our stories of freedom
Ministry in the West in the 21st century is far easier than, say, ministry in the apostle Paul’s time would have been. At any given moment, he was exposed to the threat of real persecution: hunger, thirst, exposure to the elements, ridicule, beatings, or death. We don’t have to deal with any of that. We live in a place and time in which we are comfortable, well fed, well dressed, entertained, and at least superficially happy.
But our context brings different problems with it—and I’m not talking about how a secular society has a hard time accepting the gospel.
I’m talking about how you convince people who seem to have everything that they are actually lacking the one thing they really need.
How do you remind people who have everything of just how good they actually have it?
How do we teach our kids to be thankful when they grow up with all of their immediate needs (and many of their imagined needs) fulfilled?
Barring a miracle, there are two primary means by which we can understand this fully:
The first is through suffering. We lose some of the things we take for granted, and suffer for a while (sometimes for a long while). And when we get those things back, we feel the weight of God’s goodness to us in a much deeper way.
The second is through stories, whether true or fictitious. Thank God he doesn’t only teach us through suffering. He also gives us stories—tales we can identify with, in which we can see ourselves, which help us see what it is like to receive God’s goodness.
We see one of those stories—one of those true stories—in today’s text.
Ten Lepers Healed (v. 11-14)
In Luke 17.11-19, Jesus is still making his way to Jerusalem. He’s walking, Luke tells us, between Samaria and Galilee. This was a kind of no-man’s-land between two hostile territories: between the Samaritans in Samaria, and the Jews in Galilee.
The two groups couldn’t stand each other. The Samaritans were descended from those Hebrews which had intermarried with foreigners brought over by the king of Assyria in 722 B.C. The result was a mixed people—descended from Jews and Gentiles—hated by the Jews, who saw them as a kind of unfaithful mixed breed.
Jesus is walking between these two territories when he is met by a group of lepers.
The word here for “leprosy” wasn’t limited to what we call “leprosy” today; it designated a variety of highly contagious, infectious skin diseases. And it was a very big deal in the culture, because it made you ritually unclean. The Law of Moses had very specific rules about how to deal with a person who had leprosy, or anything that person owned or even touched. Having a leper in your house often meant losing everything you had.
As a result, lepers were almost always cast out of their homes, their towns and their families. Having leprosy almost always meant losing literally everything that was dear to you.
So we understand their despair when they come to Jesus. They have evidently heard that Jesus is a miracle worker, and they are desperate—they have lost everything. So they come, keeping a distance so as not to infect him, but begging for his help.
11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
This is interesting; most of the time when Jesus was met by the sick, he touched them or spoke to them, and they were healed immediately. He doesn’t do that this time, but rather tells them to go show themselves to the priests.
In Leviticus 14, we see what a leper is supposed to do once they’ve been healed of their leprosy—they’re healed, but not yet ritually clean. To be ritually clean, they had to go to the temple, show themselves to the priest (who would confirm or deny their healing), offer a sacrifice, shave off all their hair, and bathe—all of this in a precise order, on specific days. It was a long process.
What’s interesting is that Jesus essentially tells them to go do what you normally do when healed of leprosy…before they’re actually healed.
He’s forcing them to take him at his word, to believe that the healing is coming, even if they can’t see it. And they seem to believe at least enough to do that (or at the very least, they figure they have nothing else to lose).
So they leave to go show themselves to the priest in Jerusalem. And, Luke tells us (v. 14b):
And as they went they were cleansed.
It works. All ten of them are healed.
You can imagine the scene—they didn’t have mirrors, so they wouldn’t have seen themselves, but they could see one another.
Sores begin to close themselves up. Fallen digits, noses and ears begin to grow back. Scales begin to fall off. They look at each other and are astonished, knowing that they are healed; and once they have been ritually cleansed as well, they can get their lives back. So they would have hurried all the more quickly to the temple.
And that’s what they do…all but one of them.
One Leper Saved (v. 15-16)
15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.
Out of all of these men healed, only one of them is struck by what has just happened, to the point of turning back. Luke doesn’t tell us what’s going on in his mind, what exactly he understood about his healing. He tells us that he understands two things.
