Responding to Mercy: faith

tenlepers11 As he continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was entering a village, ten lepers met (him). They stood at a distance from him 13 and raised their voice, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” 14 And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” As they were going they were cleansed. 15 And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; 16 and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? 18 Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” 19 Then he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”

Stand up and go; your faith has saved [sozo] you” (v.19). Such are the words spoken to the Samaritan leper, the only one who returned and gave thanks to Jesus.  sozo has as a basic meaning, “to rescue from danger and to restore to a former state of safety and well being.” Thus it is translated with words like “save,” “heal,” “make whole,” depending upon how the danger is understood.  How are we to understand the use of sozo here in this verse?

If we take the meaning as “heal” or “make whole” then the question is raised as to the fate of the other nine. If one reads the text closely there is no clear statement or command from Jesus about healing the leprosy.  Jesus simply commands them to show themselves to the priest, who acted as a kind of health inspector (Lev 14:2 ff).  Was Jesus putting their faith to the test to act as though they had been cured? Was Jesus simply responding with the divine graciousness to their plea: “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” Of course, there would be no need to show themselves to any priest unless they were in fact healed, or were healed on the way.  If all ten were healed, then why would Jesus say that the Samaritan’s faith has “healed” him? Were the others healed but without faith? Were they simply evidence to the priests of the breaking in of the reign of God in the person of Jesus? Did the leprosy return to the nine because they failed to return and give thanks to Jesus?

There are other questions that can be fairly read into the gaps of the story. When Jesus commanded them to go to the priests, where were the lepers headed. One might speculate that the nine Galilean lepers were headed to Jerusalem whereas the Samaritan leper would move away from Jerusalem towards Mt. Gerezim.  What is clear is that the cure awoke within the Samaritan, the foreigner, a chord of gratitude. He did not wait to be certified fit to rejoin the community, but returned to Jesus when he saw that he was cured.

Has the Samaritan leper moved away from both locales and become a true worshipper echoing the experience of the Samaritan woman at the well in the 4th Chapter of John: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him” (John 4:21-23).

If the meaning of sozo is taken as “saved” as in having been given eternal life, then other questions are raised.  What about the other nine?  Is this a story of 10 who were healed but only one who was saved? Did the other nine lack faith and thus were not saved? There is nothing in the account which would indicate that the nine lacked faith in God. In truth there is nothing that indicates they lacked gratitude. The nine are blessed and the Mosaic law is enjoined, but their response falls short of that of the Samaritan. But there is something different about the response of the Samaritan.

Green (The Gospel of Luke, 627) writes about the declaration, “your faith has saved you”:

Here, something more than healing must be intended, since (1) the efficacy of faith is mentioned and (2) all ten lepers experienced cleansing. The Samaritan was not only cleansed, but on account of faith gained something more – namely, insight into Jesus’ role in the inbreaking kingdom. He is enabled to see and is thus enlightened, itself a metaphor for redemption.

The Samaritan was enabled to see the Messiah and so “returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” The writer Robert Barron puts it another way:

Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing. Everything else in Christian life flows from and circles around the transformation of vision. Christians see differently, and that is why their prayer, their worship, the action, their whole way of being in the world, as a distinctive accent and flavor. What unites figures as diverse as James Joyce, Caravaggio, John Milton, the architect of Chartres, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the later Bob Dylan is a peculiar and distinctive take on things, a style, a way, which flows finally from Jesus of Nazareth.

Origen of Alexandria once remarked that holiness is seeing with the eyes of Christ. Teilhard de Chardin said with great passion that his mission as a Christian thinker was to help people see, and Thomas Aquinas said that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is a “beatific vision,” an act of seeing.

Perhaps this encounter on the road to Jerusalem relates the typical pattern of God’s activities throughout scriptures – namely, God acts first. God did not tell the Israelites in Egypt, “If you only had enough faith, I would lead you to the promised land.” God led them out of slavery to Canaan. God did not tell us, “If you only had enough faith, I would send Jesus to suffer and die for your sins.” It was because we had no faith that he sent us Jesus. As Paul writes in Romans 5:8: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” God doesn’t wait for us to have enough faith. God acts first. Then our proper response to God’s actions is praise and thanksgiving because we have accepted the gift of seeing God’s hand in what has happened. [1]

It is highly possible that the other nine may have attributed their healings to God. However, they didn’t make the connection between God and Jesus of Nazareth. The nine may have been praising God during their whole journey to the temple. Yet the one saw what could only be seen through the eyes of faith: that Jesus is the power of God. This is but a prelude to asking that we see and believe that the dying Jesus is the power of God.

The response of the nine raises a good question: can’t God be praised everywhere?  Yes…. but the story seems to be telling us that praising God and thanking Jesus should go together.  In our story, the place to praise God is at the feet of Jesus. Faith, beyond being a response of thanksgiving, is seeing the connection between praising God and worshiping and thanking Jesus. The word for “thanks” is eucharisteo – the word Luke uses for his narrative of the institution of the Eucharist. A Catholic perspective from this story is that praising God and thanking Jesus is done, more fully, more completely, in our worship of the Mass, where our worship, praise and thanksgiving is done because we are gifted with seeing Jesus in the Eucharist.


