Jesus Perplexes Me, and Someone’s Got Some Explaining to Do

Some stories about Jesus perplex me, like this one where Jesus asks a question that in a sense makes no sense.

Luke tells of a healing, and an impressive one at that. Jesus healed ten people at once, transforming them from pariah status and restoring all of them to their communities with the simplest of commands.

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.” (Luke 17:11-19.)

Why did they stand at a distance? The law required them to keep their distance from people not infected with skin diseases.

Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46.)

The fact they called out to Jesus – loudly asking for his pity rather than warning him off with cries of “Unclean! Unclean!” – showed they expected him to be able to do something. They might not have expected his chosen response, though. He didn’t touch them as he did another person with skin disease (Matthew 8:1-4); he didn’t pronounce forgiveness of sins as he healed (Mark 2:1-12); he didn’t proclaim the power of God in the healing. (Matthew 9:1-7.)

He just told them to go to the priests for inspection.

The Healing of Ten Lepers, James Tissot ca. 1886-1894 (Wikipedia)

This too was in keeping with the law. A healed person would be pronounced clean and able to rejoin society. (Leviticus 13:12-17.) But they were not yet healed when he told them to go. He just told them to go. In their faith they did, not knowing what would happen but trusting Jesus and doing what he said. The story said they were healed on the way.

Next comes the familiar part of this story for most people who have heard sermons and Sunday school lessons on the passage. The Samaritan returns to thank Jesus while the others don’t, which on first read is a surprising turn. Jesus’ companions must have been flabbergasted, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” (John 4:9.) Suffice to say that Samaritans and Jews had (among other differences) conflicting views of proper worship that kept them from one another.

That’s not the surprising twist for me, though. It’s what Jesus says to the man.

“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.”

Interesting questions, mostly because of the further questions they raise in my mind..

First, the story says they were all healed. If the Samaritan man’s healing was by faith, how were the others healed? The suggestion in the opening of the story is that they all called out to Jesus in an expression of trust and reliance on him. That sounds like an expression of faith for all of them.

Second, in asking where the others are I would expect the answer to be that they were doing as Jesus commanded: they were on the way to present themselves to the priests. They needed a priestly pronouncement of being found clean in order to then be allowed to reenter the village and return to their homes, families, and friends.

Third, the reason the Samaritan man stood alone is because he left the group and turned back. Why would he not obey Jesus in presenting himself to the priests? Because he was a Samaritan and did not fall under the priests’ jurisdiction. Considering the antipathy Jews had for Samaritans, it’s likely the priest might not have even given him a once-over let alone pronounced him clean. After all, Samaritans were unclean in their eyes even if not infected by a skin disease.

Luke never tells us the rest of the story for the other nine. Did the priests ever declare them clean? Did they perhaps offer sacrifices of thanksgiving in the Temple in Jerusalem? These are possible, and these are also prohibited to the Samaritan.

Don’t take me wrong. This is not a criticism. It is me being perplexed. There is something going on that I don’t understand. I don’t understand what the deal is concerning the other nine.

I do understand that the Samaritan man’s faith is a model for people then and now, as is his gratitude for God’s grace and mercy. I get why Luke put this in his gospel of Jesus’ life. I just want to ask him some day what the deal is with the faith and healing of the other nine.

Then again, I have a lot of questions when I read the Bible. It’s a great book for making me think.

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15 Responses to Jesus Perplexes Me, and Someone’s Got Some Explaining to Do

  1. Kathy Heisleman says:

    This confuses me too. But I had one thought about it–although certainly not THE answer. What if this was partly meant to foreshadow the way that Gentiles would come to Christ…not through the Law or the approval of priests and the Mosaic system….but after being healed (forgiven)the Samaritan/Gentile does not follow after the Jew but turns back to Jesus, thereby acknowledging that it is Jesus alone who heals…..That a Gentile could gain approval with Jehovah is such a radical idea….this might also serve as a silent lesson for Jews/disciples as they looked back on that incident which was so cryptic in its meaning.

  2. Marian Peele says:

    Tim, I appreciate this blog because I love that you are open to new ways of interpreting the scriptures. All too often, we have people who claim they have all of the Bible answers and there are no new interpretations, that there are no new interpretations. I think the Bible is the living word that generates thought. My brother is a minister and I have journals of notes from his sermons. One Sunday, he preached a sermon on the Prodigal son from an entirely different perspective than he’d preached before. I went back through my journals and counted 14 different sermons he’d previously preached. I called him and asked how in the world did he do that. He said (and I am paraphrasing), “Each time I read my Bible, I pray that I can forget everything I learned and read it as though I am seeing it for the first time.” I have adopted the same philosophy and I think you do this as well. I have no idea why Jesus asked what he did. Yes, Jesus did say, “Go show yourself to the priest.” but that was not a commandment exclusive to everything else. In other words, the other nine could have returned to say thanks. They chose not to and Jesus wondered why. I would have to.

    • Tim says:

      I think they may very well have returned to thank him after following his direction to present themselves to the priests. The Samaritan just did it earlier because he skipped going to the priest like Jesus said to.

  3. Debbie Ennis says:

    Since he did not fall under the jurisdiction of the priests, is it possible that he was following Jesus’ instruction by presenting himself to The Priest? This may have been a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priestly role.

  4. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    I appreciate your questions and observations, Tim. Like you, I enjoy how the Bible makes me think and question.

  5. Dora says:

    You know, the love of Christ can overwhelm you, make you bold in praise and thanksgiving. The healing of the Samaritan leper went beyond the body to touch the deepest core of him and in the boldness of his heart-felt thanksgiving and love, he went back to the Lord who had thus revealed Himself to him, & delayed his going to the priests. Jesus appreciated this, and so commended the Samaritan’s faith, not merely faith in what He could do (heal) but faith in who He was. Perhaps for the other nine, their faith fell short of this spiritual awakening and this would naturally surprise and disappoint our Lord pertaining His human nature.

    • Tim says:

      I agree this story is a testament to the man’s faith, but he didn’t delay going to the priests. He was a Samaritan so going to the priests was not open to him.

      • Dora says:

        Yet Jesus, knowing he was a Samaritan, commanded him to do so and “thus fulfill the law” which seems to suggest that whether or not it was conventionally open to him, he had to obey Christ. He, like the other nine, was healed on the way to the priests. The “going” in obedience was the required condition that was met by all ten.

        • Tim says:

          Good point. I wonder if Jesus knew he was a Samaritan since all ten called to him from a distance. Some will say he must have since he’s God, but we see at times. in his humanity that Jesus did not always exercise omniscience.

        • Dora says:

          True. But the Samaritan seemed to have had no such misgivings anyway. His faith in who Jesus was — the Son of God — commanded his obedience and without questioning what Jesus knew or didn’t know, he trusted and obeyed. He trotted off on his way to the priests with the rest. Praise God!

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