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The Life of Jesus - Series 10: Episode 1

Jesus heals ten lepers

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 17:11-19

Jesus heals a mixed group of ten lepers - both Jew and Samaritan - but only one Samaritan returns to thank Jesus. They were sent to show themselves to the priests in Jerusalem to prove their healing which would in turn point to Jesus as the healer.

Jesus heals a mixed group of ten lepers - both Jew and Samaritan - but only one Samaritan returns to thank Jesus. They were sent to show themselves to the priests in Jerusalem to prove their healing which would in turn point to Jesus as the healer.


Hello, and welcome to Series 10 and Episode 1. We're beginning a new series today and we're back in Luke's Gospel 17: 11 - 19, where we're going to discuss the episode of Jesus healing ten lepers. Ten people suffering from the disease of leprosy.

Introduction and Recap

As we finished Series 9, we were in John's Gospel and we were looking at the remarkable and amazing raising from the dead of Lazarus that John describes in chapter 11. Before that we had spent quite a lot of time in Luke's Gospel. The narrative had been taking us forward as Jesus is travelling south towards Jerusalem, in a very purposeful way, to bring to conclusion his ministry in Jerusalem, with a confrontation with the religious authorities as I've described frequently in previous episodes. I want to capture a few of the themes that Luke has been presenting to us through the material in the chapters previously, from chapter 13 through to the beginning of chapter 17, to remind us of some of the things that have been prominent in Jesus' ministry during that time.

On a number of occasions, as Jesus dealt with the crowds as he headed south, he expressed very clearly the urgency of the choice facing people. They needed to repent and believe in him as the Messiah; they needed to seize the opportunity. It was an opportunity for the Jewish nation as a whole that would not be repeated for the whole nation after his death and resurrection in quite the same way. People needed to seize the opportunity and put their trust completely in him as the true Jewish Messiah. That's one major theme.

A second theme is the cost of discipleship. To believe in Jesus involves a wholehearted change of life. It's not just an intellectual exercise; it's not just to join a comfortable community which we now call church. It's to change your lifestyle fundamentally, and be ready for a life of service and sacrifice - what Jesus calls taking up our cross, identifying with a path of suffering, which of course Jesus fulfilled in a supreme sense by dying on a cross. ‘Taking up your cross’ means identifying with that life of service and suffering, as necessary.

The third theme is the theme of God seeking those who are lost. In Luke 15, there are three parables, The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Lost Son or The Prodigal Son. If you've been with us in the previous episodes, you'll remember that we looked at those parables closely. Very powerful stories, and all of them have a theme of God reaching out and seeking people who are lost - on the fringe, who've lost their way, who've lost contact with God, who've drifted off for one reason or another, and in the case of the prodigal son, through a selfishness and sinfulness, pride, and God bringing those people back, bringing people back who are on the margins or vulnerable, like the lost sheep who was vulnerable and needed to be brought back to the rest of the flock by the shepherd.

The Healing Miracle

We have the urgency of choice, the cost of discipleship, and the heart of God to bring in the lost, or the vulnerable, all the people on the margins. It's that third theme that comes to prominence in the next story that Luke tells, which is an account of a miracle. It relates to the terrible illness of leprosy. We've come across leprosy earlier on with a previous healing miracle, which I'm going to bring to you as part of the presentation in just a moment. Let's now have a look at the text in Luke 17: 11 - 19.

‘Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us." When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him - and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well."’

Luke 17:11-19, NIV


Let's think for a moment about leprosy. It may be that you followed the story in Luke 5: 12 - 16, of Jesus healing a leper, as recorded in Series 3 Episode 7. If you missed that one, you'll have missed the explanation I gave about leprosy. I want to contextualise this wonderful story by going back to that first story briefly, which is the first time that Jesus is explicitly described as healing someone from leprosy. It's recorded in Luke, in an earlier part of his ministry in Galilee, but it's relevant for us to compare the two accounts, because there are some interesting similarities. Let me just quickly read this short account to you, Luke 5:12 - 16.

‘While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you're willing, you can make me clean." Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" And immediately the leprosy left him. Then Jesus ordered him, "Don't tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Yet the news about him spread all the more, so the crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.’

