Leprosy and Legalism: Luke 17

Paul’s radical Gospel, that justification is through faith, and is not limited to the Jews alone, isn’t Paul’s.  It’s Christ’s.  And while I generally think of the Gospel of John as focusing  more on the idea of justification than the Synoptics, one of my favorite passages on the issue is from Luke.  Namely, Luke 17:11-19:

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

There’s a lot to dissect here, so let’s just go verse by verse:

  • Lk 17:11 – First, note the setting, because it’s not insignificant.  Jesus is on the border between Samaria and Galilee, the place where the worlds of the Jews and the Gentiles pressed up against each other.  He isn’t isolating Himself in the comfortable world of Israel, but He isn’t forsaking Israel, either. In the very path He walks, He’s signalling that He’s come to draw the Jews and Gentiles together – and that He’s the crossing over point for Gentiles to be chosen in the sight of God.  Paul makes this point explicit in Romans 2:28-29, but Jesus simply hints at it through His actions here.  Elsewhere, He make it explicit, like John 10:16-17.
  • Lk 17:11 – The second thing to notice about the setting is that Jesus is walking on the border on His way to Jerusalem.  He’s not just paying a visit: He’s walking to the Cross.  In the next chapter of Luke, Jesus explains the purpose of the journey this way (Luke 18:31-33):

“We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”

Just as Christ draws the faithful Jews and Gentiles together at the Cross (He hints at this strongly in John 10:16-17), so too He draws together the unfaithful Jews and Gentiles as well, with the two enemies laying aside their grievances to try and eliminate a common threat: Christ Himself. This is also prefigured in this passage: the lepers in this passage are apparently a mixed bunch of Jews and Samaritans, united in their uncleanliness.

