among the tribes of the Northern kingdom. Stress between Samaritans and Jews is evident in the Persian and Greek periods. In some ways, they are old-fashioned Israelites, following YHWH and limiting the Bible to the Pentateuch alone. Not having undergone the Exile and the radical restructuring of Judaism that took place in the Exile, the differences between Jews and Samaritans became more pronounced. As a result there was considerable propaganda against the Samaritans, claiming they were really foreigners imported who brought with them their own false worship. See below for the propaganda.
Kind of writing
This is an action anecdote, told to illustrate the ministry of Jesus to the excluded and the grateful, prayerful response from unexpected quarters. A miracle story is combined with a pronouncement story. There are also echoes of Naaman the Syrian and, of course, the Good Samaritan.
Old Testament background
Skin diseases (“leprosy”)
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45–46)
Command the Israelites to put out of the camp everyone who is leprous, or has a discharge, and everyone who is unclean through contact with a corpse. (Numbers 5:2)
The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities. When they first settled there, they did not worship the Lord; therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land; therefore he has sent lions among them; they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.” So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel; he taught them how they should worship the Lord. (2Kings 17:24–28 NRSV)
New Testament foreground
There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:27)
In the New Testament, the Samaritans are mentioned a few times. In Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples not to visit Samaritan villages (Mt 10:5-6) while in John’s Gospel there is the symbolic encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4). In Luke, they are also mentioned a few times: Jesus has trouble in the Samaritan villages (9:52-53), but they are mentioned favourably in this story and in the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37).
The parable and the present story share the shock of the good example of the unclean—in our story the man is doubly excluded, both as a Samaritan and as a leper. Samaria was a mission field of the early church as we learn from Acts 8 and John 4.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:28–29)
Verse 11 There is no “region” between Samaria and Galilee and Luke is sometimes vague on geography. He wants to remind us that Jesus is still on his road to Jerusalem and to introduce a context for the story of the lepers. (In the Acts, Luke is much better on geography.)
Verse 12 The lepers behave very correctly according to injunctions in the Bible (see above). In the original Greek, Luke calls them men who had leprosy. Thus, puts the person before the condition or illness. Cf. Luke 5:18 and 8:27 for the same respectful approach.
Verse 13 Master: a title elsewhere limited to disciples (Luke 5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49). Have mercy: this verb occurs twice more in the Gospel, always as here, in the imperative (16:34; 18:38). On the lips of the rich man in Hades, it has no effect but when addressed to Jesus, the request is successful. Mercy: the heart of salvation (Luke 16:24; 17:13; 18:38–39).
Verse 14 Notice we are told that Jesus “saw them”—an obvious comment with a deeper meaning. Jesus “sees” the opportunity to show the mercy of God. The miracle is implied by the instruction to go to the priest for confirmation, permitting re-entry into society. As they go, the unclean discover they have been cleansed. At this point, the healing is less important than the reaction to it.
Verse 15 Loud voice: a feature in Luke-Acts (Luke 4:33; 8:28; 17:15; 19:37; 23:23, 46; Acts 7:57, 60; 8:7; 14:10; 16:28; 19:34; 26:24). Glorifying God is also an important part of Luke’s theological vision (cf. (2:20; 5:25–26; 7:16; 13:13; 18:43; 23:47)
Verse 16 Thanksgiving: see the Lord’s Supper, but also the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:11; 22:17, 19). Samaria and Samaritans feature in Luke-Acts (Luke 9:52; 10:33; 17:11, 16; Acts 1:8; 8:1, 5, 9, 14, 25; 9:31; 15:3).
Verse 17 The rhetorical or perhaps real question is not answered.
Verse 18 Praising God: a significant feature of the Gospel from start to finish (see v. 14 above).
Verse 19 Compare: And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:50); He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” (Luke 8:48); Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” (Luke 18:42). The Greek word for “made you well” has two meanings. It means both to heal and to save. Luke has both levels in mind. Even the Samaritans (and all outsiders) can be saved by faith.
Pointers for prayer
1. The cure of the lepers is not just a physical cure, it was also brought the people healed back from exclusion into the community. Perhaps you have experienced the movement from exclusion to inclusion. What was it like for you to be accepted once again when you had been excluded?
2. Who were the Jesus people for you who brought about this change? For whom have been able to do this, perhaps by healing a rift with a friend, or by listening to the opinion of someone you had dismissed out of hand, or by opening the door in some other way to another?
3. Some people work hard at breaking down barriers in society, seeking inclusion for those who find themselves labelled as lepers by society or by a section of society. Where have you seen this happening? Who has been doing this kind of work? Where is the good news in such action?
4. When we do good for another we may not do it for the thanks we hope to get, but it can hurt when no gratitude is shown. How have you experienced the positive effects of thanks given and received?
O God, our life, our health, our salvation, look with mercy on your people. Stir up in us a saving faith, that believing, we may be healed, and being healed, we may worthily give you thanks. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.