Jesus and the Ten Lepers: On Gratitude | Luke 17:11-19
Brian Hedges | May 21, 2023
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to Luke 17. We’re in the Gospel According to Luke, the seventeenth chapter. I’ll be reading Luke 17:11-19.
While you’re turning there, let me tell you a story. Years ago, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, had a lifesaving squad that would help passengers on Lake Michigan boats. If they ran into trouble and they needed rescue, this squad would go out to help them. This was during the 19th century, and on September 8, 1860, a passenger boat called Lady Elgin floundered near Evanston, and people’s lives were at risk of drowning. There was a ministerial student named Edward Spencer, a student at Northwestern University, who put his life on the line to rescue many of the people who were at risk of drowning. He actually personally rescued seventeen people. It was an incredible feat of strength and an expenditure of energy and exertion, and it did permanent damage to his health, such that he never fully recovered. He was unable to complete his training for the ministry and he never was able to become a pastor.
The sad thing about this story is that, years later, when he was asked by a reporter what he most recalled about the rescue, this is what he said: “Only this: of the seventeen people I saved, none of them thanked me.”
It’s almost hard to believe that people whose lives were at such risk who were rescued by the heroic actions of someone would not say thank you. Yet we live in a world that is marked by ingratitude. When the apostle Paul gives his diagnosis of the human condition in Romans 1, one of the things he says is that they did not thank God.
We live in a world that is full of ingratitude, such that psychologists and scientists and researchers actually have tried to look into the health-giving benefits of gratitude, noticing its absence. One man named Robert Emmons wrote a book called Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. It is what you would expect, a self-help book that’s talking about how gratitude can improve your life, make you happier, make you healthier, improve your relationships, marriage, and so on.
But Emmons also points out some of the obstacles to gratitude in our culture today, “powerful elements,” he says, “that work against gratitude.” He names things such as self-sufficiency, the inability to acknowledge dependence on God or others, comparing ourselves with other people, perceptions of victimhood, and of course, the real suffering that many have experienced in their lives. And yet, in spite of that, Emmons points out that there are some people who, even in the face of incredible difficulty and great suffering, have learned to live their lives with habits of gratitude, such that they flourish even through the difficulty, even through the hard times.
Emmons concludes, “It is gratitude that enables us to be fully human.”
Now, that’s a secular perspective, but I want us to think about gratitude this morning from a Christian perspective, as we look at a story in the Bible where a number of people benefited from Jesus and yet only one person came back to express thanks.
We could say that gratitude is a Christian virtue. It is the response of the redeemed person to the goodness of God and the lavish grace given to us in Jesus Christ, and we need gratitude in our lives, not just because it’s better for us but because God is worthy to receive our thanks and our praise and our gratefulness.
We’re looking at Luke 17:11-19, and this is the final installment in our series, a six-week series called “Conversations with Jesus.” We’ve been looking at these encounters that people had with Jesus that are distinctive to the Gospel of Luke—they’re only recorded in this Gospel—and in each one of these we’ve been trying to highlight at least one particular aspect of this that is helpful for understanding the Christian life and living the Christian life. Today that focus is gratitude
So let’s read the text, Luke 17:11-19. It says,
“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.’”
This is God’s word.
This is actually a very simple story, a very simple account of one Jesus’ healing miracles. I think it has one primary point to teach us, and that is the importance of expressing gratitude in our lives.
The way I want to approach this is to just work through the story by pointing out three things:
1. A Picture of Our Need for Mercy
2. The Contrasting Responses
3. What Made the Difference between Them?
Then at the end, I want to give you three takeaways for growing in gratitude in your life.
1. A Picture of Our Need for Mercy
First of all and briefly, just notice the scene. It is described for us in a way that gives us a picture of our need for mercy. Jesus here is on the way to Jerusalem—Jerusalem is always on the horizon, especially in the Gospel of Luke, as Jesus is moving to Jerusalem for his week of passion, his suffering, the cross, and then the resurrection. As he’s headed to Jerusalem he passes along between Samaria and Galilee, probably a border village, and he enters a village where he’s met by these ten lepers who stood at a distance.
Leprosy was a skin disease, and it probably referred to a number of different possible skin diseases that were common during that time. Of course, if you know the Old Testament you know that the Old Testament proscribed very special rules for how skin diseases like this were to be handled. The commentaries today seem to agree that this was probably not what we would think of as leprosy today, not Hansen’s disease, but other skin conditions such as lupus or ringworm. The real problem was that whatever these skin conditions were they would render a person ceremonially unclean, ritually unclean, which meant they couldn’t come to the tabernacle or the temple. It meant that they could not associate with other people; to touch someone else was to make someone else unclean. So to be a leper was not only to have a medical problem, it was to be confined to a life of isolation. It was to be socially and publicly ostracized.
