“Thanks!” Means “We’re Dunzo!”—Misunderstanding the Samaritan Leper

“Thanks!” Means “We’re Dunzo!”—Misunderstanding the Samaritan Leper October 12, 2019
Thanks in American
Photo by Courtney Hedger on Unsplash

Thanks??!!—Because Western Bible readers use the expression “thank you” differently than does traditional Middle Eastern culture, invariably, we misunderstand the Samaritan Leper.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke 17:11-19, is often mistaken for being a story concerning expressing thanks. It is a story about ten people—nine Israelites and a hated outsider—with a polluting skin condition. All are healed; one gives thanks. Whatever the biological nature of the condition was, it almost definitely was not Hansen’s disease. Perhaps it was what we would call psoriasis.

In the whole New Testament, only one person ever thanks Jesus. And he was not even considered Israelite!

Luke 11:15-18
And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God (doxazōn ton Theon) in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him (eucharistōn autō). He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give glory to God (dounai doxan tō Theō)?”

But look how the New American Bible Revised Edition translates:

NABRE Luke 11:15-8
And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice, and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?

No Thanks for Bad Translations

The NABRE has a disastrous translation of Luke 17:18—dounai doxan tō Theō. The Lukan Jesus was not asking “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” In its desire to make the text say “Jesus is God!” the NABRE puts words into Jesus’ mouth that don’t match the Greek text.

This Samaritan would never have given thanks to God. While biblical people were very much indebted to God, and grateful to God, to say “Thank You!” to God was equivalent to suicide. We will see why below. Rather,  the Samaritan THANKS Jesus, but he GLORIFIES ( = HONORS) God.

The Fourth Gospel informs us of important cultural background—“Judeans have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). The late scholar John Pilch says that this Samaritan was probably in the “wrong place at the right time.” Through Jesus’ brokerage (mediation), he receives healing along with the nine Israelites. This Samaritan is quite aware that he has a snowball’s chance in hell of ever seeing Jesus again. And we will soon learn that this is why he gave thanks to Jesus.

So the Samaritan praises God, the Source of his healing, and returns to thank Jesus (Luke 17:11-19), something he would never do to God. Reading the text honestly, we see that Jesus is silent about the Samaritan’s gratitude or it being missing in the nine. Homilists exploring this story are fond of focusing on gratitude or its lack. In doing so, they miss the point.

Why do Western commentators, teachers, and preachers invariably misunderstand and misinterpret this story?

Time-travel and Giving Thanks

So imagine that you are a 21st century Westerner who has access to a time machine. Say you go back in time to the first century Galilee, the New Testament world of Jesus. Let’s assume you can speak Aramaic fluently. You make friends with the locals and spend years living there, walking around Galilean villages, studying their ways. One day, you meet up with a friend who is a relatively well-off peasant with about eight acres of ancestral farmland.

This native greets you in typical Middle Eastern fashion: “My friend, the sun could not rise this morning without me seeing your face.” He follows this cheesiness up with three other compliments, each more excessive than the first.

And what do you do? Recall that you are an American—so exaggerated and glowing are his words, it all sounds pretty embarrassing and corny to you. But you smile back at him and tell your friend, in perfect American fashion, “THANK YOU!”

Your friend reacts to this by going silent. He becomes dark in the face. Angrily he glares at you and then, without explanation, stomps off. Why? Because you just insulted him. You told him you wanted to end the relationship. No matter what you meant to do, that is what you communicated.

Grateful Americans Coming to Dinner

Another example: say you don’t have a time machine and thus cannot travel back in time to first century Syro-Palestine. That is just like Richard Rohrbaugh and his colleagues of the Context Group of Biblical scholars. They have no time machines either. But they have the next best thing—decades of fieldwork in the closest reality to a living laboratory of the ancient Mediterranean world of the Bible, namely, the present-day Middle East.

So imagine just like Dr. Rohrbaugh and friends that you have lived for years in the Levant, working nearby Jerusalem. Your wealthy friend in Occupied Palestine invites you and your spouse to dinner at his home. This is a great honor. So you and your spouse, both Americans, go. Before arriving for dinner you grab some flowers as a gift. Reaching their residence, you knock on the door, and your friend’s father opens up. With honest smiles beaming on your faces, you present the old Palestinian man with the flowers.