Luke 5:12-16, NIV

In that earlier episode, we're introduced to leprosy for the first time and this man is miraculously cleansed. We need to remember what leprosy meant in the ancient Middle East. It was a disease that was bacterial which affected the nerves and caused a loss of feeling as the primary early symptom. It could spread from the skin, where it started, to the joints, like elbows and knees. It could affect eyelids and frequently did, then making blinking difficult, and then making protecting the eye difficult, and therefore leading ultimately to blindness. People who had a more advanced form of leprosy became clumsy and accidents happened. Their control of their limbs became difficult and they couldn't live normally. They couldn't work. It's a progressive illness, which nowadays can be cured completely by medical drugs.

People feared leprosy tremendously and they were afraid of touching a leper for the transmission of the disease. They were right to fear that, and so, they separated sufferers. They weren't allowed to live in normal communities. In fact, when the man in Luke 5 came to Jesus in a town, he was really breaking social rules by coming that close to Jesus, and coming in a community area, because lepers lived outside or on the edge of villages and towns in separate little leper colonies or communities. Even in the modern world, we've seen the same phenomenon, as lepers are separated.

The suffering of leprosy was regulated by the Law of Moses amongst the Jews. In Leviticus 13: 45 - 46, there's a very specific command which was still in action and still applicable at the time of these miracles that we're talking about.

‘Anyone with such a defining disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.’

Leviticus 13:45-46, NIV

That principle was adopted all the way through Jewish history, to keep lepers separate. The priests had the particular responsibility of monitoring this illness and evaluating whether people had leprosy, and whether they had recovered from leprosy, or been cured from leprosy. People did sometimes recover and, of course, could be miraculously cured. That's why there's a reference in both these stories, to going to the priests. It may seem a rather strange thing that Jesus suggests needs to be done, but it was in line with the regulations of the Law of Moses. We'll come to that as we go through the story in a little bit more detail.

The Ten Lepers

Let's come to our story today, bearing in mind Jesus has already healed one leper, as recorded in Luke 5. We find here the location is that he's travelling on the border between Samaria and Galilee. He's come further north, having been in Bethany for the raising of Lazarus, he's travelled away from Judea. Notice that Jesus is travelling around between different districts, heading to Jerusalem but not directly, and he's visiting different areas. This is a border territory. Within sight of this area would be some Jewish villages in Galilee, and some Samaritan villages. They tended not to mix them together ethnically, because the Jews and Samaritans didn't get on well together. They were suspicious of each other, as we've mentioned on previous occasions.

These ten men approached Jesus. Notice ‘as he was going into a village’, that probably means that he passed by their encampment, or their colony, or their community. This was their opportunity. Again, as always, Jesus would be, no doubt that there'd be a crowd, people would have been indicating that he was coming. And so, the lepers took their opportunity. They came to try and meet him before he went into this particular village. They weren't theoretically allowed to go into the village, and so they wanted to intervene and speak to him before he himself went into the village, because if they go into the village they'd be asked to leave, and people would get very agitated, because the general convention was, they needed to be socially separate to avoid contamination. What has happened here is that some of these lepers were Jews and some of them - at least one of them that we know - were Samaritan. That's because it was a mixed ethnic area. You have a very interesting thing happening: you've got two ethnic communities who don't get on with each other, who both have people suffering leprosy, and those lepers seek common cause in community, despite their ethnic or racial differences, because their suffering is the primary issue in their life, their condition. This leper community appears to have both Jews and Samaritans in it.

They called on him in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us." The urgency of the lepers is felt in that piercing cry. Jesus' reply is really surprising. He doesn't enter into discussion with them; he doesn't say they've been healed, he just says, "Go, show yourself to the priests" which to us seems a really strange thing to do. What on earth did Jesus mean? Fortunately, by looking in the wider context we can get a clue as to what's going on here. It's the priests who regulate leprosy and so if he's saying, ‘Go to the priest’. What would be the point of going to the priests unless something had changed in their condition? That's an indication of healing. It's an indication of Jesus' will to heal them. That in itself is remarkable.

