Ten lepers obey Jesus' command. As they go to the temple, they are cleansed. Nine go to see the priests. They follow Jesus' commands to the letter. Their obedience is remarkable. But, one turns back. He is a Samaritan, a foreigner, an outsider. He is a leper and a Samaritan. That means he is a duck twice dead. Worse yet, he ignores Jesus' command. Instead, he finds Jesus, falls on his knees and worships Jesus. But, the one who turns back, Jesus says, is saved by his faith. So what are we supposed to learn from this parable? Is this lesson about obedience? Maybe it is about miraculous healing? Maybe it is supposed to direct us to thankfulness?
Does obedience get the nine men healing and salvation? Maybe we like to think that is true. That means Jesus is trying to teach us something about how God smiles down on those who obey His commands. But, what about the Samaritan who is saved by faith? Is his ability to believe in Jesus’ work the thing that saves him? Or does Jesus awaken faith in the Samaritan, and by faith he obediently returns to Jesus, and that is what saves him?
What about healing then? The lepers are not lepers anymore. That means Jesus is trying to teach us something about how God loves to heal people. But, if obedience does not cause the healing, what does? If Jesus is trying to teach us something about healing, why does Jesus not just heal the lepers right there on the spot? One other thing, the emphasis is not that they are healed, but that they are cleansed (Luke 17:14).
Jesus shows mercy to them; He forgives their sin. They are given access to God, His temple, and to His gifts. They are healed because Jesus cleanses them of sin. Once sin is forgiven, their bodily disease dissipates.
So, Jesus is not trying to teach us about obedience or healing. What else is left? How about thankfulness? That means Jesus is trying to teach us something about how God is pleased with us when we offer Him the right kind of worship.
The Samaritan is thankful. He comes back to worship Jesus. The other nine do not recognize that Jesus is God, so they go to the temple instead. They are disobedient. They are as far from obedience as you can get because they run away from God thinking they go to worship God. However, that would mean the Samaritan’s act of thankfulness and worship is what saves him. His godly obedience, over-against the other lepers’ godless obedience, is what saves him. But, that is not the subject of this lesson.
Maybe then, Jesus is trying to teach us about how it is our duty as Christians to avoid being like the nine who were healed. Even Luther says this in his Small Catechism: "... it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him." And Jesus says, right before He heals the lepers, that "When you have done everything you were commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have only done our duty.'" So, maybe this lesson is about the right kind of worship. Maybe, but that takes us down the path of obedience again, and Jesus, remember, is not trying to teach us about obedience.
Jesus is not trying to teach us something about obedience, healing, or thankfulness. Jesus is telling us something about death and resurrection. See, when Jesus stops to cleanse the ten lepers He is on His way to Jerusalem. This is an "on His way to Jerusalem" lesson. This is a "Jesus is God for you" lesson. This is a "Jesus goes to die for your sin" lesson.
The nine are not wrong because they are disobedient or ungrateful. They are wrong because their faith points them in the wrong direction. They run away from God as if He is in the temple waiting for them to find Him. They begin with Jesus, but then they go off to complete what He starts. They do not recognize that "God is reconciling the world to Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ."
He begins with Jesus and ends with Jesus. He is not going to try to complete what Jesus starts.
The Samaritan's faith points him in the right direction, to Jesus. He runs back to God because he recognizes that God has already come to find him. He begins with Jesus and ends with Jesus. He is not going to try to complete what Jesus starts. He recognizes that "God is reconciling the world to Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19). That is why the Samaritan's faith saved him.
It turns out, what Jesus teaches when He cleanses the lepers makes for a "your faith has saved you" lesson. Jesus does not just heal the Samaritan. Jesus cleanses, forgives, and so Jesus saves him. The Samaritan's Jesus saves him, and that is the way it is with God. If our faith is pointed in the right direction, we can swap back and forth between "faith" and "Jesus."
Jesus says to the one, "Stand up and go your way, your faith has saved you." That is the same as if Jesus were to say, "Stand up and go your way, your Jesus has saved you."
This is not just a lesson about what Jesus does for these men along the border between Samaria and Galilee. This is about what Jesus is doing for us in the present along the border between sin and death, and forgiveness and life. Better than that, we do not have to go off to complete what Jesus began in us when He cleansed us at our baptism.
Jesus comes to us here and now. He comes to cleanse us of all sin. He comes to send us on our way, cleansed and forgiven, so we can love each other with the same self-giving, self-sacrificing love Jesus shows us. He comes to fill our ears and throat, fill the whole of us, with His words and gifts. He comes to say, "God doesn't remember your sin anymore." He comes to give us salvation. We are cleansed. We are forgiven. That is, we are worded, watered, bodied and blooded right here, right now.
Jesus' whole engagement with the lepers is about the "for-you-ness" of Jesus. God here, now, for us. Words. Water. Bread. Wine. All for us so that He can say to us too, "Go your way, your Jesus saves you."