Choosing to be Thankful
It is a tribute to modern medicine that most of us know very little about the disease called leprosy. Most of us have never seen a leper. We know only what we read in the Bible.
But if we had lived in the time of Christ, we would have known a great deal more because in Bible times it was the most feared disease in the world. It was deadly, incurable and hopeless. So much did the ancients fear it that anyone suspected of having the disease was banished from society. History records a lot of different treatments and remedies for various diseases, but nothing is listed for leprosy. The rabbis said that curing leprosy was like raising the dead.
1. An Awful Disease
Today leprosy is called Hansen’s Disease, after the Norwegian doctor who in 1873 discovered the bacterium that causes the disease. There are actually several kinds of leprosy, and we know today that the Bible words translated “leprosy” actually cover a broad range of skin diseases, which is why some modern translations use a phrase such as “eruptive skin disease.”
The worst kind of leprosy follows this general pattern:
—First, a patch of skin is discolored. It might occur on the brow, nose, ear, cheek or chin.
—Second, the patch turns white or pink and begins to spread rapidly in all directions.
—Third, the disease spreads to various internal organs. The eyebrows may disappear and spongy tumors appear on the body.
—Fourth, tissue begins to disintegrate causing the hands and feet to become deformed.
—Fifth, the nerve endings of the body are destroyed. This is the most critical and dangerous stage of leprosy because it means that the afflicted person loses the ability to feel pain. Thus a rat might chew off a finger at night and the person would never feel it. Or they might touch a flame and feel no pain.
It was feared by the ancients because it produced such terrible results, because it was contagious, and because it could not be cured by man.
For all those reasons, Leviticus 13-14 gives special instructions concerning the diagnosis and treatment of leprosy. It essentially says that any swelling or rash or skin infection must be immediately presented to the priest for his inspection. He is to examine the sore, the skin surrounding and the color of the hair within the infected area.
White hair was considered to be a danger sign. The person thus inspected would be quarantined for seven days. At the end of seven days, if the infection had disappeared, the person could be readmitted to society. If not, then the person diagnosed as having leprosy was banished from society during the time of his infection.
Listen to this instruction:
In his book, “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim explains what this banishment meant to the leper:
“As the leper passed by, his clothes rent, his hair disheveled and the lower part of his face and his upper lip covered, it was as one going to death who read his own burial service. The mournful words “Unclean, Unclean” which he uttered, proclaimed that his was both living and moral death.”
With all that as background, we come to the statement in Luke 17:11-12 that as Jesus was traveling near the border of Samaria and Galilee he met a group of lepers. The Bible says that he was one his way to Jerusalem for the last time. Death is on his mind.
We do not know precisely where this encounter took place, but it was somewhere south of Nazareth and Nain and Mount Tabor and somewhere north of Sychar. Jesus and his disciples are walking east toward the Jordan and the region of Perea in an extremely remote area, precisely where you would expect to find a leper colony.
It is no surprise that Jesus would be found ministering near Galilee. Galilee was Jesus’ home base. He was raised there. He had family and boyhood friends there. He made his headquarters at Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Most of his miracles and much of his teaching was done in Galilee. It was the land of his greatest popularity.
But Samaria was another matter. Good Jews avoided Samaria if they could. The story goes back hundreds of year to the Assyrian Captivity which began in 722 B.C. Some of the Jews had intermarried with the Assyrians and had become, in the eyes of their countrymen, half-breeds and traitors. Over the centuries the Samaritans had become a mixed race with a mixed religion. The Jews hated the Samaritans, and the Samaritans responded in kind.
And it is here, on the frontier between Galilee and
Samaria, in no man’s land between the Jews and the Samaritans, that Jesus meets ten lepers. They are truly in no man’s land. Where else could they go? The Jews didn’t want them; neither did the Samaritans.
