The episode of the healing of the ten lepers in Lk 17:11-19 is part of Lucan Travel Narrative (Lk 9:51-19:44) that describes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem with his disciples. The episode of the encounter between Jesus and ten lepers begins with the following verse: “On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” In the light of the journey that began in Lk 9:51, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face toward Jerusalem”, we understand that Jesus is resolutely moving toward his passion and will meet the fate of a prophet in the holy city.
The story of the healing of ten lepers has two distinct parts: a) verses 11-14 and b) verses 15-19. The first part narrates a healing, which has the standard elements of a healing story: a cry for help from the one who is sick or in need; the immediate response of Jesus; and as a consequence, there is a healing in the act of obedience (also see, Jesus cleanses a leper in Lk 5:12-16). The second part of the story deals with the salvation of a non-Jew (=foreigner), who returns to Jesus, gives praise to God and expresses his gratitude to the source of his healing. In response, Jesus bestows upon him the blessing of salvation.
Encountering those who need Mercy
The story of the healing of ten lepers is narrated only in the Gospel of Luke. Undeniably, geography plays a significant role in Lucan Gospel and provides a setting to understand many events. In this narrative too, the border between Galilee and Samaria is a fitting location for a story involving both Jesus and a Samaritan (v.16). Moreover, the mention of ‘Samaria’ at the beginning of this story in verse 11, prepares the readers to appreciate the grateful leper, a Samaritan, who returned to give thanks to the Lord in vv.15-16. Like the protagonist of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), who is presented as a ‘model of love’, here the grateful Samaritan, a non-Jew (v.18), is presented as a ‘model of faith’ to the Jewish listeners. What Luke underscores in this encounter is that it is ‘faith’ in Jesus that brings the leper, his healing and salvation (v.19).
Verse 12 presents an important detail that there were ten lepers. In biblical times, leprosy was a dreaded contagious disease and carried with it a humiliating social stigma. The lepers were not allowed to live within the city limits and had to live outside the human habitat. This is because the leper was considered to be under a divine curse and consequently was ostracized from the community, to live outside of the encampment (Num 5:2-3; Lev 13:45-46). Once outside, they kept a distance from others and had to cry out that they were unclean, when anyone approached them or passed them by. This is why Luke has the lepers in this story standing at a distance (v.12) and calling out in unison to Jesus. Considering the social stigma attached to leprosy, it is most likely that the lepers formed their own colonies (cf. 2 Kgs 7:3), and they positioned themselves on highways in order to beg for alms. It is one such group, cried out for mercy, when Jesus passed by.
Listening to the Cry for Mercy
The ten lepers call out in unison addressing Jesus as ‘master’. In Luke’s Gospel, this is the only time, Jesus is called ‘master’ by someone not a disciple. Ordinarily, their cry for mercy, (by human logic) would have been a cry for alms, knowing their socio-economic conditions. However, in their cry, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”, there was much more than the ordinary request. Here, ‘mercy’ (eleos) certainly refers to a request for kindness to someone who is in need. When Jesus sees them and listens to their cry for mercy, he commands that they go and show themselves to the priests. Why priests? For an Israelite, leprosy meant an automatic ‘expulsion’ from the Covenant community—no longer part of God’s covenant. According to the norms laid down in the book of Leviticus, to show oneself to a priest after the healing from such a dreaded disease was an absolute necessity according to the law (Lev 14:2-32). Readmission to the community was possible only by showing oneself to the priest, who was entrusted with the task of safeguarding the purity and the wholeness of the community. For, he had to check up on the infected man, and, if he were to be cured, to proclaim him cured. No wonder, whenever Jesus cured lepers, he sought to ‘reinstate’ them within God’s covenant and to ‘re-member’ them into the covenantal community.
As the ten lepers obeyed the command of Jesus, they were made clean. At this juncture, the text leaves the reader with some intriguing questions. Why did the Samaritan leper have to go to the Jewish priests? Was the Samaritan, considered a non-Jew included in the command to go to a priest, to fulfill the legal requirements? Or was he going to a Samaritan priest? These questions are natural and arouse the curiosity of the readers. However, till this point of the narrative, we, the readers are not made aware by the narrator that one among the ten is a Samaritan.
