His Healing, Our Thanks
NKJV Luke 17:11 1 Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. 12 Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. 13 And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
14 So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.
15 And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, 16 and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan.
17 So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? 18 Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”
Our text for this morning finds Jesus near the beginning of the last trip of his earthly ministry to Jerusalem. He started in Galilee and was headed south – through the land of Samaria, which wasn’t entirely friendly to Jews.
Samaria was the land directly between Galilee and Judea. Long before, it had been populated by the Jews of the Northern Kingdom, the 10 tribes that broke away in a revolt when King Solomon’s son inherited the kingdom of Israel. This began the divided kingdom, with a separate kingdom of Judah. Relations between north and south were tense, and sometimes they even fought. Meanwhile, the northern kingdom drifted further away from God’s commands and laws and was eventually overrun by the Assyrians after about 300 years, or about 700 years before Jesus was born, and about 140 years before the Jews of Judah and Benjamin were carried off to Babylon.
When the Assyrians conquered the northern tribes, they carried many of the people off, and they brought in many others – the idea was to destroy the sense of nation and identity that the people they conquered had. In this case, it was successful – the tribes lost their sense of identity and those who were left mingled with those who were brought in. These people became known in time as Samaritans.
Jesus has several interactions with Samaritans, and occasionally uses them in illustrations, and he does in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The woman at the well freely admits that Jews do not associate with (eat with or socialize with) Samaritans. This was because the Samaritans had some very peculiar religious beliefs – they had the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, but that’s all. They didn’t use the rest of the Old Testament. They did not worship in Jerusalem and weren’t particularly welcome there.
The Jews did not like the Samaritans, and it seems safe to think that the Samaritans didn’t like the Jews very much either. But shared suffering can make for some strange friendships, and it seems that it did in the case of our text.
Jesus and his disciples pass by a group of lepers. The term “leprosy”, as Scripture uses it, refers to a number of disfiguring diseases, including the disease we call leprosy today, but also including some conditions that weren’t necessarily as destructive or as contagious. But it didn’t really matter – anyone with any of the conditions that counted as “leprosy” (which are laid out in detail in Leviticus chapter 13) were considered permanently unclean and had to live apart from the rest of the people. Furthermore, sufferers of leprosy in the narrow sense (which is the disease we call Hansen’s Disease today) suffered nerve damage that could destroy their hands and feet, and make them go blind. In those days, leprosy was a death sentence.
These men must have heard something about Jesus because they address him by name (they don’t use the term “Lord” to refer to him, the use the term “master” instead, which doesn’t necessarily have the same divine overtones). They must have thought he could do something for them; and so they plead for his mercy. They show their obedience to the law by standing a ways off.
And so Jesus tells them all to go show themselves to the priests, who have the responsibility (according to Leviticus 13) of diagnosing leprosy and declaring when people are clean again – meaning that they can rejoin society and live with their families again, do work, and so on.
And so while they are on the way to the priests, they are cleansed. Just one of them realizes, turns around, and gives thanks. He knew that he was healed, so he fell at Jesus’ feet, showing that he understood the importance of what had happened to him.
And possibly the most surprising thing of all? This man was a Samaritan! We don’t know how many of the other nine might have been Samaritans, maybe none of them, but probably not all of them, since Jesus singles him out as a “foreigner.” But foreigner or not, he showed proper thanks for his healing, and he gets a special blessing from Jesus: “Your faith has saved you.”
What does this teach us today? Surely, we have much better medicine today; leprosy is still a problem, it can be readily cured. But perhaps in seeing the things that our medicine can help now that perhaps it hasn’t been able to, we see the things that it still can’t cure and think of them.
Maybe we hear about this and think, “What a bunch of jerks! What were those nine men thinking? I know I would have been thankful! I would have marched right back there and fallen at Jesus’ feet along with that Samaritan guy!” Scripture says no more about the other nine.
It’s easy for us to look down on these nine men. But when we examine ourselves, are we any better? Have we been as thankful as we could have been for all the blessings God gives us, each and every day? I know I don’t. The blessings we have in this area, in this country, are almost countless. Even in this midst of the great tragedy of this pandemic we are living through, this area has not been as badly affected as others. Many of the shortages we experienced at the beginning of the crisis have now been addressed. And are we thankful for it? Maybe we are, but even if we are, we can never be thankful enough.
We always want to make deals with God, to have God grade us on a curve, as it were, when it comes to our standing with him. We like to compare ourselves not to his perfect law, but to other people, or even to ourselves. We like to think God will be pleased with us if we act better than our neighbors, or at least if we improve on ourselves from yesterday.
But that kind of thinking is like a leprosy in our souls – it will devour our spirits and will only lead to death. Why did Jesus heal those men? Was it because they deserved healing? Were they better than their neighbors? Was it because they cried for mercy?
Jesus did not have to heal them, but he chose to. He doesn’t reveal his reasons for doing so, but he showed mercy and compassion on many such people who were suffering physically during his public ministry. And he also follows the same pattern in dealing with us spiritually today.
We like to think that we deserve God’s mercy. But we do not. We are all born with a kind of leprosy of the soul; we are born hating God and his Word. We start out blind, dead, and enemies of God. The sin we are born with corrupts our souls much as leprosy corrupts the body, and leads to spiritual death.
And yet, Jesus finds us and shows mercy on us. The lepers asked for his mercy and he showed it to them; spiritually, he shows us mercy before we can even ask for it. In most cases, he calls us to faith in Baptism, cleanses us, and creates a new and right spirit within us. It is only that spirit, which cries out in faith, that can properly thank him because it is only with that spirit that we can see how blind and dead we are without him.
But even with this new spirit, we must still carry around our old man, the old sinful nature, until Jesus takes us home to him or comes back in glory. This old man can make it really hard, when we receive something we recognize as a great blessing from God, to fall down and thank him. At least we are in good company – Saint Paul himself was in agony over the conflict he suffered because of his own sinful nature:
NKJV Rom 7:22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
And yet it was the same Paul who said:
NKJV Phil 1:21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. 24 Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. 25 And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith.
And if we are tempted to think that our faith is the reason God has chosen to be gracious to us, Paul reminds us:
NKJV Eph 2:8 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
The thankfulness that Jesus praised the Samaritan leper for, was one of the good works that God had prepared beforehand for him to walk in. Just as he did, we too have thanks that we can show – and many other works besides – to thank our God in Christ Jesus for the great love he has shown us in cleansing us from our spiritual leprosy.
In Jesus name, we pray, Amen.