The Thankful Leper

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

” 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?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.'” (Luke 17:11-19, NIV)

Though it is no doubt based on an actual event, it is also a kind of enacted parable. Luke records it for us so that we might learn some important things about discipleship.

Jesus and his disciples are on the move. Since Luke 9:51, Jesus has moved the focus of his ministry south from Galilee, getting closer and closer to the final confrontation in Jerusalem. Here Jesus is traveling in the border area at the south extremity of the province of Galilee, and at the north end of the area where the Samaritans lived. The storyteller reminds us that this took place in a racially-mixed area, so we will be ready for the punch line at the end of the story: “– and he was a Samaritan.”

Leprosy in Bible Times

Leprosy in Biblical times was a terrible thing. We’re not exactly sure what Biblical leprosy was. While it may have described what is known today as “Hansen’s Disease,” the word probably included other skin diseases, as well. Whatever it was, once a person caught it, it was considered incurable, and those diagnosed with leprosy were banned from society.

“The person with such 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” (Leviticus 13:45-46). 

We saw this in Lesson 11, but let me review it again for you.

While early Israelites didn’t operate on the Germ Theory of disease, they understood something about infectious diseases, and those suspected of leprosy were kept isolated until their diagnosis was confirmed (Leviticus 13:5). But the loathing directed at lepers was not merely fear of a disease. Leprosy made a person ritually unclean. To touch a leper defiled a Jew almost as much as touching a dead person. In a sense, leprosy was a sign of God’s disfavor. 

Later Jewish practice prescribed that while lepers might attend synagogue, they must be the first to enter and last to leave, and must stay in a special compartment to isolate them from the other worshippers. No less than a distance of four cubits (six feet) must be kept from a leper.

To the rabbis, the cure of a leper was as difficult as raising a person from the dead. In all Biblical history only two people had been cured of leprosy — Miriam, who had leprosy for seven days as a punishment for speaking against Moses’ leadership (Numbers 12:9-15), and Naaman, general of the army of Aram, an heathen from Damascus (2 Kings 5). When he obeyed Elijah’s instruction to wash seven times in the Jordan River he was healed. Healing a leper had not been done in Israel for seven hundred years, and was thought to be an earmark of the Messianic Age (Luke 7:22), when leprosy would no longer afflict people.

Ten Men with Leprosy (Luke 17:12a)

“As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. (17:12a)

Notice two things: (1) Jesus is just outside of the village and (2) he meets a group of lepers. It wasn’t uncommon for lepers to group together. They can’t have much social contact with the “clean” members of society, so they form their own society of the “unclean,” the “untouchables.” Being just outside a village would be common, since they probably obtain food from family members or those in the village who have pity on them. Since they have no land to till, no livestock to look after, they are dependent upon others.

Jesus, Master, Have Pity on Us (Luke 17:12b-13)

“They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’ (17:12b-13)

When Jesus and his band of disciples draw near, the lepers immediately recognize him and call out his name. The form of address “Master” translates epistatēs, a term used in secular Greek for various officials, teachers, and leaders. In the New Testament, sometimes the word is used by Luke where the parallel Synoptic Gospels use didaskalē, “teacher, rabbi.” The word is usually spoken by Jesus’ disciples except in this passage.

The lepers ask for pity, a familiar cry that they have been uttering ever since they were diagnosed with leprosy and cast out of the village. The word falls easily from their lips, they are used to voicing it. The phrase “have pity” translates the Greek verb eleeō, “to be greatly concerned about someone in need, have compassion/mercy/pity for someone.” They don’t ask for healing but for pity, for whatever Jesus might give them — food, clothing, shelter, whatever he decides to offer. They know Jesus’ reputation for compassion. But do they really ask for and expect healing? The text, at least, doesn’t indicate so.