Your friend’s father is visibly shocked. In unmistakable rage he takes the flowers and slams the door in your faces. You look to your spouse baffled. Before either of you can comment, male voices behind the door yell angrily in Palestinian Arabic.

Bad to Worse

Suddenly, the door bursts open revealing a young man you haven’t met before, possibly your friend’s brother. There is no hello. Outraged, he stares at you, and in a loud voice booming six inches from your face, asks: “Why would you insult my father in this way?” Before you can even realize what he asked, he slams the door in your face. Behind it, again you hear the terse arguing in their native tongue.

Finally the door opens once more. The old man and the younger son are back. The older man is holding his prayer beads, a treasured possession. With the younger man watching, this patriarch of the house presents you with his beads. Receiving them, still bewildered, out from your mouth comes the automatic American response, “THANK YOU.” You note the younger man reacts by rolling his eyes.

Sounds strange? This experience is exactly what happened to Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh and his wife, Mary. An extremely uncomfortable dinner followed. Can you guess why the Rohrbaughs were never invited back?

The Culturally-Specific Meanings of “Thank You”

Gratitude is panhuman but it is expressed quite differently by various cultures. John Pilch defined gratitude as a human response to kindnesses experienced or favors received. However, various societies see different meanings and ways to gratitude.

Americans say “thank you” and “thanks” all the time. We think that this way of ours is universal, but in some parts of the world no expression of “thanks” exists. If a culture deems there is no need for it, why would it trouble itself with inventing expressions for it? In many parts of the world beneficent social actions toward others is seen as fulfilling one’s social obligations. In other words, if I receive something, I deserved it!—that’s why I received it. No acknowledgement of this is required.

If you think about it, you should be able to see why some cultures might understand overtly expressing “thanks” places a finite value on the gifts you receive. This is because it may reduce the significance of the gift. In some parts of the world, like certain regions of India, saying “thank you” means you are ending a social relationship. In collectivistic societies, this could be dangerous, flirting with suicide. Would anyone want to “thank God” in this sense?

Consider: How can one be certain that one won’t need the help of this donor again at some future time? The nine Israelites who were healed lack a guarantee that their polluting skin condition will not come back. If it does, they will have to see the folk healer Jesus once again! Therefore, why would they terminate their relationship with Jesus by telling him thank you?

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Reciprocity

An Arab proverb illustrates well the Biblical understanding of “thank you” at work in this Sunday’s Gospel: “Don’t thank me; you will repay me.” The prevailing cultural idea is, I do you a favor or give you a gift, and by accepting it, you owe me a favor in return.

Put another way, the cultural idea is when you repay me, I owe you another favor, another gift, and so on without end. This is called informal dyadic contract. In this constant social exchange of obligatory reciprocal giving, bonds of human relationships strengthen. You see this handsomely in the Godfather movies.

The Godfather Trilogy and Reciprocal Giving

In The Godfather we learn that Nazorine the Baker sought the favor of his Patron, Don Vito Corleone, to help him with a problem. It was 1945. A young Sicilian, Enzo Aguello, a POW relocated to the States to help the war effort, had found work at Nazorine’s bakery in Little Italy, New York. But Enzo soon became infatuated with Nazorine’s daughter, Katherine. When the war ended, Enzo was going to be repatriated back to his native Sicily. More than ruining a romance, this would lead to scandal for Nazorine and his ruined daughter.

Fearing that his daughter and Enzo would elope, or conceive a child, Nazorine visited the powerful Don Vito Corleone. The Don ensured Nazorine that Enzo would remain in the States via his political connections. In doing this, Don Vito became Enzo’s patron.

Some time after, when Don Vito was shot up in an attempted Mob hit, he clung to life in hospital. Dutifully, Enzo visited his patron, finding the Don’s youngest son, Michael, alone in the building.

Realizing the danger, loyal Enzo stays. In a gesture of lifelong indebtedness for his Godfather, Enzo risks his life standing guard outside the hospital.

