Conversations With Jesus: The Ten Lepers

Conversations With Jesus: The Ten Lepers September 5, 2010

Conversations With Jesus: The Ten Lepers

Luke 17:11-19

 I used to think the Gospel of Mark was my favorite of the four Gospels, but I have to say that for me, these past two weeks Luke has been giving Mark a run for his money.  There’s so much going on in Luke—so many interesting literary techniques, such great plot development, so many characters that just stick with you.  Lucky for us, we’re right in the middle of some of these wonderful things about Luke for the next few weeks as we follow Jesus around and listen in on some of the conversations he had with the people he encountered. 

Last week, you might remember, Jesus healed the centurion’s servant in chapter 7.  This week we jump ahead to chapter 17, where Jesus has continued on the road trip that will eventually take him all the way to the city of Jerusalem, where (as you and I know) he’ll face crucifixion and death.  Remember that it’s Luke’s literary strategy to invite you and me to tag along with Jesus as he moves toward what we know will be the most significant part of the Christian story.  Today the setting for our Gospel passage is that Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem and we find him entering an unnamed village somewhere between Samaria and Galilee, where he runs into a group of lepers.

As we’re watching the way Jesus communicates these next few weeks, we’re also trying to mix things up a little bit and explore some different styles of communicating ourselves.  Today I’d like to welcome you to a little technique we call “expository preaching.”

Expository preaching, a style of preaching that attempts to systematically and methodically look very closely at the biblical text, was a big part of my childhood and faith formation.  In fact, I think it would not be completely inaccurate to say that this style of preaching was a staple of my childhood, and probably some of yours, too.  Because of that, you often hear at least pieces of expository preaching from this pulpit—old habits die hard, you know. 

To me, expository preaching is a little bit like pot roast and mashed potatoes with gravy for dinner.  It’s really comfortable, and satisfying, and I don’t know about you but that’s a meal I anticipate. You pretty much always know what you’re getting, no surprises, and you know when you have a meal like this you’ll be eating food that’s heavy and substantial, and that you’ll probably need a nap when you’re done (that, of course, will not apply today—naturally).  A meal like that always comes with family baggage, too—you can’t eat comfort food like that and not think of a family gathering with all the wonderful and crazy things that come with it. 

Expository preaching is largely associated with more conservative expressions of Christianity, but you can find expository preachers in every brand of Christian practice.  Elements of an expository sermon include working directly with the text in a formulaic sort of way, piece by piece, little by little, looking closely and methodically.  If we were being technically expositorial (which I doubt is even a word), we’d spend today talking, not about 8 whole verses, but more like one verse.  Or a small part of a verse.  Or, even, just a word in the text.  It’s a rather academic approach, you could say.  Expository preaching can be a very effective and valuable way of having a conversation with the text, but it’s definitely not the only way . . . unless you attend Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, that is, whose pastor John MacArthur is a well known expository preacher and is purportedly in his tenth year of preaching exclusively from the Gospel of Luke.  (I’m not ready to say I like Luke that much.)  All of that is to say that, even if you didn’t grow up in the church, an expository approach to scripture will probably feel pretty familiar to you.

So let’s try it.  In order to begin you’re going to need to open your Bibles to the text, Luke 17:11-19, and just to be really, really expositorial, let’s read the text again (p. 852).

Jesus is traveling, as I mentioned, toward Jerusalem.  He’s preparing today to enter a village, that is, walk down a road into a little cluster of houses and a community.  We don’t know what village that was, exactly, but we do know that the village was somewhere between Samaria and Galilee.  This little detail in the text is important for us as readers because Luke wants us to be sure to realize that Jesus was in an area of the region that was populated, at least in part, by Samaritans.  Good biblical scholars that you are, you’ll probably catch Luke’s drift immediately, realizing that it was likely Jesus would run into a Samaritan or two, a people who the Jews of Jesus’ day regarded not just as lower class but, worse, unclean.  While living in and among Samaritans was part of the culture in this area, there was absolutely no social intermingling of Jews and Samaritans, as that kind of behavior would get you immediately shunned from your own community.

At any rate, as Jesus was approaching this unnamed village, ten lepers—men, the text says—called to Jesus from far off.  It wasn’t surprising that Jesus encountered lepers outside the village—that’s where they were required by Levitical law to stay.  And they, naturally ended up banding together to beg and eak out a living in whatever way they could manage, because the community as a whole was pretty scared of them.

This kind of social exclusion might sound cruel to us, but Levitical law was in place to protect the community from communicable diseases, of which leprosy was one.  And we can’t be sure that these men actually had leprosy, which we know as Hansen’s Disease, the terrible disease that eats away at folks’ extremities and horribly disfigures them as it progresses.  We don’t know for sure that the men had leprosy, because the term “leprosy” in our Gospels encompasses every imaginable skin ailment you could possible have.  Got a rash?  Leprosy.  Psoriasis?  Leprosy.  Skin irritation from using the wrong kind of soap?  You guessed it: leprosy.  All that is to say that nobody really understood these skin ailments, or many other illnesses for that matter, so fear and exclusion were often the order of the day—perhaps we could compare the situation to AIDS in many places today, for example.