In fact, the lepers would have to declare themselves unclean when they were in a public setting so that no one would come near them.
Just try to remember for a moment what the three months of isolation were like during the COVID shutdown. You remember how we were all about to go out of our minds because we were not in contact with other people. Of course, we were able to still do Facetime and Skype and Zoom and those kinds of things, but imagine what it would be like in this day and age when you were just one segment of society and you were the ones who were ostracized, you were the ones who were isolated, you were the ones that can’t have contact with anybody else; and you have to hold a sign up saying what your problem is. It was an incredibly isolating experience. It led to social ostracism and, of course, deep loneliness in the lives of these people, as they were separated not only from the religious community but also from their friends and families.
I think that for anyone who had been diagnosed with leprosy of any of these kinds, their experience would have been very much like someone today who is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. There’s always a before and an after: before the cancer diagnosis, then after; before you find out you have ALS, and then after; before Alzheimer's and after. Even families who walk through this with a family member sort of look at their lives from that time forward as the before and after. Before, when things seemed like they were great, and then after that diagnosis comes, and everything changes.
That’s where these people were. They were living in that moment after, when their lives had fallen apart, they were isolated, they were alone, and they were in great need.
I think it is a picture for us—it’s a genuine historical event, but it’s also a picture for us of our own condition through what John Calvin called “the contagion of sin.” We all have sinned, and in our sin we have rendered ourselves unclean, unfit to come into the presence of God. And our sin increasingly leads to isolation and to desperate breakdown in our lives and in our world. The longer you live, the more you see and experience the devastating effects of sin in your life and in your relationships. We know what it is to live with the kind of isolation that comes from sin.
It is a picture of our need for mercy. Then you see how they responded. They are standing at a distance—there’s the isolation—and then in verse 13 it says, “They lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” It’s a variation of what’s been called the Jesus prayer: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” It is the cry for mercy.
I would commend this to you. If you don’t know what to pray, if you’ve never really cultivated a prayer life and you don’t know where to start, this is a good prayer to start with. Just say, “Jesus, Master, Lord, have mercy on me.” It’s a prayer that Jesus delights to answer.
They ask for mercy, and the Lord responds in verse 14. “When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’” He doesn’t tell them that they will be healed, he doesn’t heal them on the spot, but he gives them instructions. These fit with the Old Testament levitical law, found in Leviticus 13-14, because the priest was something like a medical officer, and the priest had to declare someone ceremonially clean before they could return to the temple, before they could return to normal life. So Jesus directs them to go to the priest.
Then it says in verse 14 that “as they went, they were cleansed.” They obeyed Jesus’ very basic instructions and in so doing they experienced a supernatural, miraculous healing, all because they had asked the Lord for mercy.
I want to ask you this morning, have you sought the Lord for mercy? Have you asked God to be merciful to you, a sinner? In your circumstances, in your situation in life, in whatever difficulties you are facing, whether these are health difficulties or whether it’s spiritual or emotional or relational, have you not tried to fix the problem yourself, but have you recognized your need for help from beyond yourself, and have you asked the Lord for mercy? This story pictures our need for mercy.
2. The Contrasting Responses
Then in the second half of the story you see the contrasting responses between all those who received mercy, but between the nine who you never hear another word from and the one who returned. In fact, one of the commentaries points out that the story really falls in two halves, two parts. There’s a part one and a part two. You can see this on a chart.
You can see the contrast between the ten and the one. In the first part of the story the ten come to Jesus, in the second half just the one returns. In the first part of the story the ten lepers are keeping their distance from Jesus; in contrast to that, the one who returns comes and falls at Jesus’ feet. The ten cry out for mercy, but only one returns to praise God for receiving mercy. Jesus sends the ten to the priests, but he also sends the one with other words, as we’ll see in a moment, words of great encouragement. The ten are cleansed, but only one is saved.
What’s remarkable about this response is who it came from. You could say that from the nine there is a glaring absence, an absence of gratitude; but from the one—and a surprising one at that—there is a response of deep gratefulness and joy. You see it in verse 15.
“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back—” so it seems like he never even makes it to the priest. He turns back, “praising God with a loud voice.” Here’s gratitude that is expressed with vocal words, loud for everyone to hear. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet—it’s the posture that we find so many people at in the Gospel of Luke; they’re at Jesus’ feet worshiping him. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. And then here’s the punch line—this is the surprise in the story; it’s easy for us to miss this, removed as we are from this culture—the surprise is that he was a Samaritan. It was a Samaritan that returned and gave thanks.
