At some point you have probably heard a story about someone who won a huge jackpot in the lottery. They win more money than they have ever dreamed of in their lives, and they are overjoyed by their new found wealth. Inevitably they find that they are suddenly much more popular. Their families make sure that they spend time with the lottery winner and do their best not to make them mad, because if they do they might not get to share in the winnings.
Old friends from high school and from their old jobs start showing up, eager to “catch up” and rekindle the friendship that they once had. The lottery winner suddenly feels like they are the most popular person ever. The sad thing that many lottery winners discover is that once the money is gone, so are all their “friends”. The friends really didn’t care about them at all, they were just looking to get something from them.
This morning we will be looking at a story that involves much the same dynamic. We will see Jesus grant healing to ten lepers, most of whom were more excited for the healing they had received than they were about the one who had given it to them.
As we begin the story we read that Jesus was making his final trip to Jerusalem when he was getting ready to enter a village near the border of Samaria and Galilee. Verse 12 tells us,
As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (Luke 17:12-13, NIV)
You may already know something about leprosy in the Bible, but it is important to mention a few things because they will help our understanding of the story. First, leprosy in the Bible may or may not be the disease we would call leprosy (or Hansen’s disease) today. It was a blanket term used of contagious skin diseases. Regardless of the exact medical definition, the Jewish law was very clear about how contagious skin diseases were to be dealt with.
Anyone who had such a disease was to go and be examined by the priests, and if it was determined that the disease was not going to go away any time soon, the person was deemed unclean. They could no longer be part of civilized society. They had to live outside the town to ensure they did not infect others with their disease. To make sure they didn’t spread the disease they had to constantly keep their distance and cry out, “Unclean!” when anyone came near. Needless to say, this was a depressing and demeaning kind of life.
If you add to the social pressures of leprosy the potential physical pressures, you realize the horror of such a diagnosis. If the disease they had was like our modern-day leprosy, these people would begin to lose sensation in their extremities and start to have deformities caused by injuries as well as the course of the disease. Since they couldn’t feel their fingers and toes they would do things that would injure them without even knowing it. Their fingers and toes might become mangled by repeated injuries and covered in ulcerous sores. They hardly looked human after the disease had been allowed to run its course for a long time.
This is what the people Jesus came across were probably like. There were ten men who were probably living together in a kind of camp outside the city since no one else was allowed to be near them. As Jesus approached, they kept their distance, but called out together in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” The fact that these men called out to Jesus indicates that they believed he could do something about their condition.
Maybe they had heard the stories of others who had been healed of leprosy; surely they had heard the reputation of this teacher named Jesus. They must have known that this man could heal people with all sorts of infirmities. When they found out that the man walking into the village was Jesus, they must have yelled with all their might for him to come and help them. They weren’t going to wait to see if he came over—they knew this was their one and only shot at healing, and they weren’t going to leave it to chance.
In verse 14, we see what happened,
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
It’s not surprising to most of us that Jesus healed these people—he had made a habit of healing people who asked him to do so. What is interesting in this account, however, is how he healed them. He did not touch them; he didn’t pronounce healing on the spot. Rather, he told them to go and show themselves to the priests.
This command makes little sense to us, but it made sense in the context of the Jewish law. Since not all skin diseases were permanent, there was a provision in the law for a person to be declared cured. When they believed the skin disease was gone, they were to go to the priest to be examined. If the priest agreed the disease was gone, they would have to spend a period of time under observation to be sure it didn’t come back. If, after the allotted time had passed and the priest still could find no trace of the skin disease, they would be declared clean, and would be permitted back into the society.
So Jesus’ command to the lepers is interesting. He told them to go to the priest before they had been healed. He was basically telling them to act in faith, believing that somehow they would be cleansed. Apparently all ten of the lepers did as they were told. They all believed in Jesus enough to take him at his word, even though it really didn’t make much sense from a human perspective.
In the Old Testament story of Naaman, we see a similar command, but a different response. Naaman had a leprous spot and came to the prophet Elisha to have it cleansed. Elisha told him to do something that made no sense—to go and wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Rather than being grateful for the promise of healing, Naaman got mad, believing that Elisha was toying with him. He railed against Elisha to his servants, asking what made the Jordan River so special. He asked why the prophet was so lazy that he wouldn’t even come out to wave his hand over him and heal him. Eventually his servants convinced him to follow Elisha’s instructions, and when he did, God healed him, just as the prophet had said.