As They Went They Were Cleansed (Luke17:14)

“When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.” (17:14)

The verb “show” is Greek epideiknymi, “cause to be seen, show, point out something to someone.” The significance of the priests in Jesus’ instruction, is that only priests, according to Jewish law, can declare a person healed of leprosy — clean and fit to re-enter society (Leviticus 14). Jesus doesn’t say that they are healed, but certainly implies it. Therefore, they must go to receive a clean bill of health from the official who can grant it. The word translated “cleansed” here and in verse 17 is Greek katharizō, “to heal a person of a disease that makes one ceremonially unclean, make clean, heal,” especially of leprosy. The priests live together in villages, and there is a priest’s village nearby in most areas of Palestine.

Verse 14b is the key to understanding what happened. “And as they went, they were cleansed.” The Greek construction uses the preposition en, which can mean “in, when, while, during.”  Literally, “in the going, they were cleansed.” The word “cleansed” is in the Aorist tense, which signifies action at a single point of time in the past tense, rather than action over a period of time as would have been indicated by the Imperfect tense. There came a point — as they began to obey Jesus — that their healing took place all of a sudden. Had they disbelieved Jesus and laughed at his command as illogical they wouldn’t have been healed. But they believed him — that is, had faith — and received their healing as a result.

Even though we talk about someone who “believes,” belief doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Faith is exhibited in what we actually do. Because these lepers believe, they begin to obey and go to the village where the priests live. As Jesus’ brother James says, 

“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)

The Thankful Samaritan (Luke 17:15-16)

We’re not told how they discover that they are indeed healed, but it probably doesn’t take long. Looking at one of his comrades, a leper probably says something like, “Where is your leprosy? Your face is clear. The skin of your hands is soft and even.” Then all of them begin to examine themselves and, sure enough, they are healed. What a celebration breaks out as they continue on toward the priests’ village.

“One of them, when he saw he was healed (iaomai), came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him — and he was a Samaritan.” (17:15-16)

All ten lepers realize they are healed, but only one comes all the way back to Jesus, praising God for his mercy in healing him. The word translated “praising” is Greek doxazō, “praise, honor, extol” and, if God does the glorifying, “to cause to have splendid greatness, clothe in splendor, glorify.”  In verse 18, the phrase is “give glory,” Greek doxa, “honor as enhancement or recognition of status or performance, fame, recognition, renown, honor, prestige.”

Notice the “loud voice” in verse 15. The lepers have called out loudly to ask for mercy; but only this leper offers loud thanksgiving and praise. Would that our thanksgiving were as loud as our clamoring requests!

The word “thanked” here and in verse 16 is Greek eucharisteō, “to show that one is under obligation, be thankful, feel obligated to thank.” Then “to express appreciation for benefits or blessings, give thanks, express thanks, render/return thanks.”  We derive our word “Eucharist” from this Greek word. 

Notice the thankful leper’s response. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet as a sign of utter humility. He touches Jesus, no doubt, and Jesus doesn’t recoil from him as if he had “cooties.” Jesus receives his thanks graciously. The leper (1) gives glory to God and (2) thanks Jesus. The thankful leper may not know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but certainly he credits Jesus as being God’s instrument for his healing. 

The Unthankful Nine (Luke 17:17-18)

“Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?'” (17:17-18)

The word translated “foreigner” (NIV) or “stranger” (KJV) is Greek allogenēs, “foreign,” formed from two common words allos, “other” and gennaō, “to bear, give birth to.” The surprise in this healing is that the only thankful one is a non-Jew. The mixed group of lepers is presumably made up of both Jews and Samaritans, their common disease uniting them despite their deep divisions of ancestry, religion, and history. But the only one courteous enough to offer thanks is a Samaritan.

This observation concurs with several other indictments of the Jews living in Jesus’ day. Jesus points out in the Parable of the Tenants (20:9-19) that, by and large, God’s people have rejected his appointed Son. John’s Gospel begins with the sad observation, 

“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:11-12)

Your Faith Has Made You Whole (Luke 17:19)

The account concludes with Jesus’ departing blessing:

“Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.'” (17:19)

The phrase “made you well” (NIV) or “made thee whole” (KJV) is Greek sōzō, the word commonly translated “to save.” A sōtēr is a “savior, deliverer” and the noun form sōteria is used widely of “salvation.” Sōzō in this context means “to preserve or rescue from natural dangers and afflictions, save, keep from harm, preserve, rescue,” specifically, “safe or free from disease.”