First, he understands that his healing came from God. v. 15: Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.
When our translations say “loud voice,” that’s putting it mildly. In Greek the term used here is phonēs megalēs. Sound familiar? That’s where we get the modern word “megaphone.”
This man is so head-over-heels grateful for his healing that he is practically screaming, and he’s screaming God’s praises. He apparently knows that this is not magic; it is not sorcery. This was an act of the one true God, and he proclaims it with the full power of his lungs.
Secondly, he understands that even if his healing came from God, it came through Jesus. V. 16: 16 ...and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.
He praises God, and he thanks Jesus.
He may not know precisely who this man is, but he has made the connection in his mind between Jesus and God himself. He knows that God worked through Jesus to make this happen, and that Jesus was not merely an instrument. (Unless you’re Marie Kondo, you don’t thank your tools once they’ve done their job). Jesus was the actor in this healing, and this man is so overwhelmed with gratitude that he literally falls on his face before Jesus.
And this is where Luke drops the big surprise revelation, at the end of v. 16:
Now he was a Samaritan.
What was a Samaritan doing with these other men? Samaritans and Jews, as we’ve already seen, were not on friendly terms.
But when you suffer as much as these men have, when you lose all that these men have, such distinctions lose their importance. They were united by their common suffering.
What’s surprising here is not that a Samaritan was part of this group. What’s surprising is that of all of these men, the only one to turn back to thank this Jewish healer is the Samaritan—the foreigner.
It’s so surprising, in fact, that even Jesus voices his surprise.
17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Jesus was God incarnate, absolutely; but during his time on earth there were attributes of God he intentionally left behind for a time. Jesus was not omnipresent; he couldn’t be everywhere at once, because he had a body. In the same way, we see in the gospels that Jesus left some of his omniscience behind: we often see Jesus say that there are things that he doesn’t know, at least in his current state.
Which means that on occasion, even the Son of God could be surprised.
And what surprised him was the lack of recognition and gratitude for the healing. Ten men were healed, and they were undoubtedly happy. But only one of them—and a foreigner at that!—was grateful enough to delay his reentry into society for a little while, in order to come back and thank the man he recognized as the Healer. That should have been the reaction of everyone healed. It should have been instinctive on their part. But it wasn’t.
So we can imagine a pause here, after Jesus asks his rhetorical questions—a pause in which Jesus stops looking at the horizon, to the place where the nine men have disappeared, and turns his gaze down to the man lying on his face before him. He looks at him for a moment, and says something utterly astonishing.
19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Again, the translation puts it mildly. When he says “your faith has made you well,” he’s saying literally, “your faith has saved you.”
Evidently, this man has understood more than even he realized. He has made the link in his mind between the God who was the source of his healing, and the Man through whom this healing came. He was healed of his leprosy, absolutely; but even better, he has been saved.
Jesus is not saying that this man was saved because he was thankful; he’s not teaching, as R.K. Hughes puts it, “salvation by disposition.”
The gratitude he displays is the result of his faith. It is the proof that there is more going on in his heart than happiness that he’s not sick anymore; that he has been given faith. It is this faith that has saved him.
Luke knew what he was doing when he told his story the way he did (or rather, God knew what he was doing when he orchestrated these events to play out as they did). Because what we see in this story is what we see on a regular basis, still today.
Most of us know Christians who are positively brimming with gratitude. These people speak constantly of God’s goodness to them; they share their testimony almost compulsively; they are overflowing with happiness.
These people stick out in our minds, don’t they? We can think of these people, and we remember them. And we remember them not just because of how happy they are.
We remember them because so few people who are like that. This kind of Christian is, more often than not, the exception rather than the rule.
Ten men healed…and only one thankful enough to turn back. Isn’t that the way it so often goes?
The question is, “Why is it so often that way?”
Jesus gives us a clue in the questions he asks. V. 18 again:
Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?
These men were certainly grateful after their healing…but to whom were they grateful?
They were grateful to a man who happened to have the power to heal them. Their gratitude wasn’t aimed at God. They were so down-to-earth in their thinking that they forgot all about the spiritual side of what had happened. Their minds were so quick to jump on the result—their healing, and the potential of a new life—that they didn’t think to consider the cause.