The men called out to Jesus—surely in such a small region they had heard of him and healings he had performed—asking Jesus to have mercy on them, that is, to do whatever he could to heal them.  Jesus’ response was to call back to them, telling them to go to the priests and ask to be examined, which was the requirement for reentry into the community. 

Then, we might presume from the text, Jesus continued on his way.

As the lepers resumed whatever they were doing—maybe they thought calling out to Jesus was worth a shot; surely they were desperate for any solution, they began to notice gradually that they were being healed.  There’s no way to know how that unfolded, of course, but the important point here is that they immediately realized that what they had asked had been done. 

The group of lepers continues on to find the priests—surely their immediate priority was securing clearance to reunite with their families and communities—but one of the ten men who was healed turned around.  The text says he was using a loud voice, praising God, shouting with excitement and disbelief at what had happened to him.  He prostrated himself—he laid down—right in front of Jesus’ feet.

And he thanked him.

Luke is sure to tell us here that that man who came back to thank Jesus was a Samaritan, so we’ll know all the baggage that came with that designation.  Jesus wonders aloud then about the fact that only one man of the ten—and a Samaritan, no less—came back to thank Jesus.  Then Jesus addresses the man, telling him to go on his way, that his faith had made him well.  And it’s here that Luke’s story of the ten lepers comes to a close.

Now, here’s where the exciting stuff starts; just stick with me. 

As you look closely, you can see that this passage is a great example of Luke’s masterful way with the text.  Even in our English translation, we can see the beautiful parallels and contrasts.  It begins, we can see, in verses 12 and 13, as the ten lepers come to Jesus.  Well, they don’t really come to Jesus, do they?  Luke says that they call out to him from afar.  But later, take a look at verses 15 and 16: we can see the first contrast of the passage, when the one leper who returns throws himself at Jesus’ feet—certainly not far off, but rather right up close and personal, too close to be strictly following any Levitical law about quarantine, that’s for sure.

Next, we can notice verse 14, where the text reports that as the lepers went to see the priests, they were made clean.  But the very next verse tells us that one leper—just that one—SAW that he was healed, and it seems that this seeing was likely more than just observing with one’s eyes what was surely happening to all ten of them, but more “seeing” in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Nice, Luke!  Very nice.

A third interesting contrast begins in verse 13, where the ten lepers are calling out to Jesus to have mercy on them.  They were lamenting, a common form of calling out to God practiced all throughout scripture (and probably by you and me, too!), begging Jesus to use his divine capacity to help them.  And then come verse 15, where (you guessed it) the one leper who returned cried out in a loud voice, praising God and thanking him—also forms of prayer commonly practiced throughout scripture and among us, but different kinds of petitions to God, no doubt.

Next we’ll note that when we meet the lepers we have no way of knowing who they are.  Luke introduces us to them as a group.  But in verse 16, after the one leper returns and thanks Jesus, Luke is sure to include the brief yet telling detail: “And he was a Samaritan,” speaking just of that one leper, not the whole group.

And finally, in verse 14 Jesus tells the group of ten lepers to go away, to show themselves to the priests.  This was an expression of following the law, the rules, and the lepers dutifully did what they knew they needed to do (like standing in line at the DMV to register your car!).  But in verse 19 when Jesus tells the one leper who came back to go, he says it differently.  He tells him to go on his way, that his faith was the defining piece of this experience.  It’s beyond rules and laws here for Jesus: it’s almost like he is blessing or commissioning this one leper, giving him the calling that would surely follow him for the rest of his life: to tell other people about how his encounter with Jesus changed his whole entire life.

See all the parallels and contrasts here?  Are they here because Luke had a really good editor?  Or might we assume that they represent another layer of meaning for the text?

I’m going to go with the second option.  I’m going to suggest that, in using all these literary parallels and contrasts, Luke wants you and me to be absolutely sure they we know he means to highlight the contrasts here.  For Luke, the law—which was good and right and should, of course, be followed—was not in any way the same as the message Jesus came to teach.  What Jesus was doing was something different, something that invited the lepers and invites Luke’s readers into a deep and meaningful engagement with Jesus Christ, one that changed everything.

And perhaps what it is that Luke means to highlight here, among many differences between that group of nine lepers so intent on following the law and the one, who turned around and came back, is the significant difference in his mind, and clearly in the mind of Jesus, between being healed and being made whole.  They are different Greek works here, and they clearly, even in our English translation, mean completely different things.

