It is election season and once again amnesty is in the air. Retreaded debates over amnesty programs by the same political parties will, as usual, leave the nation divided and unsettled. In stark contrast, Jesus in Luke 17:11-19 offers an amnesty program which holds forth the potential to unite all people, if only He were acknowledged as the healer of souls, the King of new creation. This fall, preachers do well to avoid partisan positions and instead proclaim Jesus’ amnesty program.
Luke 17 offers not a parable but a historical event. Its lesson seems simple enough: Jesus transitions from explaining the impossibility of sinners obligating God (17:7-10) to an encounter with a Samaritan leper who, with no hope of recovery and as good as dead and damned, thanks God for the grace that healed him. “God’s grace yields gratitude” might be the thrust of a typical sermon, with a further interest in biblical statistics showing nine out of ten recipients of God’s mercy take the blessings and run. But no, there is a deeper lesson about salvation for the Jew first but also the Gentile in this pericope which extends the three-part parable of Luke 15, climaxing in the story of the prodigal son. This time, however, familiar numbers and characters from Luke 15 literally stand before Jesus’s auditors (disciples and Pharisees alike) as He gives them a lesson on amnesty.
Amnesty is a good word, too. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “The act of an authority... by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” An additional entry fits the case of Christ and sinners more poignantly: “To pardon (someone) officially, often before a trial or conviction.” Reading Paul’s inclusive “you” in Ephesians 2:1-10, “amnesty” provides fitting contemporary commentary on the work of Christ for sinners originally taught in Luke 15-17.
Luke does not disclose the location of the miraculous healing of ten lepers, any more than to say it was at the entrance to a “village” on the border between Judah and Samaria, evoking today’s volatile “border crisis” debates. However, the location factors into understanding the gospel within the pericope, teeming with similar tensions. Lepers, of course, were obligated by Levitical law to keep their distance from non-lepers because they were “polluted.” Polluting someone else with their disease could easily get them stoned to death. So, this bunch respectfully kept their distance from both the town but also Jesus. As ceremonially unclean, of course, they were prohibited from Temple and synagogue worship. Consequently, they were socio-religious cast offs, the refuse of humanity. They were the “walking dead” of the first century, zombies as far as the rest of the populace was concerned. What is more, most people believed they were lepers because they deserved it; either they or their parents were sinners and so God cut them off from His people. As such, the civic attitude was merciless: “Let them rot and be damned. They have it coming to them anyway.”
Hearing the famed rabbi from Nazareth was in their vicinity, they come as close as they dare and shout to Him for help. Significantly, they did not cry for healing but mercy: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (verse 13).
Arthur Just and Philip Ryken believe there is a couched reason they shout for mercy instead of healing. They conclude this party was a mixture of nine parts Jew and one part Samaritan. Astonishingly, their lives had sunk so low that they subsisted together. Normally Jews and Samaritans had absolutely nothing to do with one another. For the Jew, the only “good Samaritan” was a dead one. It was the same for the Samaritans. You just do not find anywhere in the ancient world Jews and Samaritans co-existing.
Preachers should attempt to convey the weight of the encounter. It is the mark of the horror of leprosy that those suffering from the disease in and around this village actually lived together, ignoring distinctions they otherwise would have seen as compelling to commit violence one upon another. This was the only situation in which Jews and Samaritans (to say nothing of Gentiles) could live and break bread together, existing as the unclean and condemned “living dead.”
Since this was the case, Luke, who pens his Gospel for Gentiles, calls us to read between the cultural lines: It was the nine Judeans who cried for mercy from one set of Jews to another Jew (Jesus). The Samaritan had no right, no connection whatsoever to call upon a Jewish rabbi such as Jesus. It is unlikely he opened his mouth. The nine, on the other hand, were so appalled, so horrified by their total ostracization that they were forced to share living arrangements with (of all things!) a Samaritan leper. His pollution was innate. Being a Samaritan, his soul more polluted, viler than leprosy could even make his skin. For the nine, being irrecoverably unclean, having the flesh melt off their bones and dying in their sins was loathsome enough, but having to carpool and share a toothbrush with a Samaritan was altogether unbearable. “Jesus, Rabbi, have mercy on us... because of him!” It is apparently the cry of the nine, not the ten.