And we are, far too often, exactly the same. We are, by and large, consumer Christians: Christians who come to God because of what he can do for them.
Because God does a lot for us, doesn’t he? He gives us life; he gives us breath; he gives us food on our plate and a roof over our heads; he gives us clothes to protect us from the elements; and when we meet Christ, he gives us a family; he gives us a new circle of dear friends; he gives us community; he gives us a place to belong; he gives us a new way of speaking, a new way of acting; he gives us optimism for the future.
Every one of these things that God gives us is, absolutely, a legitimate reason to be happy.
And every one of these things is absolutely secondary.
They are by-products of the grace God gives us, necessary results of what it looks like to be saved. They are wonderful, but they are secondary.
The problem is that so very often, we make them primary. We make them the reason why we come to God at all; we make them the main things we’re happy about.
And we know that’s the case…because how do we react when he takes one of these things away?
How do I react when I get sick? When my clothes start getting ragged and I can’t afford more? When my apartment starts springing leaks, or when my neighbors are difficult? When there is conflict between me and my circle of friends? When my sin starts showing its ugly face again (or when I see it in others)? When something happens that makes the future seem not so bright after all?
Said like that, these things don’t seem like a big deal; but in reality, losing these things (especially if we lose more than one at the same time) can throw us into such a cycle of despair that coming to church and singing about joy and life in Christ feels more like a chore than a source of comfort.
These secondary things have the power to break us because we’ve made them primary: we’ve become consumer Christians, happy in God as long as he gives us what we need, and profoundly dissatisfied when he takes it away.
Why? Because we, like the nine lepers, are so focused on the result of our newfound Christian lives that we forget the root of it: what actually happened when we’re saved, that no amount of suffering or loss can ever actually change.
The one who returned was set free from his illness; but even more, he was set free from what separated him from God—and the proof of that freedom is that the most important need he felt once realizing he was healed was not to go get his life back as soon as possible, but to return and praise the One who had healed him. He was free from the source of his misery, and he knew it…and nothing else mattered.
Our Stories of Freedom
I know you know the stories.
Stories of slaves who labored under the brutal sun, who suffered years of torture and backbreaking work. Men, women and children treated like animals rather than human beings, until the very idea of hope seemed like another form of torture. People who had seen the last of their will shredded away by cruelty, until the only thing that kept them going was a mechanical compulsion to take another step.
Imagine what it must have been like for these men and women to learn, one day, that they were free. That their cruel masters were gone, that nothing held them bound to the fields anymore, and that they could leave that awful place. That they could have families; they could build homes for themselves; they could enjoy a cup of coffee at the end of the day without fear.
You’ve heard the stories of World War II. Of Jews marched off to death camps, facing the cruelest of fates, wasting away of starvation and exposure, under the constant threat of a sudden death by gunshot, or of a slower, more painful death by gas or hunger.
Imagine then what it must have been like for these men, women and children (those who had survived long enough) to learn, one day, that the war was over. That their captors were now being hunted. That they could leave the camps, and return home.
Can we even fathom the pure relief of that moment, when you hear that everything tormenting you is now gone? That every cruelty leveled against you has been taken away? That every threat against you has been defeated?
What we would feel if we were among them, is what we should feel every second of every day, if we belong to Christ.
What we should feel is even more profond—because for these men and women, their struggle did not end at the end of their captivity, of course. In both cases, these people had to deal with the fallout of their slavery, had to reassemble the pieces of their lives while many of those pieces were missing, and would never be returned.
But for us, if we are in Christ, all that is left for us is freedom. We are absolutely, entirely and eternally FREE.
We are free from the need to earn our salvation—Galatians 2.16:
...we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ
We are free from sin and death—Romans 8.1-2:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
We are free from the shame of our past lives—2 Corinthians 5.17:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
We are free from fear—Romans 8.15:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
We are free from weakness—2 Corinthians 12.9-10:
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
We are free from disunity with our fellow human beings—2 Corinthians 5.18, 20-21:
God...through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
It is simply astounding, given all that we have received, that there could ever be a single moment of our lives in which we are not blissfully, infinitely grateful. We think of those people we know who are marked by gratitude, and we remember them—they stick out in our minds. Given all we have received in Christ, it is simply astonishing that every single Christian is not like that.
