“Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’
14 When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’19 Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’ “(Luke 17: 11-17)
The story of this healing is located in the borderlands (so to speak). It’s as if the geographical borders mirror a hidden spiritual reality, which must be unravelled for exegeis to be complete.
The group are still travelling to Jerusalem, and have now reached “the border between Samaria and Galilee.” That’s the geographical border. The second border is between the lepers-presumably living in some kind of colony on the outskirts of civilisation- and the village itself, their source of charitable relief.
And when they see Jesus,they stand “at a distance” as if there is a border control here too.
Of course, there was no border control between Samaria and Galilee. But there was a conceptual boundary between those who were within the covenant of Israel and those who were not. And there was no security fencing between the lepers and the village, but there was a rigorous requirement that they keep away, to avoid contamination. And this consideration may have also informed the distance between the lepers and Jesus. The point is, the sense of separation is underlined three times before anything happened! They are excluded from covenant, from community and from Christ.
It’s a little reminiscent of Ephesians 2:12: “Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.”
And there is a call for pity, rather than for healing. Was this the customary request they made of travellers for a handout, like the throng of beggars putside Delhi Airport? No, for they call him by name “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
The actual healing is not mentioned. Instead there was a authoritative command from the Master to ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ This was a significant step. Only the priests were authorised to pronounce them clean from leprosy (and thereby permitted to re-enter society). They were the accredited agents for ending the exclusion and opening up the border.
But what about the distance between the lepers and the covenant of Israel, and between them and Jesus? For nine of the group, those distances remain, but “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.” Every barrier is broken in the gush of his gratitude! The unclean has been made clean. The outsider is back in fellowship. And the Samaritan finds equality with the disciples at the feet of Jesus.
The point is underlined. He’s a foreigner. The other Gospel writers make the same point:”Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4). “It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs” (Matthew 15; Mark 7). But even if those two sentences sound harsh, in both cases Jesus overstepped the boundary, offering grace and healing to the Samaritan woman at the well, and to the Syro-Phoenician woman too.
The reaction of Jesus in Luke 17 is interesting. It’s as if he is standing at something of a distance himself, watching what God is doing and marvelling at it. He affirms the man’s healing, bidding him rise and go, acknowledging the role of the man’s own faith, but there’s something more. It’s almost reminiscent of that moment in John 12 when Jesus is asked to meet two Greeks -two total outsiders to the covenant of Israel- and (apparently) instead of replying he says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.“
The request and the response don’t seem to fit at first, until you realise that once again Jesus has his eye on what God is doing, and he recognises God’s timing in the coming of the Greeks. Time’s up. The hour has come. He is the seed of faithful Israel that must be buried, so that as the husk breaks down into the soil, it provides the nutrients for growth, springing up into food for the whole world.
And the borders are broken.
And now every kind of racial border, or class border, or gender border has become an affront to the gospel of Christ, for according to Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The leper broke through for all of us! We may acknowledge our uncleanness, and the risk of moral contamination that we bring with us; and we know fully our exclusion from the covenant of blessing. But Christ has pronounced the word over us. Clean, set free, welcomed home. And the Cross is God’s word of pity, mercy and cleansing for the whole world.
Praise, my soul, the King of heaven;
to his feet thy tribute bring;
ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
evermore his praises sing:
Praise the everlasting King.