Even from just reading the passage, we can discern that being healed is an academic thing, something that must be examined by the authorities and approved.  Being made whole, on the other hand, while possibly encompassing physical healing, also seems to mean something much deeper than just suddenly clear skin.  In the Luke passage for today, it means for that one leper identity; purpose; calling; faith.

Anybody in my profession will be well acquainted with people who are very, very sick.  We don’t, in fact, get to spend as much time with people who are just boringly well as we do with folks who are perhaps facing the biggest physical challenge of their entire lives.

In these situations, it is not unusual to be asked if I will pray for healing.

As your pastor I do not have a problem praying for healing.  Like the patient and all the people who love him, I am there in that hospital room with you, hoping beyond hope that the illness being faced could suddenly dissipate and that all would be well. 

The problem is: I don’t know how to manufacture miraculous physical healings, nor do I think I would all the time if I could.  What I can pray for, and do pray for, and what I have seen happen over and over and over again, is the miraculous process of being made whole.  That is, physical malady aside, I have stood bedside and watched people come to peace.  Achieve reconciliation.  Know their purpose in life.  Face whatever is next with confidence and hope.  Regardless of whether the disease they fight subsides or advances.

They are made whole.

And, ultimately, isn’t that what we want?  Isn’t that what you and you and I and all of us hope for, far beyond any physical healing or anything else for that matter?

We want to be whole.  We want to know who we are and feel our purpose with a deep sense of conviction and peace.

So how is it that we overhear Jesus’ conversation with the ten lepers today and decide that we will choose to be healed . . . but even more, that we will choose to turn around, to fall at the feet of Jesus, and to be made whole?  I’m not sure exactly, but I suspect it has something to do with giving thanks, as that tenth leper turned around and rushed back to do.  It has to do with knowing, in every part of who we are, that nothing we possess belongs to us . . . that all of it comes from God . . . and that our highest hope and possibility is found, ever and always, in living lives that bring honor and praise and thanksgiving to God.

In the few moments we will come to the table of Christ together.  There are many different names for the act of communion, one of which is “Eucharist.”  The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word εὐχαριστία, transliterated “eucharista,” meaning to give thanks.  In the giving of that thanks around this table, we acknowledge that nothing we have belongs to us . . . that everything that fills us and heals us and, yes, makes us whole, comes directly . . . from God.

So as we gather around the table, as we come together to give thanks, we expect that healing is just one of the ways God has come and will come to our lives.  More than that, we are people who God is in the process of making whole . . . of completing and bringing together and finishing.

And I don’t know about you, but the prospect of being made whole is enough to make me turn around, rush back again to Jesus, and say thank you, Jesus.  Thank you so much.

Thank you so much.

Amen.

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  • Joe Zen

    Thanks for the words. Offered some great insight and rumination as I’m preparing this lesson for my 10-11 year old Sunday School class. I think I’m going to start off with playing a game like Simon Says, except “Simon Says” translates to “please”. But also the director must say “thank you” after every please command or they end their turn as director. Was hoping to think of a trading game that somehow mixed “tit for tat” game theory with saying “thank you” but nothing ever gelled.

    Then we’ll follow and discuss the biblical story. This is where I appreciate your words the most. I always enjoy helping students see beyond the “Veggie Tales” version of the story and see the historical context as well.

    Then I think I’ll have them write down on paper slips three things they are thankful for, using only two words for each thing. I’ll cut the slips in half and then we’ll have fun finding new random combinations of things to be thankful for.

    I really liked one suggestion I read from the book “Happier” by Ben Tal-Shahar. He suggested including in each prayer three things you are thankful for. I’ve incorporated this into my family’s daily prayers in an effort to helping my kids recognize the importance of gratitude as well as avoiding any “routine” sounding prayers. Thanks again for the blog.

  • Robert

    I’m teaching a class next week on this subject and thought to look around for something to add.

    I agree with some of your thoughts but I don’t think the 10 lepers began noticing the Lord’s healing until they set out to see the priest.

    When the Bible says immediately it uses words such as, “immediately(Matt 8:3), or “straightway”, In Luke, Jesus said, “go show yourselves unto the priests.” The next sentence said, “and it came to pass, that, as they went they were cleansed.”

    I would have to agree with the bible commentaries I read which stated that

    the lepers lingered in Christ’s presence waiting to be healed. “And it came to pass” suggests a time lapse. It was only “as they went” when they noticed the healing.

    When Jesus directs us He expects us to follow His orders in complete detail. Any variance, neglect, or procrastination will NOT produce results. There is a work thing involved that our Lord expects. The only way to show our faith is to exercise it by works. “Faith without works is dead.” If Naman would have dipped himself 6 times in the Jordan he would NOT have been healed. God demands strict obedience.

  • sarah

    Do you think the number of lepers has anything to do with the ten tribes?

  • TTJ

    Great interpretation of The Ten Lepers. This helped ma a lot. Thanks!