Nazorine the baker retired in the 1950s, and Enzo took over his bakery. Soon after, the new Don and Patron Michael Corleone made Enzo head pastry chef at one of the Corleone family’s top Las Vegas casinos, the Castle in the Clouds. Then, in 1979, when Don Michael Corleone received the Order of St. Sebastian, the ever-loyal Enzo prepared an enormous cake for the celebrations. Everyone knew who the cake was from. This is how it is in the Biblical world as well.

Individualistic Thanks

Anthropologists inform us that mainstream United States people, the most individualistic culture ever, are very different. At every turn in our social lives, we work to keep social obligations at a minimum. Our American “thank you” does not include or imply any obligation of social reciprocation, even though it does indeed express gratitude. As far as personal obligations to others go, we American individualists work very hard to avoid them.

We avoid “getting involved,” but even when we do, we would rather do it anonymously, like pooling donations in care for disaster relief. In corporate America this is seen also in the anonymity and “obligation-freedom” in “secret Santas,” birthdays, and wedding showers. Both donors and recipients remain free of excessive obligations. While someone hurting may gratefully receive benefits from some charity organization, they experience no obligations to the charity or its contributors.

This makes United States people and Christians here an anomaly among world cultures. Beyond the United States, almost everywhere else in world people see human relationships devoid of obligation as being insignificant. For most people on earth—including our New Testament ancestors in the faith—it would be nonsense to give anonymously. It would be meaningless. A gift without inconveniencing the donor holds little to no significance for the recipient.

Why American Thank You Doesn’t Work in the Bible

This background information helps explain the examples above. The hypothetical time traveling American in first century Syro-Palestine angers his Israelite friend because he is being an “ugly American tourist.” By saying “thank you” to the four compliments, instead of matching them, his friend infers that their friendship is over! By not even trying to match the four complements, the American conveys that this peasant isn’t worth the effort!

The Rohrbaughs were never invited back because their proper response to the great honor of a dinner invitation is not matching it with a culturally-inappropriate gift (flowers)! Showing up is the culturally-appropriate response to the invitation. The flowers were interpreted as an honor-challenge to the family, the donors, who now must match that gift (painfully, with the more precious prayer beads). And their typical American “thank you” iced the cake on this disastrous exchange. “Thank you” in the traditional Middle East means, “Get the hell out our lives!”

Concerning the Samaritan’s Thanks

Back to this Sunday’s Gospel, the anonymous author we call “Luke” reports ten people suffering scaly skin sickness, seen as a social malady that pollutes rather than a disease that makes one contagious. Approaching the folk healer Jesus, they ask for mercy (v. 13). In other words, they are asking Jesus to get God to fulfill his cultural interpersonal obligation by making them, his kin-like clients, clean so as to be restored to community (Matthew 8:1-2; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16). In the Bible, asking for “Mercy!” means, “Give me what I am owed!”

There isn’t any mystery in the cultural world of the Gospels who alone does the healing—it can only be the God of Israel. As shamanic folk healer, Jesus is the “Tom Hagen” who gets you into see the Don. Jesus is therefore the “door” or broker or intermediary.

Nine of the ten healed go to Jerusalem so that, in the presence of the priests, they can give “praise to God.” But not the Samaritan. He gives “praise God” in the presence of the broker, Jesus. There is no way a Samaritan would have gained entry to the Temple to offer a sacrifice of lifelong indebtedness (wrongly called “thanksgiving”) to the God of Israel. And who would “give thanks” to God in this ancient Biblical sense of thanks? Terminate relations with God, the source of life? That’s suicide!

It was a fluke that he met Jesus in the first place! Indeed, wisely, the Samaritan recognizes it would be impossible to repay the Galilean folk healer. If and when this scaly skin condition returned—and it just might!—he would not be able to approach Jesus, unlike the nine Judeans, who, belonging to Jesus’ ingroup, could approach him at any time, anywhere. Likely, this chance meeting would never happen again!


The best and only thing that the healed Samaritan can do is thank Jesus. The social situation is terminated not out of rudeness or carelessness, but as final goodbye of gratitude. Samaritans and Galileans do no live or work together.

Surprisingly, perhaps in a way that would surprise the Matthean Jesus, the Lukan Jesus welcomes the healed Samaritan into the Jesus group.