Jesus calls attention to this in verse 17. He says, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” So Jesus calls attention to the fact that this is a Samaritan; he’s a foreigner. In fact, that word “foreigner,” Garland tells us in his commentary, is the same term that appears on inscriptions found on the balustrades surrounding the temple warning that no alien, no foreigner, may go beyond this point, and if he does he’ll suffer the penalty of death. The foreigners weren’t allowed into the temple! But here’s the foreigner, here’s the Samaritan, and he comes to Jesus and falls at Jesus’ feet. He’s the one who returns with worship, in contrast to (presumably) the nine Jewish lepers, who did not return any thanks.
As I said, it’s easy for us to miss the significance of this, that it’s a Samaritan. What you have to understand is that the Samaritans were considered not only another race, and an ethnically inferior race at that to the Jews, because they were half-breeds, but they were also religious apostates, because the Samaritans really came from the northern kingdom of Israel, which in the Old Testament had split into two, the north and the south. Those in the north had built their own capital, Samaria, they’d built their own temple, so they’re no longer worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem; and you may remember that the very first king, Jeroboam, had built not one golden calf but two golden calves! So they’re repeating the sin of the children of Israel in double form as they worship these golden calves.
From that time on, the Samaritans are considered idolaters, they’re considered apostates. They were the first to experience the judgment of God in exile. They’re the first ones to receive the curses of God for breaking the covenant. From that time forth, the Jews, those who inhabit Judea in the south, will look down on the Samaritans.
Here is this half-breed, this apostate, this person who in their minds would have been worse than a Gentile, and he’s the one who Jesus highlights and says, “He’s the one who has come and has given thanks.”
I think the contrast teaches us some important lessons. It shows us—I’m borrowing this language from a pastor named Josh Surratt—that many people can have the same encounter with Jesus and not walk away with the same change. I mean, the ten all got healed, but only one returned. Only one seems like his life is completely turned around in relation to Jesus. The rest go back to life as normal, life like before, presumably. They go back to their homes, they go back to their family, maybe they’re back at the temple, but they’re not becoming a part of Jesus’ community. They all have an encounter with Jesus, but they’re not all equally affected.
Have you ever wondered what makes the difference? What makes the difference between those people who have equal exposure to church, equal exposure to the Bible, equal exposure to the gospel—maybe they’re raised in the same Christian family, they’re raised in the same church, they get the same information—but their lives are not changed in the same way? What makes the difference? Not everybody is affected the same way. We’ll see the difference in just a moment.
Another thing this passage shows us is that sometimes it’s the most unlikely people who have the most transformational encounters with the Lord. Sometimes it’s the people you don’t expect. Over and over again in the Gospel of Luke it’s the outsiders, it’s the sinners, it’s the tax collectors, it’s the prostitutes, it’s the unclean, it’s the poor, it’s the people you would least expect who are the ones who have the most transforming experience in relation to Jesus. Other people would have looked down on this Samaritan, but Jesus doesn’t. Jesus reaches out to him, Jesus receives him, Jesus commends him for his faith.
It just reminds us that we should be always on the lookout for God’s work, even in the most unlikely of places. Dale Ralph Davis, in his exposition of this story, tells about the revival that took place in the mid-twentieth century in the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland. There was a great revival; I’ve talked about this before. There’s a great book on this called Sounds from Heaven. He quotes from this book, Sounds from Heaven, and the interesting thing about this revival is the group of Christians it took place within. You have to understand that there had been a major divide within the Christian church of Scotland a couple of hundred years before. There was a division, so that you had the Free Church of Scotland—those were the conservatives, those were the evangelicals, those were the ones who broke off—and you had the Church of Scotland, which was the more mainline, more liberal-leaning denomination.
What’s interesting is that when the revival took place in the Hebrides Islands in the mid-twentieth century, it wasn’t in the Free Church of Scotland, it was in the Church of Scotland, so that a lot of the conservatives were looking at it with disdain. They weren’t believing what was happening. Davis quotes a Free Church elder who was altogether opposed to the revival. He had prayed for it, but it could not come through the Church of Scotland.
Can’t we be like that ourselves? We think God’s going to work, but he’s only going to work within our little group. He’s only going to work with people who have the same theology we have or who worship the same way we worship. He’s only going to work within our stream of Christianity. We look askance at those who are different from us, not realizing that sometimes God works in the most unlikely of places.
