Luke 17:11-19 “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled 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.’”
This incident in the life of our Lord Jesus is very familiar. I think we could call it a ‘beloved’ story, but it is also a sad story about man and God. However familiar we are with it I’m sure there is much here we’ve never noticed of the glory of Christ as well as other truths that move and convict us. One of the themes of these verses is that gratitude to God is the indispensable evidence of grace received. You know the whole structure of true religion can be subsumed under three headings, three ‘G’s, Guilt, Grace and Gratitude. That is how important a thankful spirit is, and you might soon be able tell people, “I was able to go to church this morning to worship God, and I am glad of the health and the desire enabling me to do that. I heard a sermon on the one grateful leper who sought out Jesus to thank him for saving him, and I am grateful to God for his word. Once again I saw my sin and I saw my Saviour and I am always grateful for such sights.” We are told that in everything we give thanks. So let’s first look at . . .
A SAD COMPANY.
The Lord Jesus is on the last journey of his life traveling to his death in Jerusalem. He is making no attempt to escape because he came into the world to give his life a ransom for many. We deserve eternal death because we are sinners but God has provided deliverance and atonement through his Son Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. He is here in this passage and evidently he was taking a circuitous rout along the border between Samaria and Galilee going east to west, but it was not a straight line journey, it was a journey mapped out by Providence. There were people he had to meet before his end in Jerusalem. For example, there was a Samaritan woman in a village there called Sychar and he needs to meet her, and now before us we see that he has to meet not the courtiers of King Herod’s palace or Annas and Caiaphas the Chief Priests but a little male leper colony. What happens is the fourth of five miracles which Luke records in some detail on Jesus’ final journey.
The disease of leprosy is mentioned 13 times in the New Testament. It has often been pointed out that the leprosy described in the gospels was probably something different from the leprosy of today, which has been known as ‘Hansen’s Disease’ from the 1870s. In the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, the word ‘leprosy’ refers to a variety of infectious skin diseases. But I was intrigued by an article in a recent issue of Science Illustrated (Jan.-Feb. 2011). The skeleton of a man from Jerusalem (the radiocarbon dating indicated that he had lived between A.D. 1 to 50) has been studied with modern genetic techniques. His DNA shows genetic markers from Mycobacterium leprae, which is the agent of Hansen’s Disease leprosy. The man who discovered the tomb and the body wrote, “Although the Bible’s mention of leprosy may have referred to an array of skin diseases the findings show that contemporary leprosy was indeed in existence at the time of Jesus.”
So here were men who all had some kind of leprosy, and so they had to live under the Levitical exclusion code in chapter 13. Let’s read it; it will help to bring our emotions to the truth. Consider you found some marks on your body, or saw them on your husband or child, then this would be the prognosis, “if he has a reddish-white sore on his bald head or forehead, it is an infectious disease breaking out on his head or forehead. The priest is to examine him, and if the swollen sore on his head or forehead is reddish-white like an infectious skin disease, the man is diseased and is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean because of the sore on his head. 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” (Lev. 13:42-46). The man’s only companions would be men in the same state as himself. All his conversations were with men as wretched as he was, bearing the same disfiguring marks, neither him nor his friends were permitted to visit their families. Unemployed, they depended on hand-outs from friends and sympathetic people. There was no cure; no medicine; no ointment; no doctor; their only hope would be that the disease might eventually burn itself out and the sores would grow smaller and leave just a scar. Then you could go to the priest and show your body to him. His role would be that of a local health inspector who could announce at the next synagogue meeting that Benjamin or Issachar or whatever was your name had finally recovered from his leprosy and was being allowed to return to his family and live in the village again. Lepers longed for that day. It was no life for them in utter isolation from normal human contact. They say that misery likes company and this sad commune was a company of Les Miserables.
A SURPRISED COMPANY.
One day these ten lepers saw a small crowd of people walking up the road to the outskirts of the village. They soon learned that it was actually Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples on their way to Jerusalem. Everyone had heard of Jesus. For over two years he had been the source of conversation at every well, at all the town gates and after the synagogue meetings were over amongst the worshippers as they walked home. Was he the promised Messiah? Was he a crook? These are the questions we ask today. Certainly he was an amazing man and many of us still find him extraordinary today. We love to meet with him, to hear him speaking, to see him in action, to know his personality. We love to see him for ourselves, to walk into a village with him and see the response of the people who quickly gather to hear him, seeing how he relates to them, noticing who likes him, and why, noticing who hates him, and why.
