A kind of self-oriented religiosity craves a formula.
We want a rule, a predictable sequence, a guaranteed outcome.
Admittedly, the Christian message is, from one angle of view, simple. Its redeeming beauty hides behind no intellectual prerequisite, no gate-keeping aesthetic sensitivity, no necessary spiritual predisposition. It’s the walking wounded, the drooling madman, the self-loathing sinner who seizes its promise before the sophisticate can get past his first reflexive sneer.
But neither can Jesus as way, truth, and life be distilled down to a tag line.
Jesus comes upon ten lepers, pitifully calling out for mercy from a safe distance. Too many fast readings of the story have turned it into a frame from a cartoon, devoid of pathos, promising a quick and happy ending. But it is nothing of the sort. The scene is almost unimaginably sad.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus 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.’ (Luke 17:11–13 ESV)
They had families that had given up on them. A bereft son here, a shattered daughter there. A wife. Cousins. Unfathomable anger, a world of hurt.
The way to a band of lepers is paved by ten thousand crescendoing griefs that began with a quiet, unexplained itch. Now this. Untouchable, beyond hope.
Luke’s narrative offers up one of those exquisite observations so subtle that one fears reading too much into it. But there it is:
When Jesus saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed. (Luke 17:14 ESV)
It was in the kinetic obedience of movement that they were made whole. Jesus pays attention, ignites faith, heals when faith produces obedience.
End of story, enduring morality tale, the mechanics of obedience that satisfies religious pragmatics?
Not by a long shot. Truth is more complex than that.
Luke’s story moves forward instead of ending with a formula. Only one of the cleansed lepers turns back to thank Jesus.
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.’ (Luke 17:15–19 ESV)
We learn that the enforced camaraderie of shaming illness was rather more ecumenical than we might have hoped. Jew and Samaritan—this guy was one of those—had stood together by the road in miserable company.
It is the Samaritan who returns, surprising even Jesus by the incompleteness of gratitude. Jesus raises him up from the spontaneous groveling of his thankful heart. ‘Rise and go your way … your faith has made you well.’
All ten, it would seem, had been made well, all ten had been healed as they obeyed and headed for the priest.
Yet the outcast among ten outcasts—a leper and a Samaritan!—received from Jesus a deeper wholeness than the lot of them.
Grace’s landscape is not flat. It is hilly, uneven, unpredictable, unmappable, having always more elevation that we thought.