But the amnesty of Jesus does not reinforce bigotry or racism. It explodes them. They wanted mercy from someone. Jesus offers mercy for everyone.
But the amnesty of Jesus does not reinforce bigotry or racism. It explodes them.
So, Luke, as Art Just notes, again highlights Jesus’ attitude toward the outsider, the foreigner, the minor, and the minority as a foil for the magnitude of God’s grace over-against “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). This time Jesus makes the point through the ultimate societal pariah: A Samaritan leper. The occasion establishes the fact that the nine Jewish lepers were no cleaner, were no more worthy, were in no more of a position to obligate God than the Samaritan. They were together and it was their togetherness which evidenced how, “No one is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10-12; Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 53:1-3). Sin pollutes the souls of all. Principally, the nine should be crying out for divine mercy upon their souls, not appealing to Jesus’s Jewishness as a condition of obligation to pity their circumstances.
As a Samaritan, he did not belong to the Jewish religion. He would not have a priest Jesus would acknowledge as legitimate, since the Samaritan religion was a deceit, every bit as false as the paganism of the Gentiles. So, the command of Jesus, “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” in keeping with Leviticus 14:22, would not have applied to him, only the nine, at least in the sense of the Levitical priesthood. Not to mention, Jewish priests would have anything to do with Samaritans anyway, reinforcing the suggestion that the Samaritan remained silent. Still, Jesus treats the lot as a whole, including the Samaritan, as if they were all seeking mercy, as if they were all lost, unclean, and alienated from the covenant people of God.
Then the miracle: “As they went, all ten were cleansed.”
Luke assumes we understand the implications. As always in the Gospels, Jesus’ healings are signs of what He would accomplish through His perfectly obedient life, death, and resurrection for the redemption of humanity, even the Samaritans and, by extension, the Gentiles. When Christ heals the blind, it is because all are in need of spiritual sight. When He heals the deaf, it is because the Salvation of God, Jesus Himself, will gives ears to hear the good news. When He heals the lame, it is to restore the ability to do good works in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when He heals these lepers, He evidences His cleansing, revivifying Word which makes us the children of God according to the true religion of faith in Jesus, the Great Physician.
The healings, therefore, are signs. They are indicators which point to what Messiah will do for all humanity as He reclaims God’s global Kingdom by crushing the Devil’s lordship over us, smashing the power of sin, and reversing death with His own resurrection. Jesus illustrates for the world what He will do by way of the cross and empty tomb, which is why He is not found in the New Testament doing the kind of staged healings of tele-evangelists. As Art Just has substantiated in his commentaries on Luke, Jesus’ principal ministry consists of two things: (1) preaching the Kingdom of God and (2) doing Kingdom of God miracles. Since the time of His first century preaching and miracles, His agenda has remained the same in and through the Church: Preaching the Kingdom of God and doing Kingdom of God miracles. The miraculous acts of mercy Jesus does to reverse our spiritual blindness, deafness, muteness, and indeed, even deadness (Ephesians 2:1) are called sacraments. His healings are graphic snapshots of what the Gospel accomplishes for humanity on Golgotha and the empty tomb and applies in and through preaching but also the miracle-sacraments of Jesus where the Word is made visible.
In Luke 17:11-19, the Word is there in the flesh. Jesus heals them simply by speaking the Word. It is the Word of Christ which cleanses, makes whole, and brings life. This is the same Word we find in the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments administered according to the Gospel.
However, verses 15 and 16 report Jesus’ word elicits gratitude in only one of the ten. It is the Samaritan, the outsider. Though presumably silent in this episode, the compassionate Word of Christ brings mercy not merely to his body, but also the Samaritan’s soul. He has been a sheep without a shepherd.
Though presumably silent in this episode, the compassionate Word of Christ brings mercy not merely to his body, but also the Samaritan’s soul.
In a climatic move, Luke juxtaposes priestly legitimacy. The Samaritan, with no right to show himself to the priests at the Jerusalem Temple for restoration, instead goes to Jesus. Jesus is his High Priest. He does not need a Levite, he has Jesus. And it will be Jesus who will serve as his mediator between God and man. It is an astonishing result that should unite the Jews and the Samaritan in like faith. But, alas, it does not. The ten go to their Temple, but the Samaritan worships at the temple of Jesus’s body (John 2:21). His worship at the feet of Jesus shows the Word of Christ effectuated not only his cure but also his forgiveness, similar to the paralytic man let down through the roof (Luke 5:17-25), the gift of faith and repentance, indeed, forgiveness of sins. To this man, the fullness of the Kingdom of God had come, total amnesty. So, this once-lost-now-found-leper, healed from the plague of sin and his cancerous religion, worships the Good Shepherd. For nothing stirs up thankfulness and praise like the gift of healing a once dead soul. Here, only the Samaritan counts his blessings, and he begins with Number One: Thank you Jesus, my high priest, who makes me clean and restores my soul.
Dismayingly, the nine are faithless toward Jesus and offer thanks elsewhere. They reject Jesus in choosing to have some other priest declare them acceptable before God, which of course cannot truly happen unless sin is forgiven, guilt assuaged, wrath propitiated, and perfect righteousness conferred. This only happens through faith in God’s High Priest: Jesus. No priest on earth, no 12-step program, no formula to better skin care and healthy-living, can cleanse from sin and make a person right before God, only the Christ. This is why Jews and Gentiles alike are directed to Jesus’ ongoing through-the-Church ministry of Gospel preaching and miracle-Sacraments.
Only the outsider, only the foreigner, only the one who we would expect to be the last to give thanks to a Jewish Rabbi, actually gives God praise. There is an irony at play. Those Judeans bear a name which means “Praise [God]” (i.e., Judah), yet it is the Samaritan who praises the God of Israel (Isaiah 65:1), evoking Jesus’ astonishment. He asks, “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine?” (17:17). It is as if He had said, “You have to be kidding Me. I’ve come to bring fulfilment of the Jewish story, the history of Israel, and none of them are found to praise God except this half-blood, illegal alien, who had no claim on God as his chosen people?” Hereby, Jesus affirms the biblical maxim, “...to the Jew first, but also the Gentile” (Romans 1:16), or in this case, to the Jew first and even the lowest on the spiritual food chain, the Samaritan leper. Notwithstanding, the Samaritan receives amnesty, and he comes to Jesus to worship in recognition that it is the prerogative of the King to bestow mercy. In this act of faith, the Samaritan confesses Jesus as both Lord and God. He is now a Christian. Thus, Jesus’ amnesty program is to the Jew first but also the Gentile, confirmed by the fact that even a Samaritan leper receives divine mercy through the Word and work of Christ.
This event becomes prophetic of the rejection of the blessing of the healing Jesus brings by the Jews and, at the same time, its warm reception by the outsider. It is prophetic of the nature and composition of God’s Kingdom: “A great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages...” (Revelation 7:9). Although “beautiful” people are brought into the Kingdom of God, in large part it also includes the marginal segments of humanity; the minority, the persecuted, the aged, spiritual or moral “lepers,” foreigners, and the like. Jesus made a blood atonement for them. He cleanses them by the washing of the water and the Word. Christ makes them your brothers and sisters in God’s Kingdom on Earth, just as it is in Heaven. It turns out “them” is each one of us, each and every one of us who have been baptized have been recipients of Jesus’s amnesty program.
Finally, Jesus’ response to the Samaritan-Christian brings every dimension of His re-creative, cleansing, saving proclamation into one word. It was neither lost upon Luke nor the early Church. The Greek word for “rise” is ἀναστὰς (anastas), the word for resurrection. Like the prodigal, this man “was dead, and is alive” (Luke 15:32). New life had arrived near a village which prejudiced one people against another. Jesus speaks His Word, and a new world order emerges, with the possibility of uniting disparate parties in the true faith. Resurrection life encroaches upon the old regimes of death, with all their bigoted partisan and identity politics. As the world’s rightful King, His amnesty extends not to one group, but to all.