luke 17:11-19


Faith as Way to Salvation (1)

The journey to Jerusalem continued. The incidents and teachings that follow would provide opportunity in various ways to continue the reflection on the attitudes proper to disciples.

Luke 17:11-19  -  Jesus Heals and Commends a Grateful Foreigner

11 While travelling towards Jerusalem,
Jesus passed along the border of Samaria and Galilee.

Luke was not familiar with the geography of Palestine. Samaria and Galilee shared the same border. However, Luke was not interested in geographical accuracy. He needed to conveniently situate the following incident involving both Jew and Samaritan.

12 He came to a certain village,
and ten men, all lepers, came towards him.  
They stopped some distance away,
13 and shouted out, "Jesus, Teacher, have mercy on us"!
14 When he saw them, he said,
"Go off, and show yourselves to the priests".  
On their way they were cleansed.

This was Jesus’ first detailed encounter with lepers in Luke’s narrative.

Lepers in Israel

Reliable authors claim that there were no actual cases in the Palestine of Jesus’ day of what today is diagnosed as leprosy. “Leprosy” referred to skin diseases of various kinds. Because the effects of such diseases visibly affected their physical integrity, the victims were classified as ritually unclean. Even persons who touched them contracted the same ritual uncleanness.

According to the Book of Leviticus (which was accepted by both Jews and Samaritans) anyone (mis)diagnosed as a leper had to keep away from human habitation and to warn anyone approaching of their condition. Their physical isolation continued for as long as the disfigurement was visible. [Leviticus 13:2-6]

If their condition improved, they were readmitted to community after priests had declared them ritually clean and had offered certain animals in sacrifice on their behalf. Through the priest’s declaration they were officially “made clean”. If their condition did not improve, they remained unclean. They were ostracised permanently, with devastating consequences for their families and themselves. They were unable to work and depended for survival on the charity of others, or else had to resort to robbery. Such persons often congregated in groups for human company and support. 

Luke may not have understood the Jewish background to the reintegration of “lepers”. He said that the ten were cleansed before the priests had given them the necessary approval. He may have missed the fact that “making clean” was a ritual declaration by the priests accompanied by a prescribed act of sacrifice. For Luke the term seemed simply to have meant “made physically healthy”.

In Luke’s account Jesus did not personally touch the lepers. He sent them to the priests without apparently questioning the accepted practice in any way. (In a different incident described in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had actually touched a leper, and seemed to resent the practical necessity of the leper’s needing to be cleared by the priests.)

15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back.  
He praised God at the top of his voice,
16 then fell on his face at his feet thanking Jesus.  
Now this man was a Samaritan.

The Samaritan saw the healing as the effect of God’s action, worked through the mediation of Jesus. Praise was the expected cultural response to an undeserved gift from someone of greater standing in the honour system. Praise was the proper response to God’s healing action. The act of giving praise had the effect of leaving the relationship open. The Samaritan was open for God to do more for him, should God so choose.

By prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet the Samaritan acknowledged his debt to Jesus and appropriately respected Jesus’ honour. In the cultural honour system, to thank the patron effectively brought the transaction to a conclusion. The Samaritan did not expect more from Jesus.

17 Reacting to that, Jesus said,
"Were there not ten cleansed?
The other nine, where are they?
18 Were none of them found, except this foreigner,
to turn back and give praise to God?” 
19 And he said to him,
"You can stand up now and go your way.  
Your faith has saved you.''

The ethnic makeup of the rest of the group was not clear. Some may also have been Samaritans. However, Jesus’ emphasising the fact that the person cleansed was a Samaritan seems to have indicated that at least some of the others were Jews.

The language used by Luke was interesting. He used three different words to describe the condition of the Samaritan:

  • cleansed
  • healed
  • saved

Jesus distinguished the Samaritan’s experience from that of the other nine. The other nine were cleansed. The Samaritan was cleansed; he saw that he was healed; and Jesus declared that he had been saved. Jesus declared that the Samaritan had been saved only in the light of the man’s response of faith, expressed in his praise of God and thanks of Jesus. To be saved is ultimately a spiritual experience; it is indeed the experience of believing (and receiving) the gift of God’s favour. 

For Luke’s community the point was clear enough. What opens people to the saving action of God’s favour is precisely the response of faith. Their cooperation in faith with the saving power of God would lead to nothing less than the coming of the Kingdom. Like the Samaritan who saw that he was healed, they too needed 

  • eyes to see the signs of God at work in their own lives and in the world around them, 
  • and to allow that sense of God at work to deepen their faith in the practical possibilities of the Kingdom (as Luke would develop in the section that followed).

Next >> Luke 17:20-37