Commentary on Luke 17:11-19
The only healed leper who turns back to praise Jesus is a Samaritan.
With this designation Luke alludes to a centuries-long story of religious rivalry and ethnic friction. At the same time, he foreshadows the eventual healing of that hostility.1
Why the hostility? The region of Samaria, along with Galilee to the north, had once comprised the northern Israelite tribes who separated from Judah in the 10th century BCE in order to establish a rival monarchy. Two centuries later, these northern tribes were conquered by the Assyrian empire, which transported distant Mesopotamian peoples into the region, resulting in centuries of inter-marriage. From a Judean perspective, these developments led to a kind of ethnic compromising of the already alienated branches of Jacob’s family tree. Over time, Samaritans developed their own religious traditions, emphasizing devotion to Torah and affiliation with the sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim near Shechem.
In the 2nd century BCE, much of Galilee converted to Judaism, meaning (among other things) that it recognized the Jerusalem temple as the proper place of cultic worship. This left the middle region of Samaria rather isolated between two Jerusalem-affiliated populations. In 128 BCE, the rivalry turned especially violent when Judeans destroyed the Samaritan sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim. In Jesus’ day, hostility toward Samaritans was still strong enough that Galilean pilgrims often bypassed Samaria en route to Jerusalem, even though it added considerable time to the journey.
Interestingly, Luke contains the most references to Samaria and Samaritans, especially when we consider the entirety of his two-volume work (Luke-Acts). In reading through those references, it becomes clear that Samaritans play a key role in Luke’s depiction of the universal significance of Jesus’ mission. The first volume foreshadows the salvation of Gentiles (see Luke 2:32; 3:5-6, 8; 7:1-10) while the second volume narrates it (see Acts 10). When the risen Jesus commissions the apostles, he seems to envision Samaria as a kind of threshold between the Jewish homeland and worldwide ministry: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
What the above history also makes clear, however, is that Jews could also consider Samaritans enemies. To appreciate this point, we must clarify that Jews did not consider Gentiles to be enemies by definition. The Persian king Cyrus, for example, was heralded as God’s “anointed” because he allowed the return of Jewish exiles (Isaiah 45:1). Luke himself provides us with one Roman centurion (unnamed) who built a synagogue for Jews in Capernaum (Luke 7:4-5) and another (Cornelius) who fears God and regularly gives alms (Acts 10:1-2).
In the case of Samaritans, we find a centuries-old confluence of “non-Jew” and “enemy.” The shared ancestry and overlapping religious beliefs did not engender harmony but rather inflamed animosity. As today’s feuding Christians can readily attest, it is sometimes hardest to accept those whose intense disagreements with us conceal a much broader foundation of shared beliefs. This is precisely the challenge presented by the parable of the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37), which identifies the nearby Samaritan enemy as the “neighbor” whom Jesus’ Jewish hearers are called to love.
But the good Samaritan is not only the object of neighborly love—he is also, and perhaps more importantly, the exemplary subject of neighborly love. Thus we find a narrative development in Luke from “love your enemy” (Luke 6:27, 35) to “love your worst enemy” (the Good Samaritan) to “see your worst enemy, no longer as enemy, but as an agent of God’s love” (again the Good Samaritan). Luke is building a case for indiscriminate love and radical inclusion.
Significantly, the Samaritan leper mirrors the Good Samaritan as a loving subject, but with this crucial difference: while the Good Samaritan is the subject of neighborly love, the Samaritan leper is the subject of godly love: “when he saw that he was healed, [he] turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him” (verses 15-16). How provocative, then, that Luke presents Samaritans as models of the dual love commandment (10:27), the first modeling “love your neighbor as yourself” and the second modeling “love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Perhaps Luke is aware of the fact that Samaritans shared with Jews the Mosaic traditions that Jesus cites (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Regardless, it is a revolutionary way for a Jewish Messiah to imagine the kingdom of God.
Of course, Jesus himself is struck by the Samaritan leper’s response: “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (verse 18). Here too we find a parallel with the parable of the Good Samaritan, whose loving actions Jesus contrasts with the negligence of upstanding Jewish figures. In neither case, however, is Jesus’ point to shame his fellow Jews. His contrasts simply highlight, in the starkest terms, the praiseworthy actions of the alleged enemy. Sometimes our enemies are our persecutors (Luke 1:71, 74), and sometimes we love them “expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35). But in other cases, our enemies are not really our enemies—they are neighbors from whom we can learn and with whom we may be reconciled.
Following this line of interpretation, the preacher may ask, “Where do we find enemies who are not really enemies? So-called “foreigners” from whom we might glimpse God’s kingdom (such as the immigrants “invading” our southern border)? At the same time, it is worth remembering that today’s Christians are essentially non-Jews who, like the Samaritans, have been sought out and found (Luke 15:32) by the Jewish Messiah. Maybe we are the self-assured disciple who needs to hear Jesus’ praise of the Samaritan leper, or maybe we are the Samaritan leper who can only praise God and thank Jesus!
- Because this story deals with issues of ritual purity, it is susceptible to any number of Christian caricatures of ancient Judaism. While I do not deal with these issues here, I feel obligated to warn preachers against vilifying Mosaic laws of purity as “oppressive” or assuming the categorical “shunning” of lepers in Jesus’ day. See Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 144-149; Myrick C. Shinall, Jr., “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels,” Journal of Biblical Literature 137, no. 4 (2018): 915-934.