This inspired gospel of Luke has miraculous power to carry all of us across time and space and into contact with Jesus as he walked this earth. And as we gather to meet Jesus in that time and place, the Lord himself comes to meet us in this time and place. We enter his life, and he enters our lives. As you watch Jesus in action, you see that he has a remarkable effect on people. Just a few hours with him, sometimes just a few minutes, is enough to make people realize that Jesus is like nobody they’ve ever met before. As we meet Jesus in the Bible, we find that he welcomes to himself all kinds of people. It doesn’t matter who you are – man or woman, grandparent or child, fisherman or farmer, priest or prostitute, soldier or rebel, cop or criminal, ruler or slave, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, healthy or a leper, religious or rotten, sensible or demon-possessed – Jesus warmly welcomes anyone who wants to meet him and to know him better. He never hints that he’s too important or too busy or too good for anyone, however poor or sick they are.
In meeting Jesus, you meet a combination of humility and authority you won’t meet anywhere else, an astonishing union of tenderness and toughness. One moment he’s cuddling babies; the next moment he’s confronting rulers. One moment he is lying exhausted and asleep in a boat that’s being rocked by a storm; the next moment he’s ordering the storm around. One moment he’s weeping at the grave of his dead friend Lazarus; the next he’s ordering death itself to release his friend. One moment he’s on his knees like a slave, washing other people’s dirty feet; the next he says he’s their Lord and Master. Jesus feels the weakness, pain and poverty of humanity, and at the same time he unleashes the power, healing, and abundance of God. He has come in humility, but he claims he will come again as the judge of all the world in power and glory. He doesn’t have even a small hut for a home, yet he strides through God’s temple with a whip in his hand reforming it as though he owns the place. He doesn’t have a penny to his name, yet he talks as though the whole world were his. Could even the least human be humbler and more vulnerable? Could even almighty God be greater and more powerful? What else can you think except that Jesus must be completely human and at the some time fully divine?
So you’re walking down the road behind Jesus, along with a crowd of others heading for a village, and suddenly you meet a gang of men whose clothes are torn, whose hair is disheveled, who have angry red sores on their heads and the back of their hands and arms, who are covering their mouths and jaws, but shouting out, “Unclean! Unclean!” They are lepers, and they have spotted Jesus. What a surprise for them that he should come to the borders of Samaria. It is the best of all surprises to meet Jesus in an unexpected way. Saul of Tarsus also met him on a road as he was going to Damascus. Peter and Andrew were mending their nets when they met him. Matthew was working in his office. The Ethiopian eunuch also met him on a desert road as he was going back to Africa. John Newton met with him in a storm in the mid-Atlantic, while C.S.Lewis encountered him as he was sitting in a double-decker bus and thinking about how he could know God for himself, and then Jesus was revealed to his heart as the Saviour of all who trust him. Many have met him where two or three gather together in his name.
A SHOUTING COMPANY.
We are told, “They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us’ ” (vv. 12&13). Jesus is on the move. He’s walking with destiny. Why should he stop for unclean lepers? What if they passed on their disease to him or his disciples? Why should they make a scene and interfere with his schedule? But the lepers wouldn’t give up. They called out with a loud voice that he would show them pity, and Jesus didn’t seem to mind at all. Here were ten men who were sick of themselves, sick at heart, staring at their unchanging sores and patches of scaly red skin. They felt they were men without a life, and without a future, and then one day along came Jesus and everything changed. These lepers became fervently religious. They had felt acutely the deplorable state of their bodies. They hated their isolation from everybody, and the hovels they had to live in and when they saw Jesus they found words to express their feelings. They cried earnestly for relief when the chance of relief suddenly appeared before their very eyes.
You see it all the time. Miners are trapped after an explosion in a mine and not only local people but politicians say they are praying for them. A woman discovers a lump and she starts to pray. A husband is going to have a major operation and the godless man prays. A boy is knocked of his cycle and his family prays for him. All those people are like these ten lepers. It throws light on a most important phenomenon of how earnestly people will pray when they reach the end of their tethers, when they know that man alone cannot help them. Yet they’ll never pray at all when they feel no need. How is it that mortal men and women, with souls to be lost or saved, facing the grave, can know so little of real, hearty, business-like praying? I will tell you the reason for this prayerlessness. The bulk of mankind have no sense of guilt and helplessness before God; they don’t feel their spiritual disease; they’re not conscious that they are lost, and guilty, and hanging over the brink of hell. When a man finds out he has the leprosy of sin and there is no human cure then he quickly learns to pray for delivery. Like a leper, he finds words to express his want. He cries for help.