Or maybe we do it with certain kinds of sins. We believe that God can forgive certain kinds of sinners, but the really, really awful sinners we don’t expect God to work in, and we’re suspicious when they have a dramatic turnaround, and then they’re in the church, full of worship and praise to God. We look at that with suspicion.
Stories like this in the Bible should remind us that God often saves the most unlikely people. Why does he do it? He does it because it gives him the greatest glory. He takes the most desperate cases of all and he brings them to himself.
3. What Made the Difference?
What is it that made the difference with this one man? What distinguished him from the nine? That’s point number three: What made the difference?
You see it in verse 19 in the words of Jesus to him. Jesus says to this man, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Faith is what made the difference. I think this Samaritan leper who has been healed is for us a model of faith. He is an example of faith. What is faith? Faith is trust in Jesus Christ, dependence on Jesus Christ. You can see some things about him that make his response different from the other nine.
Here’s one: he not only received the gift, but he came back and he thanked the giver. Here was a man who, when he saw who Jesus was and what Jesus did, was more taken with the person of Jesus Christ than with what Jesus would do for him. Sometimes we love the gifts of God, but we forget that God himself is the giver. We love the blessings, but we forget the blesser. We’re all about what we can get out of God, but we don’t really give ourselves back to him in thankful worship and praise. But here’s a man who, as soon as he realizes he’s healed, he comes back, glorifying God, praising God with a loud voice, and he gives thanks to Jesus, falling at his feet. His faith overflows in praise and in gratitude.
Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” That phrase “made you well” translates a Greek word that can have a number of different connotations. It can refer to physical healing, being made whole; but it’s also the word that can refer to salvation. So it very well could read, “Your faith has saved you.”
The fact is that all of the lepers had been healed physically, but only to this one does Jesus say, “Your faith has saved you. Your faith has made you well.”
Again, a commentator points out this formula: “Your faith has saved you or made you well.” When that phrase is used in the Gospel of Luke it’s used in a particular way to particular people. It’s used of the sinful woman in Luke 7:50—remember Brad’s sermon on this a few weeks ago. Here was this woman who saw her sins and saw how much she had been forgiven, and because she had been forgiven much she loved much, so she comes to Jesus and, in a very socially unacceptable way, she begins to cry and to weep and she’s washing his feet with her tears, she’s drying his feet with her hair. Jesus says to her, “Your faith has saved you.”
It’s used in Luke 8:48 when the woman with the issue of blood—for years and years she’s had this physical problem and no doctors have been able to help her; she’s also ceremonially unclean, but she says, “If I could just touch the hem of his garment I’ll be made well.” She does, she’s healed, and Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”
It’s used again in Luke 18:42 of the blind man in Jericho. He’s there on the side of the road, and he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It’s very similar to the prayer here. And Jesus tells him, “Your faith has made you well.”
James Edwards then says, “This benediction [‘Your faith has saved you,’ or, ‘Your faith has made you well’] is never used of a Pharisee or a Jewish leader, but only of sinners, outsiders, the unclean, and the needy, for of such is the kingdom of God.”
What makes the difference? What makes some people overflowing with gratitude to God while others remain basically indifferent in spite of all the gifts that they receive? The difference is faith. Faith is the source of gratitude.
I want to end by thinking about how we can grow in gratitude. We spent some time just trying to understand the story and how it unfolds and what’s at the heart of this man’s gratitude. It’s faith in Christ and deep, grateful worship for the grace received. But how can we grow in gratitude? I want to give you three ways, three steps. These are three practical takeaways, three things that you can do to cultivate grateful worship to God in your life.
(1) Number one, write down your gratitude to God. Write it down. Here’s what I mean—you could do this in several ways—you could keep a gratitude journal, where you make a list of the things that you are thankful for. You could write a prayer of gratitude to God. You could write something like a psalm, where you write your psalm of thanks, your prayer of thanks, maybe your song of thanks out to the Lord. It’s a discipline to actually write it down. Here’s what it does: it forces you to think, it forces you to slow down, it forces you to actually articulate it and not just say, “Yes, I’m a grateful person,” without ever saying thank you.
Listen: if you never say thank you, you’re not a grateful person! You have to say it! You either say it out loud or you write it down. Writing it down can be a very helpful discipline. Gratitude is incomplete until it is expressed, and if we want to have lives that overflow in gratitude we have to build some disciplines into our lives where we’re doing this.
I love those words of the Puritan poet George Herbert. He said,
Not thankfull, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare dayes:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
God never takes a day off from blessing, therefore our very heartbeat, our pulse, should be to praise him. Let’s be intentional with that. Write down your gratitude to God.
