Where Are the Nine?

Luke 17:11-19

April 14, 2007 | Ray Pritchard

Listen to this Sermon

It is a tribute to modern medicine that most of us know very little about the disease called leprosy. Most of us have never seen a leper. We know only what we read in the Bible.

If we had lived in those days, we would have known a great deal more. In Bible times it was the most feared disease in the world. It was deadly, incurable and hopeless. So much did the ancients fear it that anyone suspected of having the disease was banished from society. In the rabbinic writings we find remedies for various diseases. But nothing is listed for leprosy. The rabbis said that curing leprosy was like raising the dead.

I. A Hideous Disease

Today leprosy is called Hansen’s Disease, after the Norwegian doctor who in 1873 discovered the bacterium that causes the disease. There are actually several kinds of leprosy, and we know today that the Bible words translated “leprosy” actually cover a broad range of skin diseases, which is why some modern translations use a phrase such as “eruptive skin disease.”

The worst kind of leprosy follows this general pattern:

—First, a patch of skin is discolored. It might occur on the brow, nose, ear, cheek or chin.

—Second, the patch turns white or pink and begins to spread rapidly in all directions.

—Third, the disease spreads to various internal organs. The eyebrows may disappear and spongy tumors appear on the body.

—Fourth, tissue begins to disintegrate causing the hands and feet to become deformed.

—Fifth, the nerve endings of the body of the are destroyed. This is the most critical and dangerous stage of leprosy because it means that the afflicted person loses the ability to feel pain. Thus a rat might chew off a finger at night and the person would never feel it. Or they might touch a flame and feel no pain.

It was feared by the ancients because it produced such terrible results, because it was contagious, and because it could not be cured by man.

Beware the White Hair

For all those reasons, Leviticus 13-14 gives special instructions concerning the diagnosis and treatment of leprosy. It essentially says that any swelling or rash or skin infection must be immediately presented to the priest for his inspection. He is to examine the sore, the skin surrounding and the color of the hair within the infected area. White hair was considered to be a danger sign. The person thus inspected would be quarantined for seven days. At the end of seven days, if the infection had disappeared, the person could be readmitted to society. If not, then the person diagnosed as having leprosy was banished from society during the time of his infection. This is how Leviticus 13:45-46 puts the matter:

The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ’Unclean, unclean.’ 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.

Alfred Edersheim explains what this banishment meant to the leper:

As the leper passed by, his clothes rent, his hair disheveled and the lower part of his face and his upper lip covered, it was as one going to death who read his own burial service. The mournful words “Unclean, Unclean” which he uttered, proclaimed that his was both living and moral death. (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah)

With all that as background, we come to the statement in Luke 17:11-12 that as Jesus was traveling near the border of Samaria and Galilee he met a group of lepers. The Bible says that he was one his way to Jerusalem for the last time. Death is on his mind. We do not know precisely where this encounter took place. You could not find this small town on a map. It was somewhere south of Nazareth and Nain and Mount Tabor and somewhere north of Sychar. Jesus and his disciples are walking east toward the Jordan and the region of Perea. If you have visited the Holy Land, you know that even today that region is without large cities and towns. It is a remote area, precisely where you would expect to find a leper colony.

It is no surprise that Jesus encounters these unfortunate men between Galilee and Samaria. Galilee was Jesus’ home base. He was raised there. He had family and boyhood friends there. He made his headquarters at Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Most of his miracles and much of his teaching was done in Galilee. It was the land of his greatest popularity.

But Samaria was another matter. Good Jews avoided Samaria if they could. The story goes back hundreds of year to the Assyrian Captivity which began in 722 B.C. Some of the Jews had intermarried with the Assyrians and had become–in the eyes of their countrymen–half-breeds and traitors. Over the centuries the Samaritans had become a mixed race with a mixed religion.

The Jews hated the Samaritans, and the Samaritans responded in kind.

II. A Profound Miracle

And it is here, on the frontier between Galilee and Samaria, in the DMZ between the Jews and the Samaritans, that Jesus meets ten lepers. Where else could they go? The Jews didn’t want them; neither did the Samaritans.