If I should ask you about how you prayed yesterday, whether it were more than a repeated formula, more than saying “Now I lay me down to sleep, I ask the Lord my soul to keep,” more than repeating the Lord’s prayer, would you reply to me that you had prayed like these lepers in our text, “I called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on me’? “Great!” I say. Why not pray that very prayer and in that earnest way? Don’t you need to pray like that? Isn’t he Jesus the Saviour? Isn’t he the Master of this world and the world to come? Can’t he help you be delivered from the leprosy of sin? Who else can do it? No one! Don’t we all need the pity of God? Then how is it that you pray so infrequently and coldly? What is the reason that your prayers are so feeble, and wandering, and lukewarm, as they frequently are? There’s no need for us to seek some deep psychological explanation. The answer is very plain: your sense of the need of God in your life is weak; your longing for the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is not as vital as it ought to be; you’re not aware of your own impotence.
I am saying to you that you are suffering from spiritual leprosy. I appeal to Doctor Isaiah for his diagnosis of natural men and women. He says this; “Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and bruises and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil” (Is.1:6&7). Sin has pervasively affected all of us, but you don’t see it, that you are sick through sin, and leprous through sin, and dying through sin – ‘the wages of sin is death’ and there’s no part of you untouched by sin. You are “unclean . . . unclean,” but you are covering your leprous spots with cosmetics trying to mask your true condition. You are not calling out fervently for mercy and grace. What does Jesus say? “Come unto me all ye who are heavy laden.” Look at these ten men. Did you ever see such heavy leaden men in your life? No one told them to repeat this formula when they met Jesus. They knew they were hopeless men, and they knew that here was the only one who could save them and spontaneously they cried to him to have pity on them. They were so conscious of their need of cleansing and new life and deliverance. You always find that in the Bible.
Consider the publican in the temple. We are told that he couldn’t look up. No one gave him lessons in posture before God. He beat his breast, and he sighed, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” Think of Saul of Tarsus; he tells us that he considered himself the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, the chief of sinners. Think of David, “My sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done evil in your sight” (Psa. 51:3&4). Think of how John Bunyan portrays the aroused sinner. There is an increasing burden on his back which weighs him down. He has heard the law of his Creator and every one of the ten words seems to press down on him like a hundredweight: no other god but Him; no idols to serve and make sacrifice to; not lacing your speech with the Lord’s name; remembering one day each week as presented to God; honouring your parents; doing no violence; no sexual sin – purity before marriage and faithfulness in it; stealing nothing; always telling the truth; being contented with what you have and coveting nothing that is your neighbour’s. These words come from the only God there is, the God who is light and just and hates all that is mean and tawdry and cruel. The man who hears the law discovers his burden is getting heavier and heavier, that there is chargeable to his account a mountain of iniquity and God will punish him for every defection. He says, “I am sick and I need a physician. I am guilty and I need pardon. I am being crushed by this burden and I need someone who can take it away.”
I tell you men and women when that thought begins to press in upon you and you know that it is true, then you begin to be heavy laden and you see your great need and you long for someone to deliver you from that need, and that someone is the Lord Jesus, the one who says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” What kind of sinners? In the same sermon Jesus said, “they that are whole have no need of a doctor but those who are sick.” The healthy people of this village in our text were all busily going about their daily lives. They were working and shopping and drawing water and cooking for their families and talking at the city gate. They were not crying, “Unclean! Unclean!” They were not outcasts yearning to be part of the community. They were not sick people aching for health, leprous men longing for cleansing. They were saying that they were fine. They were not calling with a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They were not persuaded that they needed Jesus coming and healing them or they would die. Here were ten men and they had one aching longing that this Jesus of Galilee – whom they’d heard had delivered and healed hundreds of others – would heal them and so they shouted and shouted to him to come to them. I am saying that no one is changed by Christ unless they see that they have an enormous need, and no one is changed by Christ unless they have cried to Christ alone to meet that need.
