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Thus far we have learned from Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17 that bigger faith fails the test and better deeds fool the servant. Next, in the beautiful design of Luke’s Gospel, we encounter a story that brings these truths to life.
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 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, 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. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well,” vv. 11-17
Here Jesus is, a man on a mission, his eyes set toward Jerusalem one last time (Luke 9:51). Yet he gives attention to some of the worst of society. By Old Testament law, these ten lepers would have been a pretty good distance away from public spaces so as not to infect others with their disease. One author describes the scene this way:
There they stand before Jesus in various stages of decay, their clothing torn in perpetual mourning, their skeletal heads uncovered, their lips unveiled as they warned others, “Unclean! Unclean!” They looked as though they had climbed out of the graves, R. Kent Hughes
It reminds me of something out of zombie flick.
Nevertheless, instead of warnings they shout desperations. Let’s be honest, crying out to Jesus entails some level of faith. And crying out to him for mercy is certainly a step in the right direction. Jesus acknowledges this, and tells them to show themselves to the priest. According to the law, that was what they were supposed to do if they felt they had already been healed. The priest would then observe them and pronounce them clean if they were indeed healed. So when the ten lepers obediently hightailed it to the priest, they were essentially believing to some extent that Jesus could heal them. Once again, that takes some faith.
Along the way they realize they have indeed been healed. The same author continues poignantly,
From cadaverous faces reemerged ears, noses, eyebrows, lashes, hairlines. Feet—toeless, ulcerated stubs—were suddenly whole, bursting shrunken sandals. Knobby appendages grew fingers. Barnacles skin became soft and supple. It was like ten new-births.
But only one, a Samaritan, the worst among the worst, returns to thank Jesus. The other nine, all Jews, well, who knows. Maybe they continued on to the priest. After all, that was their ceremonial duty.
One theologian says that they may not have returned to save face because they didn’t have anything to repay Jesus with. In first century Palestine there was a strong culture of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. But for the Samaritan, he knew he had nothing to offer—and that was the point. So nine realize they can’t repay Jesus–and it’s embarrassing. Meanwhile, one realizes he can’t repay Jesus–and it’s awesome!
when he saw that he was healed, he turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks, vv. 15-16
He foregoes his duty to the law and gets straight at the heart of the law: loving God. And Jesus’ response?
Luke uses this broken man to become the picture of what Jesus has been teaching his disciples. Faith and duty for faith and duty’s sake crumble in light of Jesus himself.
Call me crazy, but I find in this passage so much relevance to missions. Having been a missionary and missions pastor, I’m convinced we are some of the most duty-bound, big-time believers around. Recently I heard a pastor confess, “Most missionaries I know are exhausted and working themselves to death…and we applaud that?” For all of us on this side of the story, there are scary things that lurk within our motivation toward God’s mission. Scarier still, however, is that pursuing mission is so admirable we may not even see them.
Yet there is one faithful missionary to whom we can consult. It is written of him:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice on the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law, Isaiah 42:1-4
Where our faith is misguided, his was faithful. Where our service is selfish, his was sacrificial. Where our motives are disappointing, his were pleasing. And everything he demands, he supplies. For he was
made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people, Hebrews 2:17
And so it’s right for us to run to him with our desire and ambition and selfishness and duty. His arms are open to those who are kind of getting it and kind of missing the point.