On his final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus meets 10 people who live in the shadow of death, standing at the edge of a village that is itself a borderland between hostile communities. Further, they are lepers – neither alive nor dead – as unclean as a corpse, yet filled with emotion, pain and isolation, decaying while still alive.

The 10 suffer physically. Just as hauntingly, they are defined by uncleanness and its consequences. Their communities, despite lacking a theory of germs and bacteria, nevertheless think in terms of contagion. They view contracting leprosy the way they view touching a corpse, not because the dead body will hurt them but because under Moses’ Law it would make them unclean, and being unclean cuts them off from all that defines normal life.

As the great festivals of Israel’s religion draw near, these 10 people would see crowds on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But they cannot join in; they are untouchables, rejected by the people, barred from the temple and excluded from nearly everybody and everything. 

They may be more like us than we first realise. Yet the story of Luke 17:11-19 isn’t really about them. It’s about Jesus and his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. He emerges from the masses when the lepers call out to him for mercy. He commands them to show themselves to the priests; they go – and they are healed. 

It’s a simple, short story. But why is it there, and what does it mean? The point isn’t that Jesus can heal leprosy. Luke already shows this in 5:13 and 7:22. What, then, should we glean from this event? One answer relates to the benefits of the kingdom.

The faith of the lepers

First, observe the faith of the lepers. Granted, meeting Jesus on the margin may have been mere coincidence. Whether planned or not, their faith finds expression in calling out to Jesus and in obeying his instructions. 

All 10 start well, and all receive kingdom benefits in the form of healing. Many today receive kingdom benefits – even those who don’t follow Jesus. Although the manifold blessings of God permeate our country, this doesn’t suggest that all are heirs of the kingdom. Receiving its benefits is not the same as inheriting the kingdom. Some people ignore Jesus yet experience those benefits. Others acknowledge God but leave him at the periphery. Finally, some who call him Lord will, according to Jesus, be excluded on the last day.

Starting well isn’t enough. Earlier in Luke, Jesus speaks of seed falling on rocky soil, of those who hear the word with joy but crumble when facing persecution (8:13). Others – and this may be the greater danger for us – are undone by “riches and pleasures” (8:14). The king looks for seeds that bear fruit.

And the king has arrived. In Luke 5:13, Jesus first touched a leper and then commanded, “Be clean”. Here he does neither. Jesus and the 10 never approach one another. How could they? Jesus and the throng must keep themselves separate from lepers. Those going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover cannot do anything to make themselves unclean, lest they be excluded from the festival. Jesus could conceivably leave the masses and go to the lepers, but that could be problematic. How would he separate himself from his followers? How would fellow pilgrims view someone in their midst who had engaged with lepers – 10 of them?!

So, the lepers shout, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” 

Jesus calls back, “Show yourselves to the priests”. No touch, no prayer, nothing dramatic. He isn’t even present when they are healed. He simply tells the 10 to go and present themselves to the priests. In Leviticus 14 that’s what you do after you are healed. You submit yourself for examination, no doubt for the good of the people. It takes place outside the camp and involves sacrifices. But before these 10 even reached the temple “they were cleansed”. 

We’ve seen scenes in movies where a person virtually melts. Now the film runs in reverse. The one with three fingers claps his hands. The one with no legs jumps up and down. The blind one can see. Perhaps the thankful leper was like this, or simply had white spots that faded away. We don’t know. We learn only that this man was recognisably different – and he knew it.

Luke doesn’t focus on sores or wounds, or a rash or shiny spot or raw flesh turned white (as in Leviticus 13). Instead, Luke tells of the man’s response. First, having received Christ’s work, he returns to Jesus, glorifying God. 

I was once in a city that won a major sporting event. People poured into the street to celebrate, sing and dance. I imagine that’s what this man is doing. Except his joy, rather than focusing on himself, exalts the God who gave him life.

Overflowing Gratitude

Second, he falls on his face before Jesus, thanking him. One day, every knee will bow to him. This leper simply gets a head start. And something beautiful unfolds before us. The man who earlier called from a distance now comes close. And he isn’t just filled with joy. He also recognises the presence of his king and overflows with gratitude.

Only now does Luke add, “and he was a Samaritan” (v16). Can Jesus really be his king? He doesn’t go to the priest. He doesn’t offer a sacrifice or thank God by means of Jerusalem’s temple. Instead, he turns back and finds Jesus – and thanks him.

Jesus responds with three questions. Didn’t 10 receive healing? Where then are the other nine? Has only one come to praise God? He moves from 10 to nine to one. The effect is to strip everything away until we’re left contemplating just one leper and Jesus.

One suspects the other nine are headed toward the priests. That’s what Jesus told them to do. Like Jesus, who is marching to Jerusalem, they join the journey to the royal city – and for the first time in who knows how long, these former lepers can approach the temple, mix with the crowds and celebrate the feast. Where else could they be?

But if they go to Jerusalem, and Jesus is on the road, it is virtually inconceivable they would ever find him again. One leper, apparently as soon as he recognises the miracle, turns to find the source of mercy and power, with springs of thanksgiving welling up within.

When Jews reflected on Leviticus 13 and 14 and the restoration of lepers, they often spoke of gratitude, describing the sacrifices as temple-based expressions of thanks to God. One leper, however, goes not to the old but the new. He doesn’t thank God in the Jerusalem temple. Instead, he finds Jesus, the embodiment of God’s presence, in order to express praise, gratitude and submission. God is present – the true temple is present – in the person of Jesus.

So says Jesus in verse 18: by thanking Jesus and falling down before him, this man has “returned to give praise to God”. And he was a Samaritan. The worst, hardest case of all is the only one who returns. Now, in Jesus’ third question, he asks if none has returned to praise God except this foreigner.

This common Old Testament term appears only twice in writings of our immediate interest. The first is here and the other is on signs in the temple saying no foreigner can enter, the penalty being death. This is a man who doesn’t visit the temple, maybe because he can’t. Though no longer a leper, he remains excluded from God’s house. He still stands on the edge, outside, looking in. But the king is powerful enough and his kingdom big enough to include even the likes of a leprous Samaritan, now cleansed and counted among the people of the kingdom.

In response to his faith and gratitude, he receives more than he could ask or imagine. Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well”. 

Many benefit from Jesus’ work – even those who don’t know him. Earlier, I suggested that kingdom benefits sometimes go to begging outcasts. That doesn’t mean all of them find salvation. In this case, each one received great blessing in that they were cleansed – so says verse 14. But the words translated as “made you well” don’t really catch it. A better rendering would be, your faith has saved you. While all 10 received physical healing, only one finds something more. He obtains life itself. He was metaphorically and symbolically dead until Jesus healed him. He was spiritually without life until Jesus saved him.

A leprous Samaritan is saved, while others with equal need settle for less. And what about us? Have we known real and tangible blessings from God – better family prospects, career advancement, or being spared certain types of addictions? What, then, if life unravels at one of these points? Jesus offers something more. Throughout Luke he overthrows disease, mayhem and the horrors of earthly existence, but even these are not the ultimate enemy. 1 John 3:8 tells us, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work”. He has defeated the enemy and laid claim to the kingdom. Let’s not confuse kingdom benefits with inheriting that kingdom.

Christians receive many this-world benefits. What ultimately matters, though, is that we serve the true king and participate in his salvation. Let us draw near to Jesus, fall before him, and give praise to the God who gives life to the dead – to people just like us.