None other name! Christ alone! Then I cry to him, like these lepers did, and no one who cried to him ever cried I vain. I put myself in his hands entirely. I run to the Great Physician that he would heal me. I will cry and cry to him. Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, and there is sight for the blind. Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, and there is life for the dead. Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, and there is cleansing for the leper. So they all called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.”
A TRANSFORMED COMPANY.
We are told, “When Jesus saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed” v.14). He saw them! As a parent you might see a terribly deformed face, a burns victim coming towards you and the family, and you direct the attention of your children to another object. That might be a natural reaction. We know that there are many sights that the government does not want children to watch before the 9 p.m. deadline. But Jesus looked at these ten lepers. He took in their plight in all its awfulness. He did not turn away. He knew all about them, but he loved them. He was indeed mighty in pity.
Then he told them, “Go!” Not to hide themselves away from civilized company. “ . . . we don’t want to have to look at you.” No. He told them, “Now this moment, go to the priests. Present yourselves to them, all ten of you go!” He made no exceptions. Some could have been in advance stages of the disease, their nerve endings were dead and so their feet and hands had become impervious to pain; they had lost their fingers and toes, mere stumps were left; others lacked their noses and ears. But none was omitted as being too diseased, or too unworthy. “Go!” he said to every one of them, Jew and Samaritan alike. “All of you show yourselves to the priests.” You see what he did not do? He did not lay his hands on them; he did not need to do that. He did not command the disease, “Leprosy . . . depart!” He did not prescribe any medicine, ointments or lotions for soothing their skin. The entire source of their healing was focused on Jesus and his word. Healing became theirs as they obeyed his voice, and their cure is described in words of one syllable, “As they went they were cleansed” (v.14).
Every single one of them was cleansed. The most deformed of them was healed. How do you explain that? With one being healed you could say it was a coincidence that Jesus arrived as he was getting better, but ten all healed, at different stages of their illnesses. It is breathtaking. Consider the priest that day. There is a noise outside his house and hif wife or one of the children goes to see what’s happening and he or she comes back and says, “Some of the lepers are there and they want to see you; they say they’re healed.” “How many of them?” “All of them . . . about ten of them.” “All of the local lepers?” And he goes out, wondering whether they are tricking him, what is all this about? And he sees them, smiling and greeting him, and he slowly walks up to them and they seem as healthy as he is, if not more healthy, and then he begins to examine them, one by one, and each one hasn’t a leprous mark on his entire body. There is an envious vitality and suppleness and tenderness about the skins of each one of them. “How did this happen?” he asked. “Jesus of Nazareth did it; he told us to come to you,” they tell him. I wonder whether he was one of the many priests we read of in the Acts who confessed him as their Saviour.
The lepers went to the priest at Jesus’ command. The change in them was effected through doing something as elementary as that. You protest that that is too simple, but we are simple people. It shows us the wisdom of listening to every word of the Lord Jesus and doing them, putting them into practice, not thinking you are smarter, that there is a better way, that you can borrow some of his ideas and synthesize them with your ideas, picking and mixing man and God. Our Lord spoke plainly and unmistakably, prescribing the infallible means of their cure, and in their unhesitating obedience they became men made new. And if you would love life and see good days then you must listen wholeheartedly to the words of Christ, seek to understand them correctly and then to do them, and that is what these ten men did. They had dreamed of this moment for months and years. Some of them were in such a state they had despaired of ever hearing the words of a priest, “You are healed,” but as they all did what Jesus told them to do they were all cleansed and restored, their skins made as clean and soft as the skin of a child.
Some of you are saying that you are seeking for God, but the Bible says that he is seeking for you and I tell you that he has found you here once again today. What are you going to do with the God who has again found you? He has been speaking to you and he is speaking still and he is saying. “Turn from your sins, especially from your sin of unbelief. Believe on me. Trust in me. Come to me,” and as you obey what he says, you will be cleansed from your guilt, forgiven of all your sins, and joined to him as a powerful and loving Saviour. As you obey him this new life is yours.
AN UNGRATEFUL COMPANY.