Verses 12-13 gives us what sounds like an eyewitness account:

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.”

Here is a colony of lepers joined by their common misfortune and misery. Their only uniting characteristic is the foul disease that had cast them out of society. Every detail is true. As Jesus enters the village, these man stand afar off crying out to him for mercy. How did they know who he was? No doubt they had heard the rumors floating across the barren countryside—”This man can heal lepers.” No doubt they discussed it and then discounted it. Even if he could do such a thing, what were the chances that he would ever come to their village?

But now the word spreads—”He’s here.” “Who’s here?” “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I don’t believe it.” “It’s true. He’s here.” “Do you think he could heal us?” “I don’t know. Let’s find out.”

There they stand, the most ragged choir in Israel, ten lepers crying out to Jesus for mercy. No more pitiful sound ever came to our Lord’s ears. “Have mercy. Have Mercy” came the cry from lips that had seen too little mercy and too much condemnation.

As They Went, They Were Healed

What will Jesus do? Will he heal them right then and there? That was certainly within his power and no doubt that was what the lepers hoped for. Instead, Jesus said something that sounds surprising to us.

When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (14). At first glance, you might think that Jesus is simply putting them off. You might even conclude that he didn’t intend to heal them at all. And if you came to that conclusion, you might infer that Jesus meant to impress upon them the hopelessness of their condition. But all those inferences are incorrect. As a matter of fact, Jesus fully intended to heal them and (this is critical) he intended to do it in keeping with the demands of the Law of Moses. Leviticus 14 clearly states that the priest must authenticate any “cure” from leprosy. (“Cure” is in quotes because in reality no one was ever “cured” of leprosy. After many years (15-20 in most cases) the infection was gone and the person—bearing the ravaging marks of the disease—might re-enter society.) If Jesus hadn’t sent the lepers to the priest, no one would have believed the miracle had really taken place.

But that’s not the whole story. The last part of verse 14 says that “as they went they were cleansed.” They were healed as they went. Not before. Not after. That means that when they left to go to the priest, they still had leprosy.

How do you suppose they felt when Jesus said, “Go show yourselves to the priest?” Go show what to the priest? They were still lepers. They didn’t have anything to show that the priest would want to see. In fact, the last thing the priest wanted to see was ten smelly, disheveled, deformed, wretched lepers. I wonder if someone said, “Why bother?” After all, “Once a leper, always a leper.” There were sores everywhere, deformed arms and fingers bitten off by rodents. You could smell the disease a quarter-mile away.

Off they go, doubting all the way, this shuffling band of sufferers marching off to see the priest.

They take one step … and they are still lepers.

They take two steps … and nothing happens.

They take a third step … and the leprosy clings to their limbs.

But on that fourth step … something wonderful, something unbelievable, something they never dreamed possible, happened. With that fourth step, they were healed.

Instantly. Miraculously. All ten at once.

The Curse of Passive Religion

They were healed as they went. Not before. Not after. But in the act of going they were healed. Why? Because it was the act of going that was the act of faith. It didn’t matter how they felt about it. God honored their going in spite of their doubts.

That brings us to a tremendous insight. Our faith moves mountains when our faith moves us. When Jesus said, “Go show the priest” he was really saying, “Act as if you are already healed.” What a great piece of advice that is. So many times we pray and pray and nothing seems to happen. But when our faith–shaky though it may be–finally moves us to action, God honors it and the answer begins to come. Why? Because faith is belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part.

So many of us are trapped by the curse of passive religion. You know what that is, don’t you? It’s the view that says trusting God means letting him do it all. So we pray, “Lord, I need money,” but we refuse to go out and look for a job. We pray, “Lord, help me lose weight,” but we refuse to start exercising. Passive religion uses God as an excuse to do nothing.

Listen, if your name is Noah and God told you it’s going to rain, it’s all right to pray for an ark but while you’re praying, go out and cut down some gopher wood.

