The Ten Lepers

Gordon MackleyPosted on Monday, August 3rd, 2015 by Gordon Mackley


Luke 17: 11 – 17


This is a well-known story and at first sight seems a simple ‘Jesus miraculous healing miracle’ but there is more in the background that may not have be obvious and there are lessons for us today, even though we are not likely to be involved in direct miraculous healing of skin diseases

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. (verse 11)

It is 85 miles from Capernaum to Jerusalem, so at 17- 20 miles a day at least a five days walk.
Israel split after Solomon died into two kingdoms (see 1 Kings 12 for the story). Samaria was previously the Northern Kingdom (sometimes referred to as Ephraim – Samaria was the capital. The Southern Kingdom was Judea with the capital at Jerusalem.

In less than a hundred years the Northern Kingdom of Israel was captured by Assyria. The Jews were dispersed, they intermarried, faith in traditional Judaism and following Torah (‘The Law’) weakened and the theology became diluted by Assyrian (pagan) influences. As a result their moral code changed and ‘Samaritans’ as they became known began to be hated by the Jews of Judea (and elsewhere) who still strictly followed Torah. This can be seen in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 and the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.

We do not know exactly where this event happened but Scythopolis, which is a village on the border described, is recorded as having baths for a leper colony in 6th Century and so may well have had a leper colony in Jesus’ time. This village was about 35 miles from Galilee.

Although it is quite difficult to get all the Gospel events into chronological order (that is not how Jewish literature works), it appears that Jesus had previously been In Capernaum (Mark 9:33), pays the Temple Tax with a fish (Matthew 17:24) but to avoid the dangers in Judea, he remains in Galilee for a time (John 7:1). However he then leaves Capernaum and Galilee for the last earthly time (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1) and heads for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51; John 7:10). It is whilst he is en route travelling via Samaria that he heals the ten lepers, as in this story. He would have arrived in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles (in the autumn) and then been crucified the next spring, having not returned to his homeland in Galilee. All of this he knew in advance, as is made clear in Luke 9 and so his feelings as he travelled on this journey leaving his earthly homeland behind can be imagined as although God, Jesus was also totally human.

An encounter

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!”
Luke 17: 12 & 13

Jesus is going into the village and so has not had any refreshment. This is therefore probably towards the end of the second day of walking. As well as his sadness, mentioned above, he would have been tired, hungry and thirsty from a second day walking on hot dusty roads. Lepers were not allowed to come close to those not having the disease. Leviticus 13:45-46 states:

The person with an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out “Unclean! Unclean!”. As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.

Not only were Lepers isolated physically and socially but also leprosy was regarded in that culture as sign of punishment by God for sin committed by the by person or their ancestors. They were therefore considered physically, socially and religiously ‘unclean’.

The word ‘met’ is &lsquoapantao’ in Greek and is only used twice in scripture. The other use is:

So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him.
Mark 14:13

In a military sense it meant a hostile meeting and so perhaps ‘encounter’ might better describe that which was not in any way a social type of meeting.

The word translated as ‘master’ here is ‘epistates’ and is one of only six usages, all in Luke. The other five are quotes of disciples who would have known of Jesus’ great power personally. Here the lepers seem to have been aware of it having not known him previously. (They have clearly heard of him as they call him by name).

To have pity is ‘eleeo’ in the Greek which means more than having human compassion, it has a spiritual connotation in regard to showing mercy for sin.

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests”. And as they went, they were cleansed.
verse 14

This is the clear instruction in Leviticus 14:1-32 but although there were Rabbis in Samaria and Galilee, the requirement was specifically for a ‘Levitical’ Priest and they were located in Jerusalem so the lepers would have had a 50 mile journey south to comply.

Jesus here obeys Torah law to the letter but he complements that with mercy in that he restores the men to physical health and thus restores the men to society but also by curing them he essentially shows them spiritual mercy as they would think that any sin they might believe was responsible for the sickness had now been forgiven.

