Now on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten men with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance, raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went along, they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He fell with his face to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. (Now he was a Samaritan.) Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to turn back and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to the man, “Get up and go your way. Your faith has made you well.”
Luke 17:11 – 19 NET
Wait a minute. What just happened? Jesus healed ten men; Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests; one man did something Jesus never asked him to do; Jesus praised him and reprimanded (in absentia) the other nine. That’s pretty close, but not quite.
(What we get from the Bible is often different each time we read it. This is what I got this time.)
On the surface it could look like the Bible is telling us that God expects things from us that he never asks of us. To anyone who has been in an emotionally abusive relationship, this may feel very familiar and quite triggering (and thus off-putting). Communication being one of the largest problems in all relationships, this may strike a chord even with those in healthy relationships. If you don’t tell me what you want from me, how is it fair that you hold it against me when I don’t do it? I think it’s important to realize that this is absolutely not what Jesus was doing.
On a brief tangent, I don’t believe any of the men, even the one who returned, failed to go to the priest. If you were healed (miraculously or otherwise) from an infectious skin disease, in Jesus’ day you would probably sprint directly to the priest, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Lev. 14:1-32 tells us what has to be done when you’re cleansed from leprosy and similar diseases. It’s complicated and it includes animal sacrifices, shaving all your hair (twice), and 8 days during which you still couldn’t go home. You’d go directly to the priest because before you did that you were still an outcast; you’d want to get those 8 days started as quickly as possible because you were ready to get back to your family and your life.
So what message are we supposed to get from this story?
The one man realized that it was Jesus who healed him. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that NONE of the other nine realized it was Jesus. Among the nine who kept going, there were likely many reasons they kept going. Just a few things off the top of my head that they might have been thinking (aside from the obvious selfishness or not caring who healed them, just caring that it happened):
• Jesus said to go to the priest, so of course I should go right away. The guy healed me, so I’m going to do exactly what he said.
• The sooner I get to the priest, the sooner I can be done with my cleansing ritual and back to my family and society.
• I’ll get started on the cleansing ritual ASAP, and then I’ll find Jesus and thank him (maybe they even did… we aren’t told).
And it’s even possible that one or more turned back before going to the priests but after Jesus finished making his point. The whole purpose here was to make a point.
What exactly did returning to Jesus mean to that one man? It meant that he was delaying his cleansing ritual, and therefore delaying his return to society. This was obviously a costly move for him, and it showed his faith and gratitude.
I don’t think that the message is that the nine did something wrong, but that the one did something more right. The nine did what they were supposed to do, what Jesus told them to do. The one, while almost certainly not neglecting those things, went above and beyond by doing something even better, being the kind of person God wanted him to be.
I also think Jesus might have been saying “you have laws that tell you how to handle healing” to see if they would just blindly follow the rules or if they would be so overcome with gratitude that they would delay their obedience to those laws. I haven’t explored that option, but it might be an interesting rabbit trail.
I think it’s very interesting that Jesus focused on this man being a Samaritan. That was an unnecessary detail if the message is just about gratitude. Since Jesus was passing between Samaria and Galilee, and these ten men were together (or at least inside the same village) it seems possible that more than just that one man (perhaps even all of them) were from the same people group (Samaritans of course). So I don’t think Jesus was saying all Samaritans are awesome. Since the Jews couldn’t stand the Samaritans, Jesus used them as examples multiple times (e.g. the Good Samaritan, the woman at the well, and of course here). What I think he was really saying, regardless of the nationality of the other nine men, was that if a Samaritan could demonstrate such faith (by seeking him out) and gratitude (by returning to worship him) to a Jew who was supposed to hate him, why in the heck couldn’t the Jews, God’s chosen people, get this right? He was using this event as an acted-out parable to slam the Jews, so it’s irrelevant if the other nine men were Samaritans, Jews, or anyone else. The point was, a Samaritan could have saving faith, so Jews had no excuse.
The primary moral of the story, as I see it, is that God’s chosen people don’t have a free pass… God’s love is available to all, even hated “others” who don’t hypocritically pride themselves on following all the man-made rules. This is one of Jesus’ biggest recurring themes, even when he seems to be talking about something else. in Mt. 17:17, Jesus even expresses his exasperation with the “unbelieving and perverse generation” (generation can, and I think in this case does, mean “race”: the Jews, specifically his own followers). Jesus is so fed up he almost seems to look forward to his crucifixion when he’ll no longer have to “endure” them.
We’re definitely supposed to see the message of gratitude, but I think what seems like Jesus’ main point was actually secondary to his goal of reprimanding the Jews. And rather than being only a message for Jews of Jesus’ day, this applies today to anyone who thinks they’re saved but is behaving the way the Jews of Jesus’ day were behaving.