  • Lk 17:12 – Now look at the next verse.  Jesus is going “into a village” (Luke doesn’t say which side of the border), and the lepers are outside of it.  This isn’t accidental.  They’ve been isolated under the Law.  This is pursuant to Leviticus 13:45-46, which quarantines those with the disease of leprosy.  In the words of Leviticus 13:56,  “they must live outside the camp.”  Christ, who though sinless, became sin for us, was also disgraced in this manner, made to walk from Jerusalem to Golgotha.  Hebrews 13:11 says as much, before instructing us in v. 13: “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.
  • Lk 17:12 – Jesus says He’s come, not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).  That’s clear here.  Under the Mosaic Law, lepers were quarantined, which was shameful but necessary — otherwise, they’d infect others, and the early Jews had no cure for the terrible disease.  The rest of the Law did the same for sin, as well – sinners were to be shunned or killed.  But the reason was the same: if you can’t cure the disease, isolate or destroy those carrying the disease.  This is done even of physically and spiritually objects, because the Law demanded total purity.  But all of this existed only because they couldn’t cure the disease of leprosy, or of sin.  Once they’re cured, there’s no need for the Law’s harshness – it acknowledges as much internally (again, Leviticus 13:6).  Likewise, when Christ comes and fulfills the Law, He provides a cure first for physical ailments during His earthly ministry, but then for spiritual ones, through His Death and Resurrection.  The Law is no longer needed: it’s served its purpose.
  • Lk 17:12-13 – These ten lepers cry out to Jesus loudly, but from a distance:  “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” They’re aware of their own disease, and know that they shouldn’t be in the presence of One who is undiseased, yet they also know that – somehow – this undiseased One can take away their disease.  I don’t think I need to spell out that the same is true of our sinfulness: we’re too sinful to stand in the presence of God, too sinful to enter Heaven.  But through Christ, we can be cured of the awful ravages of sin, and walk amongst the Living.  This interpretation isn’t a stretch at all.  Even the Old Testament depicts leprosy as representing sin, curable through faith and baptism (see 2 Kings 5 for God laying out the foreshadowing in pretty obvious terms).
  • Lk. 17:14 – Jesus’ response is “Go, show yourself to the priests.”  It’s obedience to the Law.  Leviticus 13:1-6 instructs those with skin diseases to go the priest.
  • Lk. 17:14  As they went, the men are healed.  This is perhaps the most important verse.  They’re not healed by the priest, or by the Law, but by obedience to God through the Law.  That’s a distinct which is easy to lose, but it’s incredibly important.  It’s the way that the faithful before Christ were saved – those Old Testament saved aren’t in Heaven because they upheld the Law (as if the Law itself saved them), but because they did whatever God told them to, in faith.  In Genesis, Abraham isn’t justified because he sacrifices Isaac, but because he’s willing to do whatever God says (even sacrifice Isaac). So it’s not Isaac’s blood which justifies, but Abraham’s active faith.  Hebrews 11:19 and James 2:21 make this same point, but from different directions: Hebrews notes that Abraham is saved through faith, rather than the actual sacrifice, while James agrees, but notes that Abraham still has to act on that faith.  Jesus fulfills the Law, but the way that faith works remains unchanged.  In John 9, Jesus spits in the mud and puts it on the eyes of a man, and sends him to wash it off.  In washing, he’s cleansed – another prefigurement of Baptism, and another example of what I’m talking about here.  Obviously, the mud didn’t cure the man, and he didn’t think it did (John 9:30).
  • Lk. 17:14 – Jesus has sent the men to the high priest, that is, towards Jerusalem – the very place Christ Himself is going.  Likewise, we’re called to take up our cross and follow Christ (Luke 9:23).
  • Lk. 17:14 – Note that the priest can only declare men clean (Leviticus 13:6), while Christ can make them so, as He does here.  As Catholics, we believe God doesn’t just “declare us” righteous, as Luther taught, but that He has the power to actually make us so.
  • Lk. 17:15 – Only one of the ten lepers seems to grasp this point, that the healing comes from God through faithful obedience, not through mechanically following through the actions.  Once he’s actually made clean, he goes to thank God, the source of the healing, rather than blindly obeying the Law.  He was obeying the Law only because Christ told him to, in order to be healed, not because the Law was good apart from God.
  • Lk. 17:16 – Luke captures the radical notion that Gentiles can be saved beautifully here: “He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.”  This man, a Samaritan, is worshiping the King of the Jews.  Note also his posture is one of worship and prostration.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, the faithful do this in the New Testament.  They worship Christ, and He never rebukes them.  In fact, He does something much more incredible in v. 18, but we’ll get there shortly.
  • Lk. 17:17 – The questions Jesus asks here is rhetorical, as is His style (see Genesis 3:9 onwards).  He’s asking it of the man, and Luke includes it, so that we think about it, not because He’s actually confused. His point hits close to home: God Himself has healed them, upon request.  And while they were, in sickness, willing to cry out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”, once they’re healed, they promptly forget about the One who healed them.  Far too often we’re like this: we ask God for things constantly, and when He gives them to us, we immediately forget about Him, until the next time we need a favor.
  • Lk. 17:18 – Another rhetorical question, this one hitting close to home for Luke’s Jewish audience.  As I noted above, Jesus’ question makes it clear that not all the lepers were Samaritans. The Jews and Samaritans, too good for one another in health, bonded together out of necessity when they were diseased.  After all, a community of ten lepers, miserable as it is, is less awful than a community of only five.  The same point from Jesus’ last question could be made here: in sickness, the ten men were united.  Once healed, they abandon each other as well as God.  But there’s a bigger point: Jesus is showing that in following God’s Law faithfully, even a Samaritan can be saved.  Not a radical idea today, but it certainly was back then.  Paul spends so much of Romans trying to explain this logically, that a just God doesn’t play favorites (Romans 2:11), both Jews and Gentiles are sinful and in need of a Savior (Romans 3:23), and all may be saved through Christ (Romans 10:11), by following the Law of Christ by loving (Romans 13:8).  Jesus does it all much more succinctly, a single thought-provoking question that leads to the same conclusions. A Samaritan healed by, and worshiping, the true God of Israel.
  • Lk. 17:19 – Jesus ends the lesson on justification.  He explains that faith healed the man, but not an inactive faith – the man had to walk to be cleansed of his physical ailment.  But Christ doesn’t mean his physical sickness, of course – He’s referring to the man’s spiritual sickness.  All ten men were sick with sin as well as leprosy.  Only one of the men was cured of this deeper illness, and it’s because he acted in faith, by falling down and worshiping Christ humbly.
  • Lk. 17:19 – Christ ends the lesson, “Rise and go,” just as in John 9:7, St. John is clearly fixated on the idea that  Jesus has told the man “Go.”  In John 9, we get to see what that sending looks like: the man is proclaiming the salvation of God in the Person of Jesus Christ.  Romans 10:15 tells us we need to be sent to preach Christ.  At the end of the Mass, we are, in a particular way, called to do just that.  In fact, the word Mass comes from the Latin phrase concluding the Liturgy, “Ite, missa est,” which literally meant “Go: it is the dismissal.”  In other words, the Mass ends with a “rise and go,” just as Jesus ends this miniature Liturgy.
Like I said, it’s an awesome passage.

5 Comments

  1. Another fine reason why I keep coming back to your blog Joe. Well done! Very insightful! I especially loved how you explained how Jesus came to fulfill the law and not to abolish it.

  2. As another duly impressed reader, if I can steal that offer…

    My request is for an examination of the “this generation will not pass away” line in Matthew’s “little apocalypse” (Mt. 24:34). Obviously, the most obvious interpretation of this line is false and enemies of the Church often use it to bully believers. My question is: What is the Catholic interpretation?

    I’ve always thought that he must not mean “generation” to mean “the people alive today” but rather something like “the Church”. The evidence for this comes right from the text because the next verse (“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away”) flows much more easily if it is a rephrasing of the previous point about His movement than if he just suddenly changed the topic to something that would never pass away.

    I think this was the point made in Bede’s commentary on the subject. But I’ve heard that the authenticity of that commentary is doubtful.

    Still, this has always troubled me. And I wonder if you have a response.

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