From the time the Torah was completed there was no record of any Jew who had been healed of leprosy. Miriam was healed of leprosy but this was before the completion of the Torah. Naaman was healed of leprosy, but he was a Syrian Gentile, not a Jew. Therefore although the priesthood had all these detailed instructions as to how they were to respond in the case of a healed leper, they never had the opportunity to put these instructions into use. As a result, the rabbis taught that only the Messiah would be able to heal a Jewish leper. It followed therefore that healing a Jewish leper was classified as a miracle which indicated that he who did it was the messiah. Jesus had already healed one Jewish leper (Luke 5) but now he had healed ten at once. They are going to show themselves to the priests at Jerusalem and thus give physical evidence of Jesus being messiah to them. Jesus himself was also now heading towards there, the centre of Jewish religious power. That he has, by his compassionate action, stored up yet further trouble in Jerusalem indicates Jesus again exemplifying that form of love referred to as ‘agape’ in Greek. This is a sacrificial love whereby when you help someone, it in some way has a cost to you.

One returns

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”.
Luke 17: 15 – 19

In this last part of the story we can see that although all ten were physically healed only one is truly spiritually healed. Healing is not simply about physical well-being but is also about spiritual wholeness. The Samaritan understands what God has done for him and ensures that he thanks God for it. He has in probably all senses been ‘born again’.

(Aside: Many Christians believe that if there were more signs and wonders in the church our evangelism would be so much more effective – but this story seems not to support that and even the most amazing miracles seem not to be as effective for evangelism as some might believe.
Jesus does not revoke the physical healing even though there appears no spiritual change in the nine. This also indicates a clear distinction between physical healing and any spiritual benefit. Physical healing can happen without conversion spiritually. You may get one without the other (like the nine) or both (like the one Samaritan). People who are spiritually converted may never be physically healed and that spiritual wholeness is the more important of the two. There are many in modern day Christian circles who place far more emphasis on health, happiness and personal wealth than on spiritual growth (often described as ‘Prosperity Gospel’). Matthew 6 makes (the opposite) priorities very clear).

The man who gave thanks was a Samaritan and therefore (as discussed earlier) of dubious theology / morality yet he was the one saved spiritually rather than the more theologically correct Jews. We can see that religious / moral status is irrelevant to physical healing. This again shows the error of believing that somehow Jews or Christians will get better health than others simply because of their religious status.

The man contributes to his spiritual healing and saving (‘his faith made him well’) because of his spiritual faith in Jesus / God. Jesus in the physical sense made all ten ‘well’ but this Samaritan; by having faith in Jesus and thanking God through him; contributed to the spiritual wholeness he received and thus alone of the ten he showed real faith and that faith ‘made him well’ (in a spiritual sense).


Jesus throughout this encounter shows ‘agape’ love. He is sad, tired and thirsty. It would have been easy for him to quote Torah and simply avoid the lepers. Instead he shows compassion and by healing them he is delayed from entering the village and getting much needed rest and refreshment. He also knows of the antagonism of the Jewish priests and religious leaders in Jerusalem and he knows that this compassionate action will make this worse – but he still shows love to the lepers despite this.

If we are to regard ourselves as disciples (followers) of Jesus, we must show that same ‘agape’ love. 1 Corinthians 13 defines it well. James 2 describes it in a practical way and 1 John 4 makes it quite clear that if we call ourselves ‘lovers of God’ but do not show ‘agape’ love to people we are self-deluded.

So we may not have a special gift of physical healing. We may not regard ourselves as having any spectacularly miraculous gifts but we can all show ‘agape’ love. This love is not a syrupy sentiment as love is so often portrayed. It is a decision to do something for others at cost to ourselves. We can all do it and we should all do it continually.


For us:

  1. Be a disciple follower of Jesus we need to show love and mercy even if tired / hungry / upset / anxious
  2. We need to understand Jesus as Lord and master, in charge spiritually and physically (maybe all 10)
  3. We need to accept our need for repentance and forgiveness and to thank God for it (only 1)
  4. We need to remember to thank God for all things He does for us as well. (only 1)
  5. Do not despair if evangelism is only partially effective. Jesus had the same problem (0ne in ten)
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