When he says that Jesus knows that the priests in question were not living in the nearby villages, they were in Jerusalem, the capital city, where the priests operated in the Temple. They were associated with the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. That was where the religious authorities were; that's where decisions were made. Jesus was telling these ten lepers to travel all the way from southern Galilee to Jerusalem to go and talk to the priests, and show them their skin, and their body, and their condition. That's a remarkable thing to ask them to do. If you're a leper it's hard to walk a long distance because of your physical condition. But also Jesus is indicating, I think, that if they're healed and they go to the priests, then the priests will ask them how come they came to be healed, and if they then say that Jesus, the healer, has healed them, then that's another claim of Jesus to power and authority, and Messiahship that they have to face, because they're actually talking to people who've been healed by him in an official capacity, where they have to adjudicate and say, ‘Yes, you've been healed, you can go back and live in your community.’ It was a provocative thing that would force the religious leaders again to face up to the evidence of Jesus' miraculous activity.

The interesting thing is, off they went. There's no record of any extended conversation. These lepers, it appears, trusted Jesus and obeyed his suggestion and thought, ‘Right we've got to find a way of going to Jerusalem to the priesthood and we'll see what actually happens.’ The irony of this is that, according to the chronology of the events, it appears that this takes place straight after the healing, the raising of the dead of Lazarus, as recorded in John 11, which we saw in the last episode. During that episode, Caiaphas the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, have decided they're going to arrest Jesus and get him executed. Immediately after they've made that final decision, they've been thinking about it for a long time but they've made a final decision, very shortly before this. Jesus is sending ten lepers to them to ask them to adjudicate whether they've been healed miraculously or not. There's a really tense connection between these events taking place here, it's a provocative gesture.

The Tenth Leper

The focus ends up being on the tenth leper. The nine go off, and we don't know what they did. We don't know if they went to Jerusalem, we don't know whether they went to the priests, we don't know if they just went home and just went to their families and said, "Look, I've been healed! Amazing! Jesus has come and I have been miraculously healed." We don't know what the nine did. We know that they went off as if they were going to Jerusalem, and then they disappear from our story. They don't appear again at any point.

But one man, as he was walking away, within a short period of time, noticed immediate physical changes to his body that was so dramatic that he knew himself to be healed. This is remarkable because a leper would have many different symptoms in their body. They would have all the damage to their skin, and their nerves that you would see. They would have damage to their joints, probably damage to their eyes. They'd have, probably have bruises on their body because of the clumsiness and the risk of falling in accidents. They may have hands that are deformed over time if the disease is advanced. They may be not able to stand up quite as straight as they did before, and all sorts of other things as well. There are multiple symptoms all over the body and this Samaritan could see the symptoms disappearing - all of them! Not just gradually, not just a few, but his whole body was changing. He suddenly realised he had been healed and he came back to thank Jesus, and he threw himself at Jesus' feet. He was so grateful.

Remember when I said about the theme that Luke's been expressing in earlier material on this particular part of Jesus' life? The theme of God reaching out to the lost, The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, The Prodigal Son, The Lost Son in Luke 15? Here's another very graphic example. Who could be more lost in Israel than a leper who was a Samaritan? He was the wrong race, because the race was not favoured and was excluded from the main culture of Israel, and lived separately, and he was excluded from his own people because he was a leper. He wouldn't have a normal family, he wouldn't have a job, he wouldn't have much income, he'd be living in poverty, he'd be depending on charity. He was lost, without hope, and yet in this moment, quite suddenly and dramatically, Jesus reaches that lost person and he's not disqualified by being a Samaritan; he's not disqualified by being socially excluded and living in a leper colony; he's not disqualified by his disease; he's not disqualified by his physical appearance and the minor deformities that we develop as a result of extended exposure to leprosy; he wasn't disqualified by any of these things. Jesus, in that moment, reached out and healed him. There's some people listening to this video who will feel disqualified. Far too far away from God to ever be reached by him. Think of this man. Whoever you are, can I just say to you, ‘You're not disqualified by your failures, by your race, by your poverty, by your exclusion, by the rejection of other people. God's reaching out to you. He's calling you to himself, like he called that man.’

He came and he thanked him and he praised him. The other nine disappear from the story. This is really intriguing. I ask myself the question: were they racing to get to Jerusalem? Have they simply gone home to their families, and were so thrilled and happy to show them they were healed? We don't know what happened. But one thing we do know is, they didn't come back and thank Jesus. This Samaritan wasn't only healed - he had also got faith. Jesus describes him as having a living faith. Not just a faith to be healed, which is the immediate context, but he actually had faith that Jesus was the Messiah. He began to realise who he was. A rather interesting point about the story of course, is the Samaritan wouldn't be able to go and show himself to the priests in Jerusalem, because he wasn't a Jew and he wasn't part of that covenant community, and he didn't come under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Temple. But he came and he thanked Jesus.