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  • Sorry, your idea seems to fall flat for me. Here’s why:

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    As the Context Scholars say, “Whenever you move the language, you necessarily change the meaning. Whether it is words or sentences, language only means what it means where and when you use it.” Once someone from a collectivistic culture lives in the highly introspective, individualistic West, assimilation begins. What do we know about the presenter’s past? Barak–does that mean AMERICAN or WESTERN THANKS with all the culturally specific values I detail above? Or does it mean PRAISE? Does the semitic BRK come from a win-guilt culture like ours in the West? Or does it come from an HONOR-SHAME culture like her place of origin? How PRAGMATIC are her off-the-cuff translations? So here is the start of a response to your understandable oversimplification:


    And if it is so very easy to translate from one language to another, why are there so many different English Bible translations, even those approved of by those authorities representing the same Bible translation? Does the Spanish casa really translate perfectly to the English house? Is padre really just father in Spanish, or that and something more that is necessarily chopped off by translation?


    And from where do words derive their meaning? Don’t meanings in spoken and written patterns derive from social systems? This is as true for barak as it is for thank you, no? Should I care what the original social setting was for the book of Revelation or just go with whatever I WANT it to mean? Maybe pragmatism, time-is-money American world, works in short exchanges, kind of, but what about real communication with Middle Eastern people, something we in the West have botched for decades?


    And understanding things about the world of barak also demands I understand things about my own cultural world, the world of thank you. Say I lack clarity about the peculiarities of the cognitive world we Western people inhabit. What becomes of communication with the biblical writers then? Would it not be rendered simply IMPOSSIBLE?



    “Thank you” seems so every day, so simple, so basic an expression that we imagine (ethnocentrically) that it is universal in our “Wiki” research, clever “youtube” proof-video link, Google-translate pithiness. But look at the seemingly simplistic situation of Paul mean when he says that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? The language we have available (or lack!) to make efficient translations makes striking differences in understanding the Bible! Could it be that our American society, the most individualistic society of all time, lack the vocabulary to properly translate Paul? Our Western natural tendency, that of an intensely individualistic society that lacks language to make the distinction between second-person-singular and second-person-plural pronouns…


    As expressed above gratitude is panhuman. But “thank you” is culturally specific, despite her bad translations above. And beware of well-meaning cultural CHIMERAS who stand with two feet between two cultal worlds WHEN IT COMES TO expecting clarity with how the majority of people are from where her other foot stands. All expressions of gratitude in the Middle Eastern world of Jesus are based on praise, or HONORING the person. Or indebtedness As explained above, thanks and thank you work differently in our world.

    In our Western world, gratitude is episodic rather than ongoing. As explained above in my post, Westerners do express gratitude for gifts or favors as do Middle Easterners, but we do not expect that a continuous ongoing process. Watch Enzo the Baker in the Godfather Trilogy for contrast. As with interpersonal relations in that trilogy, such long-term, enduring relationships are presumed, affirmed, and continued in the Middle Eastern world, weheras mainstream Westerners simply do not value ongoing debt of gratitude. This affects todah, barak, eucharistasia, and other expressions.

    Moving away from your oversimplified video, Middle Eastern gratitude is the debt of interpersonal obligation for received unrepayable favors. The Hebrew term for this debt of gratitude is “ḥesed,” often translated “steadfast love” or “steadfast lovingkindness.” Via such a debt of obligation, one Middle Eastern person become bound to another in ongoing relationship of generalized reciprocity. In this world the prevailing idea is that beneficiaries owe their benefactors a debt of gratitude. When you are born into this world you owe a debt by birth toward parents and grandparents, and toward siblings). Become married and you owe a debt by choice. If you, a mortally wounded person are helped and saved, or are a prospective client and are assisted, then you owe debts of happenstance. And it goes ON AND ON AND ON TWO WAYS. Those toward whom you are indebted are equally obliged to maintain the relationship-bond by granting further favors in ongoing reciprocity. Again check out the Corleone family toward Enzo in lifelong reciprocity. This cultural truth explains why the Psalmists endlessly sing hymns about God’s “steadfast love,” namely, his divine willingness to CONTINUALLY bestow favors to his Israelite clients. All of the Hebrew Scriptures speak and sing about this.

