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
My parents had a special way of organising presents on Christmas morning. Laying them out in concentric circles around the Christmas tree, they never frontloaded the best ones. First came the stockings, furthest removed from the tree and filled with a variety of snacks and treats we typically blew through by the afternoon. Next, the presents driven by parental obligations, like a new sweater or package of tube socks. Finally, the real gifts — referenced from our wish lists and grouped nearest the Christmas tree.
In the process of opening presents, it would have been incomprehensible for us to stop with the stockings or the second set of gifts. We always opened them with an eye towards the gifts closest to the Christmas tree. But every now and then, usually because of a lack of visibility amidst gift-wrapping rubble, we would miss one of them.
The ten lepers know exactly what they want from Jesus. And it isn’t just a physical healing. As the legal requirements regarding leprosy in Leviticus 13-14 make clear, their physical diagnosis carries devastating implications for their lives. Social isolation — separated not only from the general public but from their friends and family members. Economic debilitation — barred from standard opportunities for productive labour through ritual impurity and physical weakness. Most of all, liturgical exclusion — prohibited from the temple where God’s greatest gift to His people, namely His own presence, dwelt.
It is difficult to imagine the sense of elation that the lepers experience as they make their way to the priests and gradually see the marks of their cursed lives begin to fade. The immediate cure of leprosy is miracle enough, but it is ultimately a sign of better things to come. And yet for nine of the lepers, something is missed. They perceive the intermediate gifts waiting just on the other side of the first. But that’s as far as they can see.
The immediate cure of leprosy is miracle enough… And yet for nine of the lepers, something is missed
But not the one. His interpretation of the healing directs his gaze to something beyond a return to normalcy, as wonderful as that might be, to something new, unprecedented. And it is at this point in the narrative that we are provided a shocking bit of information. “Now he was a Samaritan.” The other nine are Jewish, presumably, yet it is the Samaritan, the outsider, the foreigner to the blessings (read: gifts) of God’s covenant people, who returns praising God and falling at Jesus’ feet in gratitude.
As a Samaritan, he is an unlikely recipient of God’s blessings, and yet it is this status that uniquely situates him to perceive the healing for what it is. Consider that the normalcy, the intermediate blessings, to which the Jewish lepers are returning are not really an option for the Samaritan. Sure, he can look forward to a reunion with family and friends and a return to economic productivity. But a warm welcome from a Levitical priest — much less access to the temple — isn’t a possibility.
Given the absence of these intermediate blessings, his vision of the ultimate gift isn’t obscured amidst the unwrapping of the lesser gifts. Instead, he perceives a reality that the others should see well — that God’s covenantal gifts are ultimately signs pointing back to Himself, now extended to them in the person of Christ. And with this vision, He receives a healing that surpasses the one granted to the other nine. “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
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