If your name is David and you find yourself in a valley facing Goliath, it’s all right to pray for victory, but while you’re praying, pick up some stones, put them in your sling and take dead aim at Goliath’s forehead.

Trusting God does not equal doing nothing. Remember, the ten lepers were healed as they went. Our faith moves mountains when our faith moves us.

III. A Shocking Revelation

So the ten lepers were healed. It is a marvelous miracle, but it is not the end of the story. In fact, that’s not even the heart of the story. Another miracle is about to happen.

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 (15-16).

You know the story. Ten were healed and only one came back to give thanks. Luke says he fell on his face before the Lord. He had what our Pentecostal brothers would call a “Shouting Session.” And why not? He’s been healed of leprosy. For twenty years he was a leper living in this remote corner, separated from his family, forgotten by his friends, cut off from his own people. Suddenly the disease vanishes and with it the twisted limp, the crooked fingers, the atrophied muscles. In less time than it takes to tell the story the disease and all its ugly tentacles are pulled from his body, leaving not a trace behind them. He stretches his arms high above his head and then picks up a stone to see how far he can throw it. He begins to walk and then runs and finally leaps into the air.

He is whole again. Healthy again. Clean again. No longer an outcast.

No wonder he shouted. I would too.

When Luke adds, “He was a Samaritan,” the shock is such that we ought to read it this way: “Think of it. A Samaritan.”

Remember, Jesus was a Jew and the Jews thought Samaritans were half-breed traitors. To make matters worse, he is a Samaritan leper. To a Jew, a more repulsive combination could not be found. He was from the wrong race, he had the wrong religion, and he had the worst-possible disease. In religious matters, this Samaritan knew almost nothing and what he knew was mostly wrong! But he knew Jesus had healed him and he knew enough to be grateful to God. That statement is why this story is in the Bible.

Let me go one step further. Luke doesn’t say so directly, but I think he implies that the other nine were Jews. If that’s so, then what this story really means is that those who should have been most grateful weren’t. And the one man who shouldn’t have come back did.

This whole story pictures life as it really is. First, it is a picture of the abundant grace of God. This is a cure by wholesale–a whole hospital healed with only a word. Ten at a time. It is a vast miracle. Second, it is a picture of prevalent ingratitude. Nine out ten people will probably forget every blessing they ever receive. Third, it is a picture of unexpected grace. Grateful hearts often pop up where you least expect them.

IV. A Penetrating Question

Now we discover what Jesus has to say about all of this:

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” (17-19).

Jesus asks three questions.

1. Were there not ten healed? Yes.

2. Where are the other nine? Gone.

3. Is there no one here but this foreigner? No one.

If you listen carefully, you can hear surprise, shock and most of all sadness. Jesus wanted to know about the others. Where are they? Weren’t they healed? Why didn’t they come back and say “Thank You”?

It’s a good question. Why didn’t they come back?

—Perhaps they were in a hurry to see the priest.

—Perhaps they thought Jesus was gone.

—Perhaps they assumed Jesus knew how grateful they were.

—Perhaps they were too busy.

So where are they now?

Gone off with their blessings.

Gone to see the priest.

Gone to see their families.

Gone with no word of thanks to Jesus.

Here is an amazing fact. You look at these ten lepers and they appear to be alike.

—All had leprosy.

—All were outcasts from society.

—All were determined to do something about it.

—All had heard about Jesus and believed he could help them.

—All appealed to him.

—All obeyed his word.

—All were healed.

On the outside they appear identical. Yet what a difference.

One returned. Nine went on.

One was grateful. Nine were not.

One man found forgiveness. Nine did not.

One man got two miracles. Nine got one.

All ten were healed. That’s one miracle. But the Samaritan was healed and forgiven. That’s two miracles. And that’s what Jesus means when he says, “Your faith has made you well.”

Like Children at the Dinner Table

The question remains: Where are the nine? The answer is, they got what they wanted and left. Jesus performed a mighty miracle for them and they said, “Thanks, Lord, I can take it from here.” They’re like children who eat their fill and then run away from dinner table without a word of thanks. “We’re full now. Let’s go out and play.” I think this is the particular sin of those raised in the church. We have so little sense of what God has done for us. Often we don’t love the Lord very much or feel grateful for his blessings.