In the account in Luke, we don’t have any indication that these ten men argued with Jesus. They may have been somewhat reluctant to do what he said, thinking that they would be embarrassed to show up before the priest without having been healed, but they did it anyway.
The result was that all of these men were healed. They did what Jesus told them to do, even though it didn’t make much sense from a human perspective. They knew that the only chance they had at healing was to do what Jesus said. When they did, they received blessing.
All ten of the men were apparently healed of their leprosy, but the story doesn’t end there. Instead, we see one man’s response to Jesus’ healing.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. (Luke 17:15-16, NIV)
Of the ten men, only one came running back to Jesus to thank him. The others were apparently so focused on their physical healing that the prospect of going back to thank the healer probably never occurred to them. I imagine these men suddenly dancing in the streets at the fact that their leprosy was gone. They probably began to imagine being able to go home and spend time with their wives and kids, about being able to go back to work, about being allowed to spend time with their friends. They knew that the quicker they could get to the priest, the quicker they could get back to life as usual.
The Samaritan who was healed thought it best to run back to Jesus and fall at his feet in gratitude—probably before he’d even been to the priest. This man seemed to recognize that he had been healed of leprosy, but that something even greater had happened—he had met God himself. He realized that not only had he received healing of his physical ailment, but that God had taken the time to care about him. So he ran back to Jesus, praising God and thanking Him. I don’t think he was just thanking Jesus for taking away his leprosy, I think there was something even more important to this man.
When he arrived before Jesus and thanked him for what he’d done, Jesus responded almost with sadness—not sadness that this man had come to thank him, but that the others did not.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:17-19, NIV)
Jesus was saddened that the only one who responded to the healing he had given was this Samaritan man. The simple way to look at this passage is to conclude that Jesus wants us to come back to him and thank him for what he’s done in our lives. While I think that’s true, I also think there’s more to this story than just asking people to come back and thank him. All of them were certainly grateful for the healing—I think Jesus recognized that the man who came back to thank Him was grateful for more than just being cleansed of leprosy.
The Samaritan man seemed to recognize that there was an opportunity for something even greater than just physical healing. He realized that there was an opportunity for spiritual restoration. The most important thing for the nine was being able to get back to life as usual, being able to get back to their families, and being able to be accepted again in the eyes of the world. The most important thing to the Samaritan man was that he could have a relationship with God.
As a result of this man’s response, Jesus told him to get up and go because his faith had made him well. Some translators point out that the literal translation of these words is, “your faith has saved you.” I think Jesus was pointing out that this man received more than just cleansing from leprosy—he had been made well, he had been saved, he had experienced forgiveness and a new relationship with God.
There are several applications we can draw from this story. First is that not everyone who trusts God for blessing trusts Him for salvation. The ten lepers all appear to demonstrate great faith. They truly believed that Jesus could heal them. Jesus told them to go and do something that didn’t make much sense from a human perspective but they went anyway. And because of their faithful obedience they were all cleansed from their leprosy.
The problem, however, is that they were demonstrating faith in the fact that Jesus could heal them, and no more. These men took the first steps of faith but then got distracted by the things of the world. In the terms of Jesus’ parable of the sower (cf. Luke 8), these men would probably be the seeds who that fell among the rocks and shriveled from a lack of roots or the ones that were choked out by the weeds. They started in the right direction but got distracted by the things of the world.
Not everyone who experiences God’s blessing necessarily comes to know Him. There are lots of people known as “foxhole Christians.” These are people who pray sincerely for God’s help in a crisis but when the crisis passes so does their faith. The term comes from a soldier who finds himself pinned down by enemy fire. As he takes cover in a foxhole and sees the bullets flying past him and the bombs bursting around him, he cries out to God, saying, “If you’ll just get me out of this, I’ll follow you for the rest of my life!” For many of these people, after God delivers them and allows them to survive, they continue on as though nothing ever happened. The truth is that foxhole Christians aren’t really Christians at all.