This passage hints at the fact that Jesus offers this leper more than others. They received healing, but this Samaritan receives a deeper salvation in addition. His faith has prompted him to return to the feet of Jesus in thanks, and that personal contact, that personal submission signifies a soul healing that is more than skin deep. 

Lessons for Disciples

What are we disciples supposed to learn from all this? Perhaps most obvious is that outsiders are sometimes more responsive than God’s own people. Sad to say, but being a certified believer can sometimes result in spiritual deafness. Consider some of the long-time members of your own church. Are they necessarily the most spiritually mature or deep? We are wrong if we assume that Christians are the only ones who have spiritual acuity. Jesus is in the business of saving sinners. He doesn’t discriminate on the basis of their religion or lack of it.

Acting in Faith

Once central lesson of this story is that the faith that healed the lepers was by acting on Jesus’ words. Jesus said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” implying that they were healed. If they had done a quick physical check to see if they were healed before they headed off to the priests’ village, they never would have started. The healing didn’t take place until after they obeyed. We sometimes want instantaneous healing before we’ll believe that Jesus heals us. But the faith here is shown in the going. “Your faith has made you well” (17:19b).

I don’t recommend throwing away pills, firing doctors, or discontinuing treatment before the healing is manifest. That isn’t what Jesus asked the lepers to do. Rather, we can turn from a fear-filled faith to an expectant faith. We can turn a corner to a new way of seeing what God is doing and will do. And perhaps we should make an appointment with the doctor — the modern-day equivalent of going to the priests for a physical exam. These can be acts of faith.

Healing Multiple People from a Distance

Another sometimes overlooked lesson is that Jesus can heal people from a distance, without touching them or the laying on of hands. In the twentieth century we saw a resurrection of a healing ministry within the Body of Christ — at least in churches where there was faith that this could happen. The most visible model has been a prayer line with the healer laying his hands on the afflicted person, and healing often (if not always) resulting. An example might be Oral Roberts (1918-2009). But there’s a less visible model — that of effecting healing from a distance.

One of the most influential, but least known, healing evangelists of the last half of the twentieth century was T.L. Osborne (1924-2013). Most of his ministry was in mass meetings in third world countries. His team would go, set up a raised platform and some loud speakers, and begin to hold meetings. T.L. Osborne had learned from God that people could be healed by speaking the word of healing to a group. Osborne would bring simple gospel messages, proclaim healing, and people all over the growing sea of listeners would find themselves healed. Then they would make their way to the platform to tell others about it, and tell their friends when they went home. The next night the crowd would swell even more. I saw this kind of remote healing operating through Kathryn Kuhlman (1907-1976) in the 1960s. Other examples have been healing through words of knowledge uttered at a distance. Faith must be operative, certainly, but healing doesn’t have to take place one-to-one.

Now I know that many are skeptical about these kinds of things. We’ve been conditioned by our church’s teaching and by TV and movie caricatures to be skeptical. And, indeed, too often there has been a phony showmanship, a disheartening stretching of the truth, and occasional out-and-out immorality among healing evangelists. But that doesn’t mean none of these people had a genuine healing gift. One of the hard lessons of my own spiritual maturing has been a jolting realization that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit have little to do with the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Samson is my case in point. Speaking in tongues and healing may signify God at work through a person, but are not indication of holiness. When God can find a person with faith to heal and a character submitted to Jesus Christ, then the confusion clears and people can be won to Christ and discipled effectively, and the whole Church moves forward.