The biblical justification for that is that the psalmists wrote it down, and they said, “Give thanks to the Lord, for—” and they listed the reasons. Write it down.
(2) Number two, thank the Lord even in hard seasons. Here’s the challenge. Sometimes it’s hard to give thanks to God. Yet Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5, “In everything give thanks.” In everything.
I don’t think that necessarily means that we thank God for every single circumstance. There are bad things that happen in the world. We don’t thank God for sinful things. We don’t thank God for tragedies. But in it we can thank him, and we can thank him that he’s working out his good purposes in spite of it all. We can thank him that his purposes will not be thwarted. We can thank him for his presence with us in it and through it. There’s always reason to give thanks to God. We just need to be reminded of those reasons.
The Catholic author G.K. Chesterton one time said, “If my children wake up on Christmas morning and have somebody to thank for putting candy in their stockings, have I no one to thank for putting two legs into mine?” Have you ever thanked God for your two legs? Have you ever thanked God for the basic health, the breath that you breathe moment by moment, day by day, for the basic provisions of life?
Here’s an example, an illustration of someone who thanked God and found reasons to thank God even when things were difficult: the Puritan Matthew Henry, famous for his commentary. There’s a story about Matthew Henry that one day he was robbed. He was basically mugged. Somebody on the road when he was traveling stopped him, attacked him, robbed him, took his money.
Matthew Henry wrote in his journal (which was published later) these words:
“Let me be thankful, first, because he never robbed me before; second, because although he took my purse he did not take my life; third, because although he took all I possessed it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.”
That’s a good perspective. Here’s someone who was able to find reasons to be thankful to God, even in difficult circumstances. You and I need to cultivate that attitude as well.
(3) Finally—here’s the third thing—come to the table with a grateful heart. There’s a reason why we come to the Lord’s table every week. It is a crucial part of our worship, and you may know that in many Christian traditions the Lord’s Table is called the Eucharist. That’s not a Catholic thing; the word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” It is a thanksgiving meal. It is the meal by which we celebrate and give thanks to God.
As we come to the table week by week—I know that doing it every week may sometimes feel like you’re just going through the motions, but I want us to engage mind and heart and realize what we’re doing. We come to the table every week, and again and again we take the bread, we take the juice to remind us that every single breath we breathe, every blessing that ever comes to us from the hands of God, every spiritual blessing we have received in and through Jesus Christ, every sin forgiven—everything is blood-bought. It’s all paid for by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. So we never outgrow our need to say thank you, and when we realize what he’s done, when we think about what he’s suffered on our behalf that he did for us—he didn’t have to do it for us! We were his enemies, and yet he died for us. He loved us that much to give us mercy at the cost of his own life. We think about that—how could we not say thank you to the Lord Jesus?
So as we come to the table week by week and as we come to the table this morning, brothers and sisters, let’s come with thankful hearts, let’s come remembering what Christ has done for us, praising and worshiping him as the only appropriate response of hearts that have been transformed by God’s grace and God’s mercy. Let’s pray together.
Father, this is a very simple passage with a very simple lesson, and yet it confronts us with our cold worship, with our ingratitude, our lack of saying thank you—at least for many of us perhaps there are some who came to church this morning overflowing with joy and gratitude and worship to the Lord, but a lot of us just have to acknowledge that we spend much of our lives just trying to get through the day. We’re white-knuckling through. We are trying to make things work, and we often come to worship distracted or stressed out or half-hearted or with subtle discontent in our lives, having not stopped and really thought about the grace that we received, the many blessings that have come from your hand—not only so many natural comforts of life, but the rich spiritual blessings that belong to us if we are in Christ Jesus.
It is an amazing thing to say together this morning that we have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we are predestined to be your sons and daughters, that we have been redeemed through the blood of Christ, that our sins have been forgiven, that we have been given an inheritance, that we’ve been sealed by the promised Holy Spirit, that we’ve been raised from death into spiritual life, and that we are now seated in heavenly places with Christ, and that we have the hope of a glorious future of eternal joy that will never end.
Lord if all of that is true, then grateful worship should be springing out of our hearts with joy, with enthusiasm, with love for you. So, Lord, we pray for that right now. We pray for your Holy Spirit to work in us what is pleasing in your sight. At the end of the day, even though intentionality is important, what we really need is the work of your Spirit to produce this kind of faith and gratitude and worship in us. So we ask for that. We pray that you would meet us in these moments as we prepare to come to the table, and may we come this morning not just going through motions, but with real experience of the things that we believe in our hearts and with real joy and worship. So draw near to us, Lord. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.