In Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with ten lepers, Jesus praises the one who disobeyed him, and criticizes the nine who did what he asked! We might subtitle the story,
“When Disobeying Jesus is the Right Thing To Do.”
It also is a story of marginal places, and the marginalized people who live there.
On his way to Jerusalem, ten lepers, living on the margins of a town, which is situated on the margin between Galilee and Samaria, call out to Jesus for mercy. Their religious communities had marginalized these lepers and they knew to keep their distance, but somehow they recognize Jesus and call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Like the demonized man of the Gadarenes who immediately recognized Jesus as the Son of God, these marginalized lepers recognize Jesus from a distance and somehow perceive that he is able to extend mercy to them; mercy that their religious communities could not or would not give them.
Leprosy in the Bible could apply to a wide range of skin conditions and or diseases. According to Leviticus 13, a priest determined if a person was leprous according to a specific list of criteria. If the person was leprous, the person was pronounced unclean and kept separate from the community for a time and reexamined. If the ailment was chronic, however, the afflicted person was permanently banished to the margins of their community.
Reading this from our modern place in an advanced western society we might think these precautions had to do with limiting the spread of infectious disease. While these measures may have functioned in this way, people of the time had little knowledge of how contagious disease spread.
The significance of leprosy in this story has more to do with where people thought leprosy came from – what was the cause of leprosy? Two stories from the Old Testament illustrate how they thought about this.
In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron are complaining about Moses marrying a Cushite woman – a foreigner. Their complaining angers God and God gives Miriam leprosy. Moses prays to God and Miriam is healed after 7 days. In this account, complaining against God’s representative (Moses) angers God and he gives Miriam leprosy.
In 2 Chronicles 26 King Uzziah enters the Temple to make an offering to God at the altar of incense. The priests resist him saying that he is not a priest and that he should not be making offerings in the Temple. This makes Uzziah angry and verse 20 says that God struck him. He immediately has leprosy on his forehead and suffers with it until his death. So, in desiring to worship God in a personal way, without priests in between, this story says that God gave Uzziah leprosy for life.
Based on these Old Testament stories we might say that,
Leprosy was understood as a disease that God inflicted if you dared to question his representative or his priests, or if you worshipped God in an incorrect way.
With this background let’s return to the story in Luke 17.
When Jesus saw the ten lepers calling out for mercy, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
First, Jesus sees these lepers. He doesn’t marginalize the marginalized. Jesus sees people that have been pushed to the margins by their religious communities. The reason they had been marginalized was because leprosy was thought to have come from God.
Now, Jesus intends to heal them, but he doesn’t do it immediately as was his usual method. Instead he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. They all set off to do what Jesus asked and find that their skin is healed on the way.
One of them however doesn’t follow through. He doesn’t show himself to his priest, but instead returns praising God and thanking Jesus. And what is Jesus’ response to this former leper who had disobeyed him? He praises him and asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Why does Jesus commend a Samaritan for not doing what he had clearly asked him to do? And why does Jesus criticize the others for presumably doing exactly what he told them to do?
When Jesus tells them, “go and show yourselves to the priests” (plural) the implication is that there was more than one priesthood involved. The Samaritan would not have gone with the others to their Jewish priest. He would have had a Samaritan priest in another town.
And here’s the crux of the matter; by sending them to their priests, whom was Jesus sending them to? He was sending them back to the very people who had marginalized them in the first place! He was asking them to return to the very religious system that believed God had given them leprosy. But before they get there, they are made clean…
Maybe Jesus wasn’t really asking them to go back to the sacrificial religious leaders that had excluded them at all. Perhaps this was Jesus doing a bit of “inquiry-based-teaching” - a method that encourages students to think and to ask serious questions about what their teacher is telling them. Questions like:
Why, if Jesus can heal me, do I need to go back to the religious system that couldn’t heal me?
Why did Jesus see me out here on the margins and care about me?
Does this mean that God isn't angry with me, and does this mean that God didn't give me leprosy in the first place?
After his brief encounter with Jesus, I can envision this Samaritan alone on his way back to his priest, and as he is walking his skin becomes clean! He begins asking himself questions like these and I can feel excitement beginning to bubble up in his heart as he considers the implications of what had just happened! Can you sense it? I can see him running back to his teacher, Jesus praising God at the top of his lungs and falling at Jesus’ feet in gratitude.
So much of what he had been told was wrong! So much of what his religious community had told him about God was the opposite of what Jesus had just taught him about God! This Samaritan asked the questions that Miriam was asking, but instead of it leading to leprosy, it led to his being healed and made whole.
Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Your faith has made you well…faith in what? Surely not faith in the sacrificial religious system that had excluded and marginalized him. Surely not faith in a God that gave people leprosy for questioning him or his representatives. The faith that made this Samaritan “well” (meaning whole) was faith in the God that Jesus just revealed with so few words, in an inquiry-based lesson that only one of the ten understood. The Samaritan, the most marginalized of the ten had what James Alison calls the intelligence of the victim.
We need the intelligence of marginalized people. Marginalized people see God in places that we middle class members-in-good-standing of our respectable religious communities can’t. It is in the very people that our churches marginalize and exclude that God is to be found! God, have mercy.
Our American churches are truly at a crossroads. For the last 40 years or so we’ve been much more like the Pharisees and priests, excluding and marginalizing entire groups of people that we thought God is angry with. But little by little though, the Gospel is at work, in stories like this one, helping us to rightly divide the word of truth.
Lord, help us to follow the example of our Lord and teach us, as you did the Samaritan, to know when disobeying Jesus is the right thing to do.
This blog is excerpted from a message of the same name that can be found in its entirety here.