The Leper's Story – Luke 17:11-19
As we continue our quest to discover the dynamic, transforming presence of God in the Gospel of Luke and in our own lives, we meet the ten lepers of Luke 17:11-19. While all ten men were physically healed through their encounter with Jesus, we will focus our attention on one leper in particular, the one who came back with a heart filled with gratitude.
What was life like for the leper before his encounter with Jesus? This poor man was the lowest of the low in the eyes of the Jews. First, he was a leper, and his skin disease was enough to ostracize him from the community. Accordingly to Leviticus 13, anyone with leprosy was considered “unclean.” This man, because of his condition, had to dwell apart from society, tear his garments, keep his head bare, and warn everyone he met of his outcast state by crying “Unclean!” He had no access to religious rites and may even have felt abandoned by God in the midst of his physical and emotional suffering. Further, this leprous man, who seems to have formed a community with nine other lepers, was probably an outcast even among his fellow outcasts, for he was a Samaritan (17:16). As the commentators of the Navarre Bible remind us, “There was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans.” (37) Jews considered Samaritans to be no better than wicked and ignorant heathens who followed a corrupt and immoral religion. (38) The text does not tell us the race and religion of the other lepers, but since they went readily to show themselves to the priests, we can assume that at least some of them were Jewish (17:14). In this case, the “shared pain” of the lepers may have overcome the “religious antipathy” between Jews and Samaritans, at least to a point. (39) The Samaritan leper was still, however, the lowest of the low in terms of Jewish societal hierarchy, and he, without a doubt, suffered the effects of his position every single day.
What happened to this poor man, this leper who was an outcast among outcasts? Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem when He entered a village between Samaria and Galilee (17:11). The leper and his nine companions had somehow learned of Jesus' arrival. Perhaps they had even heard of His miraculous healing of a leper in Galilee (see 5:12-16). They obviously believed that Jesus could do something to help them, to cure them, to restore them to society, for, standing at a distance, they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (17:12-13). Their words were, in essence, a prayer. Was this prayer merely for physical healing? Did they seek any more than that? Was their faith based on selfishness, focused only on what Jesus could do for them? The text does not give us these details, so we can only speculate. Whatever their motives, however, Jesus took pity on these ten miserable lepers. As soon as He saw them, He said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (17:14). To the lepers' credit, they obeyed at once. Apparently, their faith was strong enough for that. As they went, they were cleansed (17:14). One of them, the Samaritan, realizing what had happened, came back a changed man.
What was this former leper like now that he had personally encountered the presence of God in Jesus and been transformed by it? Most noticably, he was physically well. His leprosy was gone, and he could return to his village and his family without fear of contaminating anyone. He could also return to his religious practices, if he wished, to the Samaritan form of worship that would have been barred to him in his leprous condition. This in itself was a dramatic transformation in the man's life. The text shows us, however, that the restoration of this man extended beyond his physical cure and reestablishment in society, for his actions suggest an additional transformation deep within his mind and heart. The former leper seems to have discovered the spirit of true worship and prayer. When he realized that he was physically cured, he praised God quite vigorously in a loud voice, unaware that God was standing right in front of Him, and he humbly fell at Jesus' feet in gratitude and reverent recognition of his weakness in the face of Jesus' power (17:15-16). This man had advanced from petition for a personal need to adoration and thanksgiving, in which he praised God for Who His was and what He had done. The former leper's focus had turned from himself to God, from his needs to God's praise. Jesus accepted the man's gratitude and pointed out to those nearby that only this foreigner had come back to give thanks and praise for his healing (17:18). The other lepers, presumably, fulfilled their duty of showing themselves to the priests but had not grasped the true Source or meaning of their cure. Unlike the Samaritan, they had not learned how to worship. Jesus turned to the grateful man before Him, saying, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (17:19). Indeed, the leper was now well, both physically and spiritually. He could resume his way of life, but he would never be the same after his encounter with the love and power of God in Jesus.
What might we learn about God incarnate in Jesus as we reflect on the leper's story? We first notice that Jesus answers prayers powerfully. In His great mercy, He responded to the lepers' plea and cured them without even a word. The leprosy that had probably affected these men for years was gone in an instant as soon as they obeyed Jesus' command to go and show themselves to the priests. Jesus has the same control over our lives and our world, and He can transform any circumstance at any time if such an action would be for our benefit. Further, our Lord desires a proper response to His power and mercy, namely, our praise and gratitude for answered prayers. He yearns for us to imitate the grateful leper and fall at His feet, worshiping Him and thanking Him for His favors and blessings, but like the other nine healed lepers, we often go on our way, quickly forgetting the Source of our miracles and neglecting to utter a simple “Thank You,” thereby wounding our God's compassionate Heart.
We must finally ask the question, “How might we apply the experiences of the leper to our own lives?” How is God reaching out to transform us through this text? Reflecting on the following questions will help us discover God's special message for us in the leper's story.
1. What is the “leprosy” in our lives? What separates us from Jesus or from other people? In what ways do we need to be healed and made whole?
2. Do we stand at a distance from Jesus? Do we pray to Him from afar?
3. Do we believe that Jesus can and will answer our prayers? Do we have faith in His power and mercy?
4. Are we grateful people? Do we fall down before Jesus in thankfulness and praise when we receive an answer to our prayers, even if it is not the answer we are seeking, or do we forget Him as we go about our lives?
5. Do we always go back to our Source, the One Who is in control of our lives and our world? What would our lives be like if we constantly returned to God at every moment, praising Him, thanking Him, and receiving strength and grace from Him?
37. Navarre, 149.
38. Barnes; Clark; Gill.
39. Navarre, 149.