On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as He entered a village, He was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When He saw them He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:11–19).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Every year, the appointed Gospel reading for Thanksgiving is the cleansing of the ten lepers. That’s too bad, for there are many Gospel readings that could help us to give thanks. It’s true, of course, that we aren’t as thankful as we should be. But a sermon on this text can easily be reduced to an exhortation to be more like the lone Samaritan. “Be more thankful” becomes the focus, and you end up going home thinking more about your need to give thanks than about Jesus. And it’s never a good idea for Jesus to take a back seat to anyone or anything in a service or sermon. No, this text is about something better than good manners.
The story about the ten lepers talks about giving thanks and praising God. But it is also a story about leprosy. Isolation. Sin. Healing. Forgiveness. Underneath it all, it is really about restoration and getting close to Jesus.
The lepers stood at a distance from Jesus. Leprosy was an individual and social disease. It produced open sores on the skin and could eventually cause parts of the limbs to fall off. Because it was known to be contagious, the law of Moses specified that a leprous person was unclean and required them to live “outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:1-17, 45-46). In our day, leprosy is easily treated with antibiotics. In Jesus’ day, the rabbis suggested that curing leprosy was as difficult and unlikely as raising someone from the dead. Between physical damage, social isolation, and religious impurity, leprosy obviously caused a great deal of suffering. Regarded as living under God’s curse (as those who were “unclean”), these people existed on the margins of society; they were ostracized and avoided.
Like leprosy, sin is an individual and social disease. But it is a disease with 100% infection rate. Sin, humanly speaking, is as unlikely to be cured and eliminated as raising someone from the dead. Sin infects us individually, ruins our thinking, speaking, and acting. Short tempers, impatience, and rash reactions are results of our sinfulness. Cool, calculating deceptions are too.
Sin also isolates us from others. Gossip, jealousy, and unkind words destroy friendships. Self-centeredness, power struggles, and adultery ruin marriages. Disrespect, distrust, and insecurities cause rifts between children and parents.
Most important, sin isolates us from God. Our sin separates us from our Lord. If left untreated, sin would separate us from God forever.
The lepers did not presume to rush up to Jesus or grab Him and demand healing. They were humble, acknowledging their distance, their uncleanness, their leprosy. They cried out and begged. But notice: unlike the leper in Luke 5:12, who begged for cleansing, their cry was for mercy: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13).
We, as sinners do the same. We come before the Lord, humbly acknowledging our sin, our uncleanness. We do not presume or demand anything or try to earn mercy. We beg and cry out for mercy.
The Divine Service is a weekly living example of this. What comes first in the liturgy? Distance! We acknowledge we are far away from our Lord. We are poor, miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. We cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition. We pray that for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ, our merciful God would have mercy on us. And in the Kyrie, we sing the same words spoken by the lepers: “Lord, have mercy.”
How does Jesus react to our cry? Does He keep His distance? Run away like a child who sees something disgusting? Avoid defiling Himself as would a pious Pharisee? No, leprosy and sin do not push Jesus away from us (Luke 17:14a). He speaks words of healing to the unclean lepers: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” He promises, “I will make you clean. Go!” (Luke 17:14b).
In cleansing lepers, Jesus teaches several things that are helpful for us to learn about Him and His work of salvation. First, the miracle is a sign that the messianic era of salvation is present in Jesus (Luke 7:2). Second, the cleansing comes from Jesus, whose holy flesh reaches out in compassion and mercy to a leper. The one who is “clean” crosses over the boundary to one who is “unclean” in order to make him clean. Third, Jesus supersedes the Old Testament holiness code (Leviticus 12-26) with His own holiness. Fourth, the physical cleansing of these lepers is connected to spiritual cleansing as Jesus sends them to the priests.
Leviticus 14:1-32 states that a healed leper was to show himself to the priests and offer sacrifice. Jesus’ purpose in sending these lepers to the priests is to fulfill the Old Testament, but also to do something more. Jesus wanted the cleansed lepers to go to the place of sacrifice (Luke 5:14) and offer as testimony that corresponding spiritual healing accompanies the physical healing He bestows. The sacrifices in the temple would include the shedding of blood, looking forward to the cleansing atonement of the Messiah, who was traveling to Jerusalem to offer His blood as the final, once-for-all cleansing. Jesus wanted the priests in the temple to confirm that the miracle had taken place. The miracle would also confirm that Jesus is who He says He is: The one who cleanses the entire sin of humanity.
In this instance, the cleansing happened while the ten lepers are traveling to the temple. They went by faith, having confidence from Jesus’ previous healing that they too would be healed as they followed His command to go to the temple. Their sacrifices would foreshadow Jesus’ own blood sacrifice in fulfillment of Moses and the entire Old Testament (Luke 5:14; 24:27, 44).
To us, Jesus gives cleansing through the words of absolution: “I forgive you all your sins.” Sin doesn’t push Jesus away; He comes and takes our sin, no matter how disgusting it is, no matter how disfigured it has made us. He takes it to bear it; He dies for it. Sin does not push Him away; Jesus wants us to give Him our sin and cry out to Him in confession so that He may forgive us.