Nine of the ten newly-cleansed lepers made no effort at all to return to Jesus to thank him for this extraordinary, life transforming deliverance. We can make excuses for them; they were very anxious and excited about seeing their wives and children or parents again. They were afraid to identify themselves with Jesus who was becoming a marked man. Whatever the excuses, Jesus never saw them again. There was an old preacher called Urijah R. Thomas and he gave suitable names to each of these nine unthankful lepers, the first is Callous, the second is Thoughtless, the third is Proud, the fourth is Envious, the fifth is Cowardly, the sixth is Calculating, the seventh is Worldly, the eighth is Gregarious and the ninth is Procrastinating. All those are reasons for the power of an ungrateful spirit. These nine were men whose hearts were not melted by the pity of Jesus Christ that they had received. They took him for granted. They thought of him as the cosmic butler, Jeeves, not the suffering Servant, Jesus. Healing, they thought, what he went about doing, like people think of God being bound to forgive them for all their sins because that is what God does. “He owes it to me . . .” They never think of the cost of his forgiveness, or ask on what basis can God possibly remain righteous and just, and yet overlook sin and justify the ungodly when they believe on Jesus Christ. So they took the very best that Jesus gave them and they promptly got on with living their lives, just as they did before they contracted leprosy, eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, without sparing him a thought. In Romans 1:21 Paul says that this has ever been the attitude of all fallen humanity; “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.” You have received every lovely thing that God has given you – every mouthful of food you take, every breath of air you inhale, every note of music you hear, every smile on the face of a friend, a child, a spouse, all the incredible gifts of intelligence, long life, health, loving parents, and of course many material blessings. Are you thanking him? Or are you just like these nine ungrateful lepers?
I was reading this week of a preacher who had been a minister in a church for twenty years and he kept an account of his pastoral visits in his parish. He had buried many people, but he calculated that he had visited 2,000 homes where people were quite sick and he had gone and spoken and prayed with them and all of these had got better. Out of the 2,000 who had recovered how many had come to church and then kept worshipping God each Lord’s Day? How many do you think? He had checked his records and saw that just two of them, only two people had turned to God after being delivered from serious illnesses. How little does answered prayer for healing and a successful operation result in men trusting in God. During these last weeks we have witnessed the end of a long illness and the death of a woman who throughout her sickness looked to God, trusted in Jesus Christ day by day, glorified him in her weakness, and knew a growing hope of salvation through his grace. Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine?
A MAN OUTSIDE THAT COMPANY.
One healed leper returned and sought out Jesus. As soon as he saw his skin was clean this leper came looking for Jesus to express his thanks. He did it immediately. He put first things first, and number one in his life from that moment on was going to be the man who’d changed him. You could hear him coming, because he was shouting aloud praises to God; he was glorifying the Lord of pity, perhaps singing a psalm of praise, and when he got to Jesus he fell before him prostrate, “Thank you . . . thank you so much . . . thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am well. You have healed me. Thank you again and again.” When this leper had been asking for mercy he had stood in the posture of prayer; when he gave thanks for mercy he knelt down with his face to the dust.
When we have cried to God for his help and he has helped us then our praises should be commensurate with the deliverance we’ve experienced. Before we forget and other blessings come crashing in we must thank God for hearing us. We don’t deserve them; we have forfeited every right to answered prayer by the sin of our father Adam and our own sin, but God constantly blesses us. Nine men were all healed; nine men were all the sons of Abraham. They believed all the Scriptures, unlike the Samaritans. They knew that Jerusalem was the place to worship him and make their sacrifices, unlike the Samaritans, and yet when the God of Abraham, the God whose house was in Jerusalem blesses them through the Messiah they are silent while this muddled Samaritan full of theological error was able to see one thing – “I was once a leper but now I am clean, and Jesus of Nazareth has done this. I will spend the rest of my days blessing and praising him.”
“Rise and go your way” said Jesus. The man had family to see and joy to give them, and work to do to buy them food and clothes and shelter. Our Lord did not call everyone he healed to become full time evangelists, but all of them were to glorify and enjoy God in all they did. Jesus explained what had been the instrumental means of his deliverance: “your faith has made you well” (v.19). “You truly believed I was the ‘Master’ and that it was my pity that could heal you. These were not just words. You believed this from your heart, and a proof of it was the new praise on your lips, the confession you made to all around that God had delivered you. You were unashamed to humbly fall at Jesus’ feet in adoration. It was not enough from the nine to do what Jesus told them, and go to the priests. It was not enough to know that God is the one who heals our diseases. We have to seek out Jesus, believing in our hearts and confessing with our lips that he is the great Saviour, and worshipping him. To those of you who do I say, “Rise and go . . . the world lies before you . . . don’t be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, the Jew, the Samaritan and the Gentile. Tell the world with a loud voice this good news.”
9th October 2011 GEOFF THOMAS