2. An Amazing Miracle
Verses 12-13 gives us what sounds like an eyewitness account:
Here is a colony of lepers joined by their common misfortune and misery. Their only uniting characteristic is the foul disease that had cast them out of society. And as Jesus enters the village, these men stand afar off crying out to him for mercy. How did they know who he was? No doubt they had heard the rumors floating across the barren countryside—"This man can heal lepers.”
No doubt they discussed it and maybe even dismissed the idea. Even if he could do such a thing, what were the chances that he would ever come to their village, and why would he have anything to do with them?
But word begins to spread that He is nearby and with nothing to lose, these ten lepers decide to search Him out and present their need to Him.
There they stand, the most ragged choir in Israel, ten lepers crying out to Jesus for mercy. No more pitiful sound ever came to our Lord’s ears. “Have mercy. Have mercy” came the cry from lips that had seen too little mercy and too much condemnation.
What will Jesus do? Will he heal them right then and there? That was certainly within his power and no doubt that was what the lepers hoped for. Instead, Jesus said something that sounds surprising to us.
At first glance, you might think that Jesus is simply putting them off. You might even conclude that he didn’t intend to heal them at all. And if you came to that conclusion, you might think Jesus wants to impress upon them the hopelessness of their condition.
But all those speculations are incorrect. As a matter of fact, Jesus fully intended to heal them and (this is critical) he intended to do it in keeping with the demands of the Law of Moses.
Leviticus 14 clearly states that the priest must authenticate any “cure” from leprosy.
And once the recovery had been documented, then the person could re-enter societal life. So if Jesus hadn’t sent the lepers to the priest, no one would have believed the miracle had really taken place and the law’s requirements could have gone unfulfilled.
But that’s not the whole story. The last part of verse 14 contains a very interesting phrase. It says that “as they went they were cleansed.” They were healed as they went. Not before. Not after. That means that when they left to go to the priest, they still had leprosy.
How do you suppose they felt when Jesus said, “Go show yourselves to the priest?” Go show what to the priest? They were still lepers. They didn’t have anything to show that the priest would want to see. In fact, they’d already done that and the priest had declared them unclean.
The last thing the priest wanted to see was ten smelly, deformed, exiled lepers. I wonder if someone said, “Why bother? After all, “Once a leper, always a leper.” There were sores everywhere, deformed arms and fingers. You could smell the disease a quarter-mile away.
But off they go, doubting all the way, this little group of castaways marching off to see the priest.
They take one step … and they are still lepers.
They take two steps … and nothing happens.
They take a third step … and the leprosy clings to their limbs.
But somewhere along the way, maybe on the fourth step or the fortieth step, something wonderful, something unbelievable, something they never dreamed possible, happened. At some point they look down and realize instantly, miraculously, unbelievably, all ten at once are healed.
Now zero in on the fact that they were healed as they went. Not before. Not after. But in the act of going they were healed. Why? Because it was the act of going that was the act of faith. It didn’t matter how they felt about it. God honored their going in spite of their doubts.
That brings us to a tremendous insight and if you don’t get anything else, get this and commit it to memory or write it down or something.
Before our faith will ever move mountains, it must first move us. When Jesus said, “Go show the priest” he was really saying, “Act as if you are already healed.” What a great piece of advice that is.
So many times we pray and pray and nothing seems to happen. But when our faith, shaky though it may be, finally moves us to action, God honors it and the answer begins to come. If you want a definition of faith, try this one: Faith is acting as if something is so when it isn’t so it can be so.
To one degree or another, we are all victims of a passive religion that says trusting God means letting him do it all. You hear it in little phrases like, “Let go and let God.”
Then we pray, “Lord, I need money,” but refuse to go out and look for a job. We pray, “Lord, help me lose weight,” but we refuse to start exercising or never change our eating habits. It is this passive religion that uses God and faith and prayer as an excuse to do nothing.