    The New Testament expresses the Hebrew ḥesed with the Greek word for “mercy.” So ḥesed in Hosea 6:6 becomes mercy in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7. This Biblical “mercy” isn’t feeling compassionate for someone suffering injustice, but must include THE PAYMENT of one’s debt of interpersonal obligation through the cancelling of a trivial debt. Following the parable of the Samaritan in Luke 10, the good deed is described as “doing mercy,” really, doing ḥesed (translated “showing mercy,” 10:37). The God of Israel never forgets his debts of interpersonal obligation (Luke 1:54). God always “does mercy” (see Luke 1:50, 72, 78; Romans 12:8).

    Just like “thank you,” the English “mercy” falls short. The Bible presents a social system where debts of interpersonal obligation are paramount, So when we read “Lord, have mercy,” that really should be, “Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation,” or “I need your help right now, and you owe me!” Is that what you understand by the English “mercy”? So please understand that EACH TIME somebody requests healing from Jesus by saying “have mercy,” they are calling on a debt OWED and they employ a title to this effect, e.g., Lord (Matthew 17:15; see Mark 5:19; Luke 17:13), Son of David (Matt 9:27; 20:30; Mark 10:47–48) or both Lord and Son of David (Matt 15:22; 20:31; Luke 18:38–39).

    So there is more here than meets the eye. Oversimplifications as in your video don’t clarify things. Hopefully this will

  • You write much, but say little. I think you are urban, and have zero experience in rural America where relationship is different.

  • Ame

    When meditating on this scene, I focused more on this: ten lepers, of which 9 were Israelites and one was a Samaritan. The Samaritan came from what I guess you can say is a heterodox sect of Judaism, coming from Israelite refugees who were given some means to attempt to restore what know as the religion of Moses, but unfortunately not without distortions in oral tradition and Scripture that led to them making sacrifices on Mount Horeb rather than in Jerusalem (the Temple was destroyed during the Babylonian conquest…right? I sometimes get the chronology of events mixed up). The point is, the Israelites had to get their proclamation of cleanliness from the proper authorities in Jerusalem. As lepers, these persons were outcasts to both Israelites and Samaritans, and they must have joined together for survival. But as they made their way to Jerusalem, they had realised that they were made clean. But now that means they were back to being 9 Israelites and one Samaritan, so the Israelites must have rejected the Samaritan. The Samaritan had no use, in his mind, in going to Jerusalem. He had to make his way back to Samaria to go to his proper authorities and return to social life there. Along the way he catches up with Jesus and expresses his gratitude to God.

    While you may be correct in your translation of thanks, praise, and gratitude in the context of the culture, the relevant questions to ponder are: did the Samaritan believe Jesus was the Messiah? Did he have some kind of understanding that Jesus was the Son of God/Son of Man? What was the faith that Jesus acknowledged the Samaritan had?

    By the way, I don’t see different versions of Jesus in Matthew and John or Luke.

    1) with at least 3 years of ministry, making different trips around Galilea and Palestine to observe various feasts in Jerusalem… it’s pretty obvious to me that at different points in time, Jesus had different directives to the 12 apostles, depending on His short-term goals.

    2) Some of the events during His ministry portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels that we assume to be the same event told with inconsistencies among the Gospel writers may truly be different events. Not every event is told in chronological order. The Hebrew scribes (as well as the Jewish Gospel writers) seem to have a tendency to group events mostly into categories first and then get into the chronology of specific sequences of major events. Luke, being a Gentile, on the other hand may be the closest to presenting the ministry and passion of Christ in chronological order, having had the benefit of “interviewing different people and piecing together something that most resembles a classic story format.

    2) the different Gospel writers are not historians. They are relying on what they or others have witnessed and the oral tradition that developed from that. Luke’s case is that he travelled with Paul so he was in contact with various witnesses, some no longer or never were in direct contact with each other by the time Luke got to hearing their stories. Each man had his own focus and audience to address and own lens to view Jesus. But intentionally fabricating stories for some agenda? Don’t think so. I think the Synoptic Gospels were chosen and viewed as inspired because they must have most closely resembled the oral tradition of the disciples and early Christians.