11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Text & textual features
Placement of the text
This is the third time that Luke reminds the reader that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem is a key part of Luke’s literary design. The placement of this story about the faith of the lepers is purposeful, coming after his disciples’ request of Jesus: “increase our faith” (Lk17: 5-6). It also leads readily into the verses that follow. In Lk 17: 20-21 the Pharisees ask when the Kingdom of God was coming. In Luke, Jesus’ healings are the sign of the Kingdom, so Jesus replies, “in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you”.
The text also prepares the readers for Philip’s successful mission to Samaria in Acts 8: 4-25 and the unqualified acceptance of the Samaritan converts.
A combination of Lukan themes
The story integrates the typical Lukan themes of mercy, concern for the marginalised, healing and salvation open to all. The passage is cleverly crafted: Luke waits until late in the story to provide the big surprise: the only one praising God was a Samaritan. Many of Luke’s ‘heroes’ are Gentiles, outsiders, who respond positively to Jesus, highlight the imperfect response of the Jewish ‘insiders’, and so demonstrate the universality of the Gospel message of salvation, issues acutely important to Luke’s community.
A story in the Jewish Scriptures
Earlier in the Gospel at his ‘mission statement’ in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:18-21) Luke has Jesus alluding to a remarkable story in the Second Book of Kings as an example of God’s universal promise of salvation. In 2 Kgs 5:1-19 Naaman, a Gentile army commander with ‘leprosy’ requests healing by the prophet Elisha who was based in Samaria (before its rupture from Israel). Elisha does not heal him directly but asks Naaman to wash in the river. He eventually complies, is healed and goes on to praise the God of Israel as the one true God. The parallels with the Gospel text are significant: a Gentile leper, a healing prophet restoring an outsider, a non-instant cure, Samaria, and the praising of God and an expression of gratitude. The evangelist appears to be deliberate in constructing the text on the pattern of the 2 Kings narrative, and also in association with the healing of the leper in Luke 5:12-16.
Characters & setting
At least one leper was Samaritan. The ethnicity of the others is not clear. Some may also have been Samaritans. However, Jesus’ reference to returning one being foreigner indicates that at least some of the others, if not all nine, were Jews. The Samaritan leper was doubly marginal, excluded by race as well as by the skin disease. Once again, in this Gospel, as in the earlier well-known parable (Luke 10:29-37) there is with a ‘good’ Samaritan whose response can be contrasted with that of the Jewish characters.
All ten lepers show faith. They come uncommonly close to the entrance of the village; they call Jesus by name, just as the thief on the cross who obtains salvation will do (Lk 23:39-43); and they call him ‘Master’, which only his disciples ever do elsewhere in Luke; and they ask for his mercy. They follow Jesus’ direction and are made clean while on their journey to the priests. Presumably they return to their families, village and to worship. However, the Samaritan, even though physically healed, cannot journey to the heart of Israel so he “turns back” and finds much more.
The meaning of miracles
The miracles of Jesus are manifestations of God’s power and mercy and signs of God’s Kingdom. The literary form of the healing miracles follows a stylised presentation that would have assisted memorisation in the period of the oral tradition. This text follows that pattern: a description of the setting and ailment; the way Jesus does the healing; the public evidence of and praising God for the miracle.
The miracle of the ten lepers reflects the limited perceptions of the day. The ten have a skin disease but not Hansen’s disease which was not present in Palestine. Jesus does not directly proclaim and secure immediate healing, so the dramatic impact is less. However, medical analysis is never the point in a miracle. The event described is a manifestation of God’s power and mercy and another of the many signs of the Kingdom. This is evident through the whole message of the Gospel of Luke but is explained in a couple of passages. John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord, a time when all people will see the salvation of God (Lk 3:3-6). John’s disciples reported Jesus healings of the centurion’s servant and the raising of the widow’s son (Lk 7:1-17), so John sent two disciples to Jesus to ask, “are you the one … or are we to wait for another?” Jesus’ reply is instructive of miracles as signs of God’s promise and the Kingdom:
And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.Lk 7: 18-22
Praising God’s mercy
The above can be amplified by consideration of the poetic songs of Mary (Lk 1:46-55, especially 1.50; 1;54; 1:58) and Zechariah (Lk 1: 67-79) in the first chapter of Luke. They praise God and announce the time of God’s promise, a time of showing God’s distinctive attribute, mercy:
And you, child [Jesus], will be called the prophet of the Most High;Lk 1: 76-78
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us …
The ten lepers ask for the mercy of God through Jesus. The returning Samaritan leper praises God. Luke’s favourite response to a miracle is people praising God. It is the response impelled by a display of God’s mercy promised in chapter one. In Lk 18:35-43 a blind beggar also asks for Jesus’ mercy; Jesus declares that “your faith has saved you” and the beggar and the crowds praise God. (See also Lk 5:18-26; Lk 7:11-16; and Lk 13:10-13.)
Your faith “has made you well” or “has saved you”
One thing that has not changed for the returning one is his or her identity as a Samaritan. Still an outcast, this foreigner in typical Lukan style sees in a way that the others do not, perceiving the presence of the Kingdom of God in the person and actions of Jesus. It is more than the human courtesy of returning to give thanks to Jesus. The act of faith is to give praise to God for this display of tender mercy. The prostration at the feet of Jesus has the hint of an act of worship. Jesus’ regret about the other nine is that they did not give such praise to God, not that they did not thank Jesus. All ten had enough initial faith to seek healing but the Samaritan’s praise and thanks are the measure of the faith that draws Jesus’ final comment.
Verse 19 is variously translated as ‘your faith has made you well’ (here in the NRSV), your faith has saved you’ (eg, the Jerusalem Bible, used at Mass) or ‘your faith has made you whole’. The Greek verb generally refers to being ‘rescued from disease’ or ‘kept alive’. (It is of interest that the NRSV translates the same verb as ‘has saved’ in the other displays of divine power and mercy (Lk 7:36-50; Lk8:40-48; Lk 18:35-43).
Translations that give ‘saved’ recognise that the word must mean something other than the deliverance from disease because all ten lepers had already received that. Translating for a fuller meaning in the Lukan community, they draw on Luke’s recurring reference to the promise of salvation. Beyond physical healing or rescue, salvation for Luke most of all means coming to know God in a new way as the God who saves. The Samaritan who returns really comes to the ‘knowledge of salvation’ referred to in Zechariah’s song above (1.77).
The message was clear for Luke’s community. From now on the saving action of God’s favour is open to all, Jews and Gentiles, solely by faith in Jesus. What was implied in 2Kg 5:8-19, provocatively proposed by Jesus in Lk 4.27, and expressed in Lk 7.22 has now being received: God’s salvation is for all peoples.