This behavior isn’t limited to soldiers in times of war though. Some people are dramatically healed of a disease like cancer or some other chronic illness. The doctors say there is nothing they can do, so they pray that God will heal them—but once they are healed, they forget about him completely. Or there may be people who pray that God would provide a way out of a difficult financial situation. They believe that God can help them and He may provide them with a job or some other means of making ends meet. These people pray fervently during the crisis and may start attending church regularly but often they will turn away from God once things are comfortable again.
These are the kind of people who draw close to God each time there is a crisis, but then walk away once things are back to normal. They demonstrate faith that God can give them what they want, but not faith that God is the Lord of the universe and should be worshiped in the way we live each day. These kinds of people may experience God’s blessing, but they are not true believers.
The second lesson is that even believers often focus on the benefits of Christ when we should focus on Christ himself. The difference between the leper who returned and the nine who did not was what was most important to them. The nine did not focus on who Jesus was they only focused on what He had done for them. Even true followers of Christ can find themselves falling into this trap—we begin to drift away from worshiping God because of who He is and start getting focused on what He promises to give us.
Think about the way we often present the gospel. We tell people that they should come to Jesus because He can change your life, “If you’ll just follow Jesus, he’ll take care of you.” Or we say that people should turn to Jesus because he’ll help them through the hard times. These are true statements, but they miss the point! People will never truly follow Jesus if they are primarily concerned about what they can get from Him. We should worship and honor Christ because He is the Savior, Redeemer, the One who made the universe! We should worship Him because He is worthy of our worship, not because He will bless us if we do.
The others in the story put the greatest importance on themselves, while the Samaritan leper put God first. That is the difference. As believers, we need to guard against the tendency to focus on the blessings rather than the One who blesses.
Third, sometimes the people who respond to the gospel are not who we’d expect. The Samaritans were not well thought of in Israel. They were not considered to be as devoted to God as the Jews were. As a matter of fact, Jews generally wouldn’t even talk to Samaritans because they felt it would defile them. What is surprising in this passage is that the one person who responded to Jesus was a Samaritan—a person deemed by the Jews to be unconcerned about the things of God, a person who was a sinner.
This is a reminder that often the people who are most willing to follow Christ are the ones who appear farthest from Him. The people who find forgiveness so appealing are the ones who feel they need to be forgiven most. It is very easy for religious people to conclude we only need God to do the “big things” because we are ok on our own. It is easy to fall into the trap that God owes us or that we can handle things. We need to be careful not to become like the nine, only turning to Jesus when we need something from Him. We must recognize that we have a constant need for Christ—and we should follow Him accordingly. We should also guard against writing off someone as too far gone, because we may be surprised at who responds in true faith.
This passage is one that is difficult because it seems to indicate that not everyone who receives blessings from God is necessarily a follower of God. Sometimes people will follow Him only as long as they will continue to get something from Him.
It’s a lot like the way people treat a lottery winner. They are grateful for what he can give them but they have little interest in him beyond that. Jesus points out that even though we can receive blessings from God without really following Him, we will only find life the way it was meant to be if we take advantage of the relationship he offers us.
Here’s the question we must ask: if we were one of the ten lepers would we have been content with the healing or would we have come back to get to know the Healer? Would you have been more excited to get back to your family, your job, or your friends, or would you have gone back to Jesus first?
We have to ask—are we using God? Are we seeing only what He can give us while missing the splendor of who He is? If you think you might be the way you are living, let me give you some suggestions of how to move forward.
- View obedience to God’s commands as a way to honor God rather than as a way to earn points toward blessing.
- Use your prayer time to get to know God rather than merely giving Him a list of what you want.
- Make it a point each day to list the specific things for which you are grateful and turn back to God each day to show appreciation to Him.
- Read the Bible seeking to know the person of God, rather than just looking for promises of how God will bless you.
- Try to make a list of reasons you should worship God that have nothing to do with what He can give you.
We need to change the way we view our faith. We need to work at consistently putting God first in our lives, not because it will benefit us, but because He is worthy of our worship. As you go into this week work at becoming more like the Samaritan than the other nine lepers. Be grateful for what He has given you, but also for the fact that He wants a relationship with you. Strive to live for Him…without asking what’s in it for you.