Returning to the Source of Mercy
It is interesting to note that the healing of ten lepers takes place only after they obey Jesus’ command. On their way, one of the ten, realizing that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. Further, he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The action of falling prostrate at the feet of Jesus is certainly a realization and a recognition from his part that God is acting in and through Jesus. At this juncture, the narrator reveals the identity of the healed leper, that he was a Samaritan, belonging to a group of non-Jews, who were despised, and considered outcasts and unworthy of the covenantal blessings. It is significant to note that the faith of the leper is shown not before rather after his healing. “Your faith has made you well”– the verb “made well” in Greek s?z? is the same that is very often translated as “to be saved.”
We might ask, why did Jesus reproach the nine lepers for not returning (vv.17-18) when they had been told by him to go and show themselves to the priests for a confirmation of their cure from the dreaded disease and a release from their socio-cultural status of uncleanness? Well, the text gives no answers. Moreover, the identity of the other nine lepers is not explicitly revealed in the story. However, “Go and show yourselves to the priests” would certainly indicate that they were Jews. If it is the case, it is remarkable that in their misery and suffering the lepers, be it Jews or Samaritans were living together. Deprivation and distress made them forget their ethnic differences and live rightfully in fraternity. In this cultural context, one is reminded of the prevalent relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans, marked by hostility. The Samaritans had a fourfold creed: 1) One God – YHWH; 2) One Prophet – Moses; 3) One Book – Torah; and 4) One Place – Mt Gerizim. The Jews agreed with the Samaritans on ‘One God’ and disagreed with the rest. One of the root causes for the friction between both the communities concerning worship is found in the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in Jn 4:20—on which mountain should one worship God? On the mount in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans worship? Given these Jewish-Samaritan tensions, both groups tried to avoid passing through each other’s territories and those travelling to Galilee made a round about journey, avoiding Samaria. However, ignoring these cultural differences, on two occasions, Lk makes the Samaritans, the ‘heroes’ of his stories.
The healing of the Samaritan leper in Lk 17:11-19 is about a foreigner who was doubly marginalized by the contemporary Jews. Firstly, he was a Samaritan, a social outcast and a religious heretic; and secondly he was a leper, devoid of covenantal blessings. But this does not stop him from receiving the full blessing of Jesus’ ministry. Once again, through this story, Lk underscores that Jesus’ ministry is indeed going beyond the boundaries embracing the outsiders, the outcasts, the sick and the sinners, who were considered the last, the least and the lost in the society.
In Lk 4:27, when Jesus was at Synagogue in Nazareth, he referred to the healing of the non-Israelite Naaman, the Syrian in preference to the lepers in Israel, to illustrate that God’s love and mercy is not conditioned by ethnic and communal boundaries. Some biblical scholars hold that this story of Jesus’ ministry to the outsiders anticipates what will happen in the Acts of the Apostles—the second volume of Luke, namely universality of God’s salvation. In other words, no one is excluded from God’s plan of salvation. In Acts, the disciples of Jesus move out of the Jewish world and enter into the Gentile world, which shows greater receptivity to the good news, thus bringing them all into the sphere of God’s salvation. Therefore, building upon this theme of universality of God’s mercy and salvation, the healing of the ten lepers concretely demonstrates God’s boundless generosity and mercy towards both the ‘outsiders’ and the ‘insiders’.
Acknowledging the Merciful
“Were not all ten healed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God but this foreigner?”
Does our ‘thanks’ really matter to God? In the final analysis, despite people return to give thanks to God or not, his limitless mercy shines through even amidst human ungratefulness and unfaithfulness. God does not condition his healing that if only the beneficiaries were to return to give thanks to him that he would heal them. God, who is merciful does his part; and he does it in the best way possible. From the human point of view, those who ‘acknowledge’ God’s blessings are undoubtedly ‘thankful’ people, because they see the gifts of this world, the people around them, the events and experiences of this world as gifts that are given and not earned by their own merit. In deed, the Samaritan saw his ‘new existence’ purely a gift of God, an overflow of God’s abundant mercy.
“Gratitude is the beatitude of the heart.” Having a grateful heart goes beyond saying merely “Thank You”. Grateful people truly acknowledge how richly they have been blessed and everything that they have and that they are comes from God. Such people pass on grateful memories of life, inspiring others to think of their source of blessings.
The Samaritan, a model of faith and gratitude, showed that he possessed a grateful heart. Therefore, he returned to the source of divine mercy.
Do we return to the font of mercy, with gratitude?
Naveen Rebello, SVD