11 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.’
Funny how when these men were infected with the skin disease they are just “ten men who had leprosy,” (Luke 17:12). But as soon as they are healed the old divisions arise again and one is a Samaritan and therefore a foreigner (Luke 17:16, 18).
We have tended to make this a story about gratitude and ingratitude, but there is at least one other layer here. Notice first, that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he is walking along the border between Samaria and Galilee (Luke 17:11). Three places are mentioned and a boundary or border. There is the border between regions but also the ethnic border between Jews and the Samaritans where a significant degree of prejudice thrives. It was not unknown for a Jew travelling between Galilee and Judea to travel many miles out of his way to avoid passing through Samaria.
Jesus however tells stories about “Good Samaritans” which would have been a shock to many Jews. It may also have alerted them to the fact that there was another social and religious barrier between the urban elites in Jerusalem and the rural hicks of Galilee. So Galileans are outsiders, in an economic and cultural sense, which maybe gave them more in common with Samaritans than they would have liked.
So by naming these three places and by introducing the real and symbolic presence of a border, Luke is alerting us to ethnic, religious, economic and cultural prejudices of the time.
And as we have noted, when the story opens, we are faced with ten men who keep their distance. There is no distinction among them in their common suffering.
All ten it seems call on Jesus as Master (Luke 17:13). In Luke’s Gospel only the disciples are presented as calling Jesus “Master,” so their call is a serious one. Jesus discerns their need and their seriousness and instructs them to go to the priests. There is no indication of miraculous healing at this point, but everyone would know that it was the role of the priests to certify if someone had been cured and to then lay out the process of re-integration into society.
Luke is very specific then and says, “As they went…” (Luke 17:14). The healing happens on the way. And when one of them “sees” that he is healed (Luke 17:15) he comes back praising God in a loud voice. Seeing is a particular Lukan way of indicating that understanding has dawned. He praises God and throws himself in thanks at Jesus feet; the connection between the two is important for Luke’s presentation of who Jesus is.
And then we get the punchline—he was a Samaritan (Luke 17:16). I guess there was no point in him continuing on to the priests (if they were Galilean priests) because even if he was healed it was likely that the old prejudices would arise again and he would be shunned. Without their shared troubles what was there to hold these men in community? And even though one of the reasons for his exclusion from normal human community was gone, he couldn’t do anything about his ethnicity.
Jesus won’t let this matter lie though and draws attention to the obscenity of their ethnic and religious prejudices. It’s the foreigner who gives praise to God (Luke 17:18). Nobody would expect that, but Jesus never misses a chance to draw attention to racial stereotypes and to undermine them.
Jesus says “Your faith has saved you” four times in this Gospel (Luke 7:50; 8:48; 17:19 and 18:42). Notice they are two stories about women and two stories about men. One of those men is this leper, and one is the blind man who is obviously a Jew. These are stories of full inclusion.
Isn’t it extraordinary how differences can be overcome when troubles are shared? We can unite across borders when something extraordinary brings us together, but the underlying prejudices may still remain, only covered with a veneer of respectability.
It has often been pointed out in the context of our own conflict here that physical distance from “the other sort” or a degree of economic prosperity permits an illusion of enlightened inclusion of the “My best friend is a Catholic/Protestant (delete as applicable)” variety. But it only takes an election to come round, or an act of violence perpetrated by “the others” to bring our prejudices to the surface.
Jesus wouldn’t let this kind of thing pass without a comment.
Lord Jesus of healing power
You healed the son of the man
“I believe; help me in my unbelief.”
Lord if I’m honest
I love most people,
But there are some I struggle to love.
I love; help me with those I can’t love
Or won’t love
Or those with whom I have fallen out of love.
Give me the courage and the heart
To embrace those who are different
And when I slip into the old habits
Of language, or thought or attitude
Give me the ears to hear Jesus
Telling stories of foreigners who love
And strangers who believe
And rebuking those who exclude
those who are considered ‘other’.