I know that when some of you read this story of the leper, your minds will immediately speak up, “But this guy was clearly, visibly healed. What about those who are suffering? How can they expect to stay joyful in their suffering?”
It’s a legitimate question, and it gets to the heart of how this text calls us to respond. Suffering, very often, has a blinding effect on us—it’s very hard to see these things (the various ways in which Christ has healed us and freed us) as true when we’re suffering.
But the key lies in the fact that these things ARE true…whether we’re suffering or not.
This text simply calls us to remember it.
Obviously, Luke doesn’t go into all the detail I just did. But he doesn’t need to. We are blessed today, because we have the entire Word of God. We don’t need to receive God’s Word in snippets. When the Spirit inspired Luke to write these words, he did it knowing full well that the apostles would later keep writing, and tell us the full measure of the healing we have in Christ, the full measure of the freedom he has given us. And he expects us to keep all of that in mind, so that when we read stories like this, we can see all the possible parallels.
If this text calls us to do anything, it is to remember.
To remember that Jesus has healed us far beyond a simple, physical healing. He has healed us of eternal death. He has healed us of the cancer of sin. He has healed us of separation from God. He has saved us through faith in him, just as he said to this man: “Your faith has saved you.”
This text calls us to remember that although ten were healed, only one returned to give thanks. It calls us to keep in the forefront of our minds all of these reasons we have for giving thanks to God, and to remember to do it, because he deserves it.
And as it calls us to remember, it calls us to help each other remember. There are times when even the most joyful of saints forgets how good God is. And in those moments, we need one another. When we are despondent, we need honest brothers and sisters who can pull our faces back upward and say, “But have you really forgotten all he has done for you?”
All of us are going through something today—something good, something bad, or something neutral. We all have our individual stories, and we have all arrived at this particular point in our stories.
Just for a moment, try to not think about what you’re going through. Try to turn your face away from that, and look elsewhere. Look at what is true for you, regardless of what you happen to be going through right now.
If you have faith in Christ, everything we read earlier—and much more—is true for you. He has freed you.
Remember the old monicker from Alcoholics Anonymous? They say that “FEAR” stands for “False Evidence Appearing Real.” In our case, that is exactly right. In Christ, God has freed us from everything that can ultimately and eternally hurt us; and anything that scares us is lying to us, telling us it is really and ultimately threatening when it’s not.
In Christ, God has freed us from fear; he has freed us from the need to earn your salvation; from sin and death; from the shame of your past lives; from weakness; from disunity. That doesn’t mean we don’t see these things in our lives anymore; it means rather that these things can have no lasting effect on us.
He has freed us from a life devoid of meaning.
If we truly believe that, the only natural response is gratitude. And only once we are armed with that gratitude can we turn back to whatever we happen to be going through, and see it for what it actually is: light and momentary pain which is not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us (cf. Romans 8.18).
This is how we react like the Samaritan leper when our pain is removed…and this is how we react like the Samaritan leper while we wait for the pain to be removed.
Brothers and sisters, let us remember. Let us remember that we really can be this thankful, we really can be this joyful, even in suffering. Because the freedom we have in Christ goes infinitely beyond freedom from a disease, or freedom from even the most painful situation.
We really can turn back and fall on our faces before the one who saved us, praising God and exhorting our souls with David (Psalm 103.1-2):
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! 2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits!
And if you don’t know Christ this morning, know this: people might tell you that if you come to Christ, everything in your life will be different. And much of your life will change. Christ blesses us beyond all our expectations, every day.
But what it means to be saved by him through faith goes infinitely beyond whatever momentary blessing he might give us. The best thing Jesus could say about the leper was not, “Your leprosy is gone now,” but rather, “Your faith has saved you.” Come to Christ, place your faith in him, and know that in him, you have received that which no human suffering can ever take away.