My point here is that we disciples need to consider Jesus’ example of healing up-front and personal as well as healing at a distance — considering the ten lepers and the Centurion’s servant (7:2-10). Healing is certainly one of the much-used tools in Jesus’ evangelistic ministry. We disciples need to reclaim a healing ministry for the Church — and for the sake of a lost world.

Our Gratitude Is Expected

A clear lesson is that Jesus expects us to show gratitude. In the account of the Thankful Leper, Jesus is clearly angry at the unthankfulness of the nine lepers who didn’t return. We must train ourselves to show thanks, to give thanks, to be filled with thanksgiving. Without being thankful disciples we won’t be pleasing to Jesus.

But this thankfulness is sometimes time-consuming. Sometimes it requires going out of our way, delaying some of our urgent appointments. A life of thanksgiving is a life of prayer. Prayer first. Before going to the priests to be declared healed. Prayer first. Before the things we have to do. Prayer first. Before we get immersed in our everyday activities. Prayer first. Thanksgiving first.

Finally, gratitude is an important component in our salvation. Were all ten lepers healed? Yes. Were they all saved? Yes, in the sense that they were rescued from their disease. But not in the sense of drawing close to God in thankfulness and dependence. The nine were saved physically but not spiritually. “Where are the other nine?” Jesus asks. Healing that doesn’t bring a person to Jesus is incomplete and stunted. A healing ministry cannot stand alone. It is part of the wholeness of salvation that God desires. That’s why our ministry should include healing, but in the context of a ministry of full salvation followed by the healed person beginning to follow Jesus as his disciple in the fellowship of the church.

“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?'” (17:15-17)

God grant that we will on occasion be thankful enough to be boisterously thankful. Thankful enough to throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet. And thankful enough to voice Jesus’ question as our own, “Where are the other nine?” and help them find their way home, too.


Heavenly Father, I know that I have neglected to thank you for so many blessings. You’ve blessed me and waited for me to run back to you with thanks, and I’ve gone my way. I’ve taken you for granted. Please forgive me. Put thankfulness into my heart and soul. Let me speak it, sing it, and live it. That I might be a visible not silent example of one whom you have healed. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

“When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.” (Luke 17:14)


  1. What do you think the lepers expected when they called out to Jesus for mercy? (17:13) Food, shelter, clothing, or actual healing?
  2. What is the significance of the lepers showing themselves to the priests? (17:14a)
  3. Why does Luke make the point that the lepers weren’t healed until they started to obey Jesus’ command? (17:14b)
  4. What about the thankful leper’s actions showed his thankfulness? (17:15-16)
  5. What was Jesus’ attitude toward the thankful leper? Toward the other nine lepers? (17:17-18)
  6. In the phrase “Your faith has saved you” (17:19b) is Jesus speaking of the leper’s physical healing, or his spiritual salvation, or both? Were the nine lepers saved or healed spiritually? Why or why not?
  7. Why is it so easy to forget to thank God for his blessing?


The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Blood transports oxygen, it returns carbon dioxide as well as cleansing and nurturing the body with food and hormones. Some faint at the sight of it. We think of all the blood spilled in the world today and pray for peace. Christ’s blood was necessary. But our brothers and sisters

Take Action by March 22 to Prevent Cuts to Refugee Assistance

Congress faces a March 22nd deadline to pass critical funding bills to avert a government shutdown. These funding bills include lifesaving assistance to meet the humanitarian needs of those arriving at our borders and millions of displaced persons overseas. Due to continued inaction by Congress, many essential U.S. humanitarian programs—both foreign and domestic—remain in limbo.

3 Things to Watch as Baltimore Considers Affordable Housing Requirements

After months of delay, a pair of bills requiring—and incentivizing developers to build more affordable housing units will be presented before the full Baltimore City Council Tuesday, and could be called for a vote. The bills are part of a package of what’s known as inclusionary housing legislation because they

Become a Parishioner

As a Jesuit parish, we believe we are called to explore, discover, respect, protect, and enhance whatever is humane and graced in every person, and in every culture.