We might say it in two different ways:

1. Gratitude is the highest duty of the believer and the supreme virtue, the fountain from which all other blessings flow.

2. Ingratitude is the leprosy of the soul. It eats away on the inside, destroys our happiness, cripples our joy, withers our compassion, paralyzes our praise and renders us numb to all the blessings of God.

Tony Snow

Many of us have been touched by the news that Tony Snow’s colon cancer has returned. Writing about it recently, Cal Thomas began his column (The Tony Snow I Know) this way:

Nobody dislikes Tony Snow. By acclamation, people who know him say the White House press secretary is the most decent, kind and encouraging human being they have ever met.

Speaking to a group of journalists in January, Snow told them, “In many ways, having cancer was the very best thing that ever happened to me, other than marrying my wife.” You wonder what would make a man talk that way about a disease that could take his life. Colon cancer kills thousands of people every year. How could it be any sort of blessing? The answer goes like this. Cancer itself is no blessing, but God often uses it as a vehicle to teach us things we never knew and to deepen our faith. The disease itself is part of the price we pay for living in a fallen world, but through the cancer we may discover what matters most in life. Tony Snow found that his prayers began to change. He began to learn to surrender his life to God:

It’s not just saying ’God, it’s in your hands,’ but understanding whatever may come afterwards is a matter of not trying to get God to do stuff for you, except maybe to mow down some of the barriers that separate you from God, because for all of us, our vanities get in the way.”

As so many others have discovered, his cancer became the pathway of a new-found faith and ultimately of something he didn’t expect–joy.

After his first cancer surgery, Snow said he had to stay in bed and he began reading the Bible more, “learning to pray” and to ask God to “draw me closer, please, (which) develops a hunger that is also a form of joy.”

From cancer to prayer to the Bible to hunger to joy. It is not a path that Tony Snow would have chosen, but he would also say that what he has discovered has made the journey worthwhile.

We go through life saying, “What have you done for me lately, Lord?” And the Lord replies, “If only you knew.” So much of life is about figuring out you’re not in charge and figuring out who is.

Cancer did that for Tony Snow.

Leprosy did that the Samaritan.

One man was healed–and gave glory to God.

One man still battles his disease–and gives glory to God.

Every good thing in the Christian life flows from this mighty fountain. When I realize the goodness of God—not in the abstract or in the theoretical—but personally, particularly to me… Not in general, but what God has done for me!!!

Then (and only then) am I free to go, to pray, to tell.

—I do not need to be coerced.

—I do not need to be pressured.

—When finally we look and see what God has done …

—When finally we count our many blessings and name them one by one …

—When finally we understand that every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights above …

—When finally we see that life itself comes gift-wrapped from on high …

—When we know–really know–that all of life is a grace …

Then do we begin to praise,

Then do we begin to give,

Then do we begin to sing,

Then do we begin to tell,

Then do we begin to serve,

Then do we begin to enter into the “Abundant Life.”

—When finally we learn that we were born lepers …

—When finally we see what Jesus has done for us …

—When it finally breaks through that only by the grace of God do we have anything valuable …

Only then does life really begin to change!!!

At that point, wonderful things begin to happen to us:

What was Duty is now Privilege.

What was Law is now Grace.

What was Demanded is now Volunteered.

What was Forced is now Free.

What was Drudgery is now Joy.

What was Taken for Granted is now Offered Up in Praise to God.

When it finally breaks through to us, then we come running gladly!!!

Ten men were healed that day, but only one came back to give thanks. Are you living with the nine or with the one? Far too many of us take our blessings for granted and groan about duties. Does that sound like you? It doesn’t have to be that way.

Praise is a choice. A thankful heart is a choice you make. No one is forced into bitterness. You choose the way you live. The one who returned to give thanks chose not to forget what Jesus had done for him. The secret of a thankful heart is a conscious choice not to forget what God has done for you.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?