We are studying Luke 17:11-19, along with Leviticus 13:45-46, for Sunday, July 4. [Independence Day! That’s actually a thematic fit with our text, too.] What “everyone knows about leprosy” may not be correct, I’ve recently learned; some notes on the Leviticus text from that perspective are here. With that in mind, here are my notes on Luke 17:11-19:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re reading in Luke’s gospel. As we probably know, Luke’s gospel is part of a larger work, Luke-Acts, that seems to address a mainly gentile audience. It’s a careful literary work, written in elevated Greek. The plot of the gospel is organized, significantly, by the device of Jesus’s long journey from north to south, to Jerusalem, and towards the passion and resurrection.
This episode with the “ten leprous men” takes place during that journey, which begins at the end of chapter 9. A lot has already happened on the way; the trip is almost over. The next specific place mentioned will be Jericho. There Jesus will encounter a blind man who recognizes him as the Son of David, and Zacchaeus, the wee little tree-climber and social outcast collaborator tax collector. All that will happen in a couple of chapters, after some teaching on the eschaton and on prayer, and on impediments to entering the kingdom of God.
Geographically, Jesus is somewhere “between Samaria and Galilee.” This would be almost inevitable when travelling south from Galilee to Jerusalem. [There is a big map with the border area indicated here, along with a nice meditation on the text.] That “borderlands” setting may underscore the meaning of the text, which features afflicted people who are positioned as “outsiders.”
This text is in the lectionary for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost in year C, right in time for stewardship season. Regular churchgoers may be familiar with it for that reason. It’s also the reading for Thanksgiving Day in year A.
CLOSER READING: In v12, Jesus is in the act of entering this “certain village” when the “ten leprous men” – the text is specific about their gender – “came to meet” Jesus. The verb suggests that they are there on purpose, not by accident.
They “stand at a distance.” Maybe they couldn’t have used another posture, but their standing seems to matter to Luke. [I noticed, for instance, that James Tissot, in one of his characteristic paintings, ignores this stage instruction in the text.]
They call out with a single voice.
The way the address Jesus, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” seems significant. The term of address “Master” is apparently unique to Luke. So far in the gospel, only the disciples have used it. This is the last time anyone uses it. [Are these leprous men would-be disciples?] The Greek word “Master” is a compound of the verb “to stand,” so it echoes their “standing at a distance” in v12.
What they mean by “mercy” isn’t explicit. Jesus doesn’t ask for clarification. He seems to assume it has something to do with their affliction, because he tells them to “go show yourselves to the priests.” We might think this is a reference to Leviticus 13 and 14, and the rituals for diagnosing tzaraat in the first place, and then for restoring a matzora, a leprosy sufferer, to “clean” status.
Luke uses three verbs to describe what happens. In v14, they are “made clean.” In v15, one notices he is “healed.” In v17, Jesus reiterates that they were “made clean.” Finally, in v19, Jesus announces to the one who returned “your faith has saved you.” Saved might be about as open a term as mercy.
We probably need to remember that being leproi is not a garden-variety illness, but an affliction with established religious – spiritual – purity meaning, and with social meaning. These men are excluded from worship and ritual life, and from community. There is probably a presumption that they have been afflicted by God, for cause.
It seems significant to me that the ten leprous men are evidently not, as prescribed in Leviticus 13, living alone, but have formed a little community.
They are made clean in the act of going, or of following Jesus’s instructions. [I have heard at least one sermon that emphasized the importance of this: they act first, and the cleansing happens as they’re acting. That seems like a good point.]
V15 is pivotal. One of the men is not like the others. We can’t tell from the text whether he is the only one who notices he is healed; that’s one possibility. He is definitely the only one who turns back, praising God with a great/big/loud voice.
In v16 this one man assumes a radically different posture and proximity from v12: he prostrates himself at Jesus’s feet – so, from being upright and distant, he is now fallen and close. And, instead of asking Jesus for something, now he has thanked Jesus.
Whatever has happened, this has happened: this one man has really gone through a complete or completed [narrative] transformation.
“And he was a Samaritan.” “Everyone knows” about Samaritans and Jews in Bible times. Jesus already told the parable of the Good Samaritan back in chapter 10 of this gospel. He has already mentioned the cleansing of Naaman instead of the Israelite lepers, back in chapter 4 of this gospel. Do we really think Luke, the friend of gentiles, is not making a point here about diverse and inclusive Jesus?
So, diverse and inclusive Lukan Jesus calls attention to the fact of the man’s foreign-ness. Why? Jesus is making some point, presumably to the disciples.
Do we ever wonder how they knew he was a Samaritan?
We do not know the ethnicity of the other nine. Just saying.
I read v19 as a statement from Jesus that this grateful man no longer needs to go show himself to the priests. For one thing, his faith has saved him. For another, he has already gone and shown himself to Jesus – who is, in effect, and as implied right here in this story, a priest.
The essential moment of the story is this one man’s turning back to praise God and thank Jesus. Acting to voice his gratitude to Jesus. We can meditate a long time on what makes that essential difference between this one man and the other nine men.
I think I need to keep meditating on that, because it seems to me that is where the deep transformative mystery of this story lies.
Images: Above: St. Luke mosaic, at All Hallows Church, Allerton, UK By Rodhullandemu [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons; Below: Cleansing of ten lepers, illumination in Codex Aureus Epternacensis, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons