Though not unique to him, there is a motif which comes to the fore more prominently in Luke’s Gospel. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up,” St. Luke says, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). This determination of the Lord Jesus to “go to Jerusalem” is thematic throughout the rest of the Gospel (Luke 9:53; 13:22; 17:11; 18:31; 19:28). After spending his time ministering to an assortment of poor, sick, and needy folk in the regions surrounding Galilee, a turn occurs in which Jesus’s attention becomes laser-focused on “journeying to Jerusalem.” And with that attention, we are, likewise, to understand that he is “journeying to the cross.” Venturing towards that city meant venturing towards death. Jesus, of course, was well aware of the manner in which his earthly ministry would come to an end. But with such a purpose made public, we are able to understand his words with heightened clarity.
From this point forward in Luke, the cross colors all of Jesus’s interactions, overshadowing every step he took and every syllable he uttered like the cross which hovers behind pastors when they preach. The closer he got to that city, the more vocal he became about what his intentions really looked like. Throughout his ministry, but especially this journey, Jesus was determined to show all who followed him that he was, indeed, the long-sought-after Messiah, and that he was establishing a kingdom. But all those Messianic expectations were about to be turned on their head. Because he is the Messiah who dies, the King whose crown is made of thorns, and the King whose kingdom is far more inclusive than ever imagined. Such is the point which Luke stresses more than any other Gospel.
Unlike the other Gospel texts, Luke showcases the Lord’s stubborn insistence on associating with those who were considered “social outcasts.” Jesus’s declaration that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” is the paradigm which Luke explores the most (Luke 19:10), demonstrating the wonderfully gracious ways in which God’s heart, as Dane Ortlund attests, is “drawn to those whom the world holds at arm’s length” (117). Those who you’d least expect to be invited are the first to be welcomed, from shepherds to tax collectors to the demon possessed, even lepers.
Our common condition
Along the journey towards Jerusalem, Jesus and his followers encounter a group of lepers. “On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance” (Luke 17:11–13). Although Luke isn’t specific, the inference is that Jesus is traveling along the border between southern Galilee and northern Samaria, a remote locale which was, apparently, prime real estate for those who were outcast by society. Which is just to say that Jesus’s chosen route took him straight through a lepers’ stomping grounds. Others would have certainly chosen a different course, but the Lord had purpose in journeying through this country.
As Luke informs us later (Luke 17:16), this was a mixed group of lepers, comprised of Jews and Samaritans. It’s not often you’d find these two demographics standing shoulder-to-shoulder, but whatever racial tensions might’ve existed between them previously were pointless now, on account of their common condition. Mutual misery, shared heartache has a way of reducing to nothing any perceived social barriers. What would it matter that a Jew was hanging out with a Samaritan now? They’d been given a new category by which to identify themselves: they were lepers. “Affliction, misfortune, and persecution drive men together,” notes J. C. Ryle, “and make them forget points of difference, which in time of prosperity and ease are thought very important” (2:236).
Lepers, of course, were prohibited from any semblance of a normal life, being forced to live in isolation because of their affliction. “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:46). Such regulations hail from the Mosaic law, in which meticulous details are given on how to diagnose and manage those with leprosy (Lev. 13—14). The designation “unclean” was a “scarlet letter” in those days. Receiving such a verdict was akin to receiving a death sentence. In fact, lepers were often considered “already dead,” since there was no cure for you, other than supernatural intervention. Jesus’s journey through “leper country,” then, brings him in close proximity to those who were “off limits.” Which, I have to imagine, didn’t sit too well with his disciples. And yet, if you think about it, this is exactly what Jesus did when he came to this earth in the first place.
This world is broken, full of sin, which means that “in Christ” God purposed to draw close to those who share a common condition.
When we are told that the Word of God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), we are to understand that announcement as God taking up residence in a world inhabited by those who are “already dead.” This world is broken, full of sin, which means that “in Christ” God purposed to draw close to those who share a common condition. We’re all sinners — sinners are all that there are. And just like leprosy, there is no known remedy for our condition. We are “dead men walking,” “dead in the trespasses and sins” where we are (Eph. 2:1), “condemned already” where we stand (John 3:18). That is, until Jesus shows up. Because when he shows up, mercy shows up, too.
His uncanny mercy
As Jesus passes by, the lepers cry out for Jesus to “have mercy” on them (Luke 17:13). That they call Jesus “Master” indicates that they had at least heard something about the miracles he had performed elsewhere. News had spread fast about the “Healer from Nazareth,” especially among the leper colonies. Jesus, of course, already had one leper healing under his belt (Luke 5:12–16), which surely caused no small stir in the surrounding regions. The sight of Jesus, therefore, is the sight of hope incarnate.
By all accounts, these lepers were only clamoring for relief from their physical ailments. They desperately craved — and rightly so — that their condition be cleared up that they might have a life, that they might see their families once again. Jesus, however, responds to their cry in the most unexpected way. “When he saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’” (Luke 17:14). This, of course, is in keeping with the Mosaic codes, which declared that lepers whose condition had cleared were forced to receive authorization from the priests that they could re-enter “normal life” (Deut. 24:8; Lev. 13:1–3). What’s so surprising, though, is Jesus’s prescribed cure.
Unlike before, where the leper was healed by Jesus’s physical touch (Luke 5:12–16), Jesus just gives them his word. He tells them to go before the priest as if they’re already clean, which they weren’t. Nothing had happened yet. There was no preceding sign or demonstrable action that clued them into the cleansing to come. Jesus didn’t touch them or make a paste or even say a prayer, as he often did on other occasions. Instead, all they had to go on was Jesus’s word of promise. We might well imagine their disappointment. This was not at all what they expected the Healer of Nazareth to do for them. The surprise of the Lord’s words likely left them speechless for a moment or two, before, as I imagine it, they started trudging for the nearest synagogue. And as they went, they suddenly began to notice their skin clearing up. The boils and blemishes which besotted their flesh start to dissipate. Their steps feel surer. And soon their slow walk turns into a full on sprint, accompanied by shrieks of laughter, as their bodies are made whole and their skin made new.
But then one of them stops in his tracks, realizing the magnitude of what has just occurred. “He saw that he was healed” (Luke 17:15), but more than that, he had been given a new lease on life. In a single afternoon, he went from a “dead man walking” to fully cleansed. He wasn’t just cured, he was reborn. Upon realizing this, he retraces his steps all the way back to Jesus’s feet, where he falls prostrate in humility and reverence (Luke 17:16). Jesus raises a good point, though. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” he inquiries (Luke 17:17). All ten feckless lepers were healed, but only one returned to his Healer’s feet to say “thank you.” The other nine were, apparently, quite content with the healing they had received.
The mind-blowing part of this entire story, though, isn’t that only one leper came back to “give thanks,” but that the Lord Jesus healed all ten knowing full well that only one would come back. He dispensed the uncanny mercy of total healing without pausing to adjudicate if that healing would be appropriately appreciated. Jesus didn’t hesitate in the slightest before gifting each one the miracle of being restored. That’s just who he is: he is a God who gives, ceaselessly. God in Christ doesn’t bestow his grace to us to the degree that we’re grateful. Rather, he is a God who gives himself, his very life, for the sake of those who might never realize it, who might never say “thank you.” This is what the cross is all about.
The cross is the manifestation of God’s saving action on behalf of a world filled with feckless sinners. As the Son suffers the agonies of sin and death, he, thereby, makes provision for every sinner to receive salvation. The self-donation of God in Christ is perfect downpayment for the world’s sin. When the Son gave himself up to the cruelties of Golgotha, he was, likewise, giving himself “as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). The gift he extends to everyone is the gift of his own life. Much like the lepers’ invitation, the gospel invites sinners to stand before the Father as they’re already clean, already righteous. Because by this incarnate Word, they are.
Our proper response
Even though only one leper responds to the healing given to him by Christ, he stands to demonstrate a most important lesson. “Then one of them,” the text says, “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” (Luke 17:15–16). These aren’t merely supplemental details which move the text forward. These details unfold Luke’s fundamental purpose in telling this story in the first place. By healing this leper from Samaria, Jesus’s followers were made to see that not only did the doors to the kingdom of heaven swing wide enough for untouchables, but they also welcomed the undesirables, too. “The kingdom of God is cluttered with surprises,” as Dale Ralph Davis puts it (66). His righteous domain is made up of “the wrong sort of people.” Now no longer at a distance, this Samaritan leper falls at Jesus’s feet, giving thanks and praise to the One who had saved him from certain death.
All of which to say, this Samaritan leper shows us the proper way to respond to God, which is through worship. This pitiful leper made whole by the mere Word of God is struck with the intent to worship at the feet of his Healer. In so doing, he wasn’t looking to “pay back” the healer through his homage. Neither was he looking to curry more favor from him by worshiping him. Instead, he was simply saying “thank you.” As we frequent our churches to worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our thoughts shouldn’t be driven by what we can get or what we can do. Rather, our hearts ought to be so captivated by what we already have that we cannot help but worship. Worshiping the Lord, Sunday after Sunday, isn’t the means by which we give God something or pay him back for anything. It is simply the communal way in which those who’ve been restored say “thank you.”
Worship happens when we realize both our fatal disease and the ready deliverance from it in Christ alone. When we come to church, then, we should see ourselves as lepers, as those who should’ve had nothing to do with the Savior. And yet, we are the ones for whom God in Christ has come. We are those whom he has made whole, made new, made righteous, by his Word of grace. And thus, as we go to the Father, we are clean.
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