So, then we have an invitation to get close to Jesus.
The story ends with the one leper returning in thanksgiving and falling at the feet of Jesus in worship (Luke 17:15-19). The distance was gone—even for this foreigner, this Samaritan—taken away by Christ’s words of healing. We can imagine the former leper, the former outcast from Israel even by his nationality, grabbing hold of Jesus in profound worship and love. The former leper and Jesus had been united and are knit together.
The irony here is this: the ten lepers were happy to journey to the temple with the expectation that they would be cleansed, but only one leper, after the cleansing, was willing to return to give glory to God—God in the person of Jesus, whose presence in the world and whose sacrifice on the cross would bring an end to temple worship. And the chief irony is this: the one who returned was a “foreigner,” a Samaritan, an outcast. He responded in faith, as did the Good Samaritan, who responded in compassion and love (Luke 10:33).
One of the chief functions of the holiness code in Leviticus 12-26 was to separate Israel, the clean people of God, from the unclean Gentiles. Circumcision, the kosher dietary laws, and the many liturgies for various kinds of cleansing all set Israel apart from the other nations. However, just as Jesus crossed the boundary separating clean from unclean when He touched the leper in Luke 5:12-16, so too Jesus’ cleansing of the Samaritan and His reception of the Samaritan’s worship showed that another Old Testament boundary has been crossed.
Jesus brings a new kind of holiness. It is not a holiness based on circumcision, dietary law, or the Jerusalem temple with its priests and sacrifices. Rather, it is a holiness based on His own person as the Son of God and on His sacrifice as the perfect, unblemished Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. The holiness of Jesus, given to all who will be baptized in His name, will transcend all ethnic and cultural boundaries as it purifies the people of God’s new covenant in Christ (Galatians 3:27-29).
Some—all too many, in fact—like nine out of ten lepers—miss or ignore this invitation to be close to Jesus. They do not realize the significance of what has happened to them. God’s Kingdom has arrived in Jesus. The very next passage (Luke 17:20-21) reinforces that message. Jesus is the very presence of God in human flesh, in the world, among humans.
Certainly, all ten lepers were overjoyed at the cleansing of their leprosy; however, only the Samaritan came back giving thanks to Jesus. He recognized the One giving the healing was most important. Jesus says to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Or even better translated, “your faith has saved you. The Samaritan was restored not only to physical health, but life also to the life of the community.
In the Lord’s graciousness to us, the greatest gift that He desires us to see is the gift of Himself through His cross and resurrection, in which He has accomplished eternal healing. The Samaritan’s reaction is more than good manners. Brought to faith he bows down at the Lord’s feet in worship, praising God, and giving thanks to Jesus.
The nine received healing, but they miss this greater restoration. They miss the opportunity for being in the Lord’s immediate presence, because giving thanks is really about being close to Jesus. He has brought us close by healing and forgiving us by His death. Now we’re free to grab Him, hold Him, to every moment being close to the one who gives such good gifts.
What a shame when instead of drawing close, we go on with our business: Forgetting to worship our Lord. Mumbling through our prayers. Not returning to Him even the one dollar out of ten. Isolating ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ. We miss all the gifts He has to give us.
But Jesus forgives us for even these sins. He draws closer to us. The distance between us and Jesus is removed by His cross and His words of forgiveness. We still have that invitation to come to Him in praise, thanksgiving, and worship, with no boundaries separating us. We can be confident and joyful that He is with us always; that nothing can separate us from His love.
This text gives us a glimpse, a preview of God’s plan in Christ to restore His broken creation to its physical and social perfection. The cleansing of the lepers serves as a prelude to what will happen on the Last Day when Christ returns to restore all things. With Jesus’ resurrection as the foundation of our hope and the first fruit of a greater restoration, let us lift our vision beyond ourselves to proclaim the promise of God’s plan to make all things new on the great Last Day.
Who do you know that is feeling broken and alone? Who do you know that is far away from the Lord or who is in the process of moving farther away from the Lord? Who do you know that is suffering physically, emotionally, or spiritually? In the next few months, by God’s grace, we’re going to make a concerted effort to learn how to better reach out to them with the Good News of Christ crucified for the sins of the world. We’re going to begin by focusing especially closest to home. Reaching out to those sheep who seem to have strayed from our flock, with the Shepherding Our Strays workshop on November 17th at Our Saviour’s. The training we receive will help us reach out to many others in the community as well. I hope that you will prayerfully consider joining in this effort.
The story about the ten lepers is our story. The one leper who returns is, by the grace of God, who we are called to be. This service, this liturgy we take part in, is a liturgy of thanksgiving and praise for our Lord’s healing words spoken to us that remove the leprosy of sin. We are clean, forgiven, holy, and free! We are free to come to our Lord and praise Him, to thank Him that He is with us, that He and we are one. We are close to Jesus now and always. Thanks be to God!
Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well. Share the Good News! You are clean. You are restored. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.