[1] In a small way, this encounter highlights a recurring theme in Luke. The story foreshadows Paul’s final words in Acts, citing Isaiah 69-10, addressing the faith of foreigners and the blindness of Israel: “25 … Paul made one final statement. ‘Well did the holy Spirit speak to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, saying: 26 ‘Go to this people and say: You shall indeed hear but not understand. You shall indeed look but never see. 27 Gross is the heart of this people; they will not hear with their ears; they have closed their eyes, so they may not see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.’ ” (Acts 28:25-27). Paul’s final words reflect a major concern of Luke’s writings: how the salvation promised in the Old Testament, accomplished by Jesus, and offered first to Israel (Acts 13:26), has now been offered to and accepted by the Gentiles.


Notes

Luke 17:11 his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee: the expression dia meson (“through” in our translation) is literally “in the middle of” – strictly speaking there is no region between Samaria and Galilee. Since Galilee lay above Samaria, Jesus may have traveled near the border between the two regions as he made his way down to the Jordan to skirt around Samaria.  In any case, the geographical reference is vague at best.

Luke 17:12 lepers: literally leprós andres, scabby men.  The adjective leprós (from the verb root meaning “to scale or peel off”) has the sense of “scaly,” “scabby,” “not smooth on the surface.” It can be used of uneven and stony ground, but also of leprosy, in which the skin becomes rough and scabby. The related noun lépra and its derivatives etc. are used only of leprosy. The LXX uses lépra for צָרַעַת, which is found especially in Leviticus 13 ff, or נֶגַע־צָרַעַת, Lv. 13:20.

In the NT lépra and leprós refer to the same ailment, or group of ailments, as the words denote in the OT or LXX. This is shown by the reference to the OT in Luke 4:27; Mt. 11:5 and paralles, and to the OT ritual of purification in Mk. 1:44 (Luke 17:14). Whether this sickness is what we now call leprosy may be questioned. But the precise medical identification of the disease does not affect our estimation of the accounts of healing. If the tradition emphasizes particularly that Jesus healed lepers, this is linked with the fact that Judaism expected the removal of this affliction in the time of Messianic salvation, cf. the reply of Jesus to the Baptist in Mt. 11:5 and the power given to the disciples in Mt. 10:8. Accounts of such healings are to be found in Mk. 1:40 ff. and parallels as well as Luke 17:12 ff. (cf. also Mt. 10:8). [TDNT]

Luke 17:13 Master! Have pity on us!:  This is the only time Jesus is called “master” (epistátēs ) by someone not a disciple. The lepers call out for eleéō which the majority of modern commentaries translate as mercy from eleéō, to show mercy.

Luke 17:14 Go show yourselves to the priests: The command to the lepers is the same as the first healing of lepers in Luke 5:14: “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” This is a reference to Lev 14:2–9 that gives detailed instructions for the purification of one who had been a victim of leprosy and thereby excluded from contact with others (see Lev 13:45–46,49; Numbers 5:2–3). In Luke 5 (and its parallel in Matthew 8:4, the expression that will be proof for them: in the Greek can also mean “that will be proof against them.” Although that added phrase is lacking in our text, given the rising conflict with the Pharisees in the text leading up to Luke 17, one would be justified in understanding such an echo and accusation.

Luke 17:15 glorifying God in a loud voice:  Throughout Luke-Acts this is held as the proper response to the working of a miracle (5:25-26; 7:16; 13:13; 18:43; Acts 4:21; 11:18; 13:48)

Luke 17:16 he fell at the feet of Jesus: Luke also uses such acts of prostration as a proper response (5:12; 7:38; 8:35, 41; 10:39) to God’s gracious intervention. and thanked him: What is unusual in this verse is the presence of eucháristōn. This forms a triptych: giving glory to God, taking a posture of submission (or worship?) and then thanking the one who is the object of the glory and worship.  He was a Samaritan: In the parable of the Good Samarian the foreigner is the example of Godly love and mercy. Here the Samaritan is the foreigner who is the exemplar of faith.

Luke 17:17 foreigner: This is the only place in the NT that the word allogenḗs is used.  The same word was used in an inscription in the temple in Jerusalem: “no foreigner is to enter.” The same word was used in the Septuagint in laws that forbade outsiders from coming near the tabernacle, with a penalty of death for those who did (Numbers 1:51; 3:10, 38; 16:40; 18:4, 7; Ezekiel 44:7, 9).

Sources

  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 257-62
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) p. 967
  • Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988) pp. 274-76
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 615-27
  • Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 324-28
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985)
    Büschel, allogenḗs, 1:264–67
    Michaelis, lépra / leprós 4:233–34
  • Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament  : Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible societies, 1996, c1989)
    sozo, Vol. 2:240
  • Scripture –  quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. ©

 

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