Moses tried that, if you will remember. By the time we arrive at Exodus 14, Moses has led the children of Israel out of Egyptian captivity. They are in full parade formation when they arrive at the Red Sea. In the meantime, Pharaoh has rethought his position and decides to go after them.
The Israelites begin to cry and complain when Moses steps up and gives this beautiful sermon about faith and trusting God
But then notice how God responds to that
Listen, if your name is Moses and God told you to lead His children across the Red Sea, it’s all right to praise God for His deliverance, but while you’re praying you better get moving or you’re going to be killed!
If your name is Noah and God told you it’s going to rain, it’s all right to pray for an ark but while you’re praying you better sharpen up the axe and cut down some gopher wood or you’re going to drown.
If your name is David and you find yourself in a valley facing Goliath, it’s all right to pray for victory, but while you’re praying, you better pick up some stones, put them in your sling and take dead aim at Goliath’s forehead or he’s going to use you to sweep the floor.
Trusting God does not equal doing nothing. These ten lepers were healed as they went. Our faith moves mountains when our faith moves us.
3. A Shocking Response
So the ten lepers were healed. It is an amazing miracle, but it is not the end of the story. In fact, that’s not even the heart of the story. Another miracle is about to happen.
Ten were healed and only one came back to give thanks. Luke says he fell on his face before the Lord. He just cleared him off a spot and had a shouting fit praising the Lord! And why shouldn’t he? He’s been healed of leprosy.
For twenty years he was a leper living in this remote corner, separated from his family, forgotten by his friends, cut off from his own people. Suddenly the disease vanishes and with it any trace that he’d ever had it. For the first time in a long time, he walks without a limp. The crooked fingers and the atrophied muscles are all gone.
Whatever part of his nose or hands that were gone are now restored. In less time than it takes to tell the story the disease and all its ugliness are removed from his body. He is whole again. He is healthy again. He is clean again. He is no longer an outcast.
No wonder he shouted. I would too.
Then Luke adds, “He was a Samaritan.” The shock is such that we can hardly comprehend what happened. Of all people, Jesus healed a Samaritan and even more amazing, he came to give thanks!
Remember, Jesus was a Jew and the Jews thought Samaritans were half-breed traitors. To make matters worse, he is a Samaritan leper. To a Jew, a more repulsive combination could not be found. He was from the wrong race, he had the wrong religion, and he had the worst-possible disease.
In religious matters, this Samaritan knew almost nothing and what he knew was mostly wrong! But he knew Jesus had healed him and he knew enough to be grateful to God. That statement is why this story is in the Bible.
Let me go one step further. Luke doesn’t say so directly, but I think he implies that the other nine were Jews. Now that tells me a couple of things.
First, whatever else that may have separated them, sin made them all the same. All ten were affected by the same problem, treated the same way and experienced the same grace.
The same is true of sin. It makes no difference if you are up and out or down and out, rich, poor, black, white, male or female. The Bible’s declaration is “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” And the good news is Jesus died for all. He makes no distinction. Whosoever will may come.
But it also shows us that those who should have been most grateful weren’t. And the one man who shouldn’t have come back did. Does it not make sense that those of us with the most spiritual understanding would be the most thankful?
This whole story pictures life as it really is.
First, it is a beautiful picture of the abundant grace of God. This is a cure by wholesale–a whole hospital healed with only a word, ten at a time. It is a vast miracle.
Second, it is a picture of unbelievable ingratitude. Nine out ten people will probably forget every blessing they ever receive.
And third, it is a picture of unexpected gratefulness. Grateful hearts often pop up where you least expect them.
4. A Penetrating Question
Now we discover what Jesus has to say about all of this:
Jesus asks three questions.
1. Were there not ten healed? Yes.
2. Where are the other nine? Gone.
3. Is there no one here but this foreigner? No one.
If you listen carefully, you can hear surprise, shock and most of all sadness. Jesus wanted to know about the others. Where are they? Weren’t they healed? Why didn’t they come back and say “Thank You"?