God's Grace

I think this is an absolutely wonderful story. It shows God's grace, Jesus' love, Jesus' power. It shows the remarkable way that Jesus deals with people so differently. It shows him reaching one of the most excluded, social groups in the whole of the nation. Time and again in the Gospels we see Jesus engaging with the socially excluded. Very often we focus on a group, which is generically called in the Gospels, ‘the sinners’, which would include prostitutes, it would probably include black marketeers and shady criminals, and it also includes tax collectors, who were socially excluded because they exploited people. They were rich but they were socially excluded and hated for exploiting people, taking money from them for themselves, making themselves rich unjustly. Jesus reached the tax collectors, he reached out to the ‘sinners’, including prostitutes - really despised groups - and here he reaches out to another despised group, the lepers.

In the same context of course, he's reaching the Samaritans. Several times we notice Jesus being very compassionate towards this group. We've seen it in his earlier ministry very graphically demonstrated, when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman while he's travelling through Samaria, as described in John 4, and he stops at a well and a woman comes and he asked the woman to help him get some water from the well, enters into conversation and brings her to salvation, and then she brings him to her community. Jesus shows great engagement with the Samaritans, the inferior racial group, according to the Jews.

Here it shows great compassion towards the lepers whose illness and disease separated them fundamentally from their society. People were afraid of them and didn't want to be close to them. Some of us live in societies that are socially segregated like this, that have a hidden segregation or overt public segregation, or even a caste system, as in India, where people can be divided in these kinds of ways. It happened in ancient Israel through the illness of leprosy.


My final reflections would include the unanswered question - where did the nine go? I wonder what you think. Did they go to Jerusalem? Did they just go home to their families? We'll never know because they disappear from the story. But what we do learn from the Samaritan leper who was healed, is that receiving the physical blessing of God, such as healing, is not the only thing that matters. What matters is to understand and identify who it is that healed you, and how you need to relate to him. This Samaritan identified Jesus as the Messiah to come. The Samaritans believed in a Messiah figure, like the Jews did.

Another thing that I find really thrilling about this story is the reminder to keep thanking God. Thanking God is one of the most powerful spiritual disciplines. We're called as Christians to be thankful for all his blessings, and it's something that people very often forget about, because we see problems, we see difficulties, we're stressed, we're anxious about the challenges of life. I want to encourage you to step back from that and to thank God for his amazing blessings, so many blessings that we hardly ever think about and which should cause us to be thrilled in our hearts, and to be grateful to him, and to draw close to him.

I'm going to conclude this episode by a little reflection about the future. What happens subsequently? We see these incidents in the Gospels of Jesus reaching out to Samaritans. They're very moving and powerful incidents. We see Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, as described in Luke. The Samaritans begin to feature in the story even though they were seen as an inferior race by the Jews. There was a lot of mutual distrust, even hatred between them. Many Jews didn't even like to travel through their territory which was right in the centre of the country, Galilee to the north, Judea to the south, Samaria in the middle. Jesus sowed the seeds for the gospel message in Samaria. If we turn the page, so to speak, of the story and we go into the book of Acts, we find the Church is founded in Jerusalem, after the day of Pentecost, with great success. But when persecution comes the believers in Jerusalem spread out to the surrounding areas and many go to Samaria. I'm going to conclude this episode by reading you what happens in Samaria. This is truly remarkable. The seeds of the gospel, sown by Jesus and also by John the Baptist, but particularly by Jesus, bear much fruit, as follows. Acts 8: 4,

‘Those who had been scattered spread the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.’

Acts 8:4-8, NIV

We find later on that the Church is established in Samaria. This is a wonderful story, many facets to the story, much to learn. I hope you've enjoyed the time we spent sharing together and learning from the story.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How has this teaching helped you to understand this event?
  • Discipleship
    1. What are you doing as an individual, and together as a church, to show God's compassion and love? Give examples.
    2. Take time to thank God for his love, grace and blessing shown to you.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Who are the ‘marginalised’ in your society? What are you doing to show them love?
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