It’s a good question. Why didn’t they come back?
Maybe they were in a hurry to see the priest, or perhaps they thought Jesus was gone. Or maybe they just assumed Jesus knew they were grateful.
So where are they now? They’ve left with their blessings. They’ve gone to see the priest and be reunited with their families. For whatever reason, they are gone with no word of thanks to Jesus.
Now here is an amazing ingredient in the story. As I said a moment ago, when you look at these ten lepers, they all appear to be just alike.
They all had leprosy, they were all outcasts from society, they had all heard about Jesus and believed he could help them. He responded to them all, they all obeyed his word and they were all healed.
On the outside they appear identical. Yet there is one obvious, outstanding difference and that is one of them was thankful. Can you imagine that?
Only one returned. Nine went on. Only one was grateful. Nine were not.
And as a result, only one man found forgiveness. Nine did not. Only one man got two miracles. Nine got one.
All ten were healed. That’s one miracle. But the Samaritan was healed and forgiven. That’s two miracles. And that’s what Jesus means when he says, “Your faith has made you well.”
So the question remains: Where are the nine? The answer is, they got what they wanted and left. Jesus performed an amazing miracle for them and they said, “Thanks, Lord, I can take it from here.”
They’re like children who eat their fill and then run away from dinner table without a word of thanks. “We’re full now. Let’s go out and play.”
I think this is the particular sin of those raised in the church. We have so little sense of what God has done for us. Often we don’t love the Lord very much or feel grateful for his blessings. We tend to take it all for granted.
Ingratitude is the leprosy of the soul. It eats away on the inside, destroys our happiness, cripples our joy, withers our compassion, paralyzes our praise and renders us numb to all the blessings of God.
Back in the mid-2000’s, Tony Snow, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush, developed cancer.
Speaking to a group of journalists in January of 2008, Snow told them, “In many ways, having cancer was the very best thing that ever happened to me, other than marrying my wife.”
What would make a man talk that way about a disease that could take his life. Colon cancer kills thousands of people every year. How could it be any sort of blessing?
The answer goes like this. Cancer itself is no blessing, but God often uses it as a vehicle to teach us things we never knew and to deepen our faith. The disease itself is part of the price we pay for living in a fallen world, but through the cancer we may discover what matters most in life. Tony Snow found that his prayers began to change. He began to learn to surrender his life to God.
He went on to say, “It’s not just saying ’God, it’s in your hands,’ but understanding whatever may come afterwards is a matter of not trying to get God to do stuff for you, except maybe to mow down some of the barriers that separate you from God, because for all of us, our vanities get in the way.”
As so many others have discovered, his cancer became the pathway of a new-found faith and ultimately of something he didn’t expect–joy.
After his first cancer surgery, Snow said he had to stay in bed and he began reading the Bible more, “learning to pray” and to ask God to “draw me closer, please, (which) develops a hunger that is also a form of joy.”
From cancer to prayer to the Bible to hunger to joy. It is not a path that Tony Snow would have chosen, but he would also say that what he has discovered has made the journey worthwhile.
We go through life saying, “What have you done for me lately, Lord?” And the Lord replies, “If only you knew.” So much of life is about figuring out you’re not in charge and figuring out who is.
Cancer did that for Tony Snow. Leprosy did that the Samaritan. One man was healed and gave glory to God. One man battled his disease to his death and gave glory to God.
So what about you? Do you give glory to God? Are you thankful? Ten men were healed that day, but only one came back to give thanks. Are you living with the nine or with the one?
Far too many of us take our blessings for granted and groan about duties. Does that sound like you? It doesn’t have to be that way.
Praise is a choice. A thankful heart is a choice you make. No one is forced into bitterness. You choose the way you live. The one who returned to give thanks chose not to forget what Jesus had done for him. The secret of a thankful heart is a conscious choice not to forget what God has done for you.