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The Cleansing of the Ten Lepers
by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 22 in The Miracles of our Lord
Luke xvii. 11-19
The Jews who dwelt in Galilee, in their necessary journeys to keep the Passover at Jerusalem, very commonly took the longer route, leading them across the Jordan, and through the region of Peraea (the Gilead of the Old Testament), so to avoid the vexations and annoyances, or worse outrages, to which they were exposed in passing through the unfriendly land of the Samaritans.  For these, at all times unfriendly to Jews, were naturally most unfriendly of all to the pilgrims who, travelling up to the great feast at Jerusalem, thus witnessed in act against the will-worship of Mount Gerizim, and against the temple of Samaria in which was no presence of the living God (John iv. 22).  It is generally understood that now, notwithstanding the discomforts and dangers of that inhospitable route (see Luke ix. 51-56; John iv. 9), our Lord, with the band of his disciples, on this his last journey to the holy city, took the more direct and shorter way which led Him straight from Galilee ‘through the midst of Samaria’ to Jerusalem.  Certainly the words which we have translated, ‘And it came to pass as He went to Jerusalem, that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee,’ may bear this meaning ; in our Version they must bear it.  At the same time some understand the Evangelist to say that the Lord passed between these two regions, having one on his right hand, the other on his left, and skirting them both.  This would explain the otherwise unaccountable mention of Samaria before Galilee.  He will then have journeyed due eastward toward Jordan, having Galilee on his left hand, and Samaria, which is therefore first named, on his right: and on reaching the river, He will either have passed over it at Scythopolis, where we know there was a bridge, recrossing it by the fords near Jericho (Josh. ii. 9), or will have kept on the western bank till He reached that city, where presently we find Him (xvii. 35).

And as He entered into a certain village, there met Him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off.’  Their common misery had drawn these poor outcasts together (cf. 2 Kings vii. 3).  It had done more.  It had caused them to forget the fierce national antipathy which kept Jew and Samaritan apart; for a Samaritan, as will presently appear, had found admission into this forlorn company.  In this border land such a fellowship may have been more natural than elsewhere.  There has been already occasion to speak of the nature of leprosy, and of the meaning of the Levitical ordinances about it.  [See Trench – On the Miracles at Epiphany 3]  It  was the outward symbol of sin in its worst malignity, as involving therefore entire separation from God; not of spiritual sickness only, but of spiritual death, since absolute separation from the one fountain of life must needs be no less.  These poor outcasts, in obedience to the commandment (Lev. xiii. 46), ‘stood afar off;’ and out of a deep sense of their misery, yet not without hope that a healer was at hand, and all of them in earnest now to extort the benefit, however at a later period some were remiss in giving thanks for it, ‘lifted up their voices and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!

And when He saw them, He said unto them, Go, show yourselves unto the priests.’  Most instructive is it to observe the differences in our Lord’s dealing with the different sufferers and mourners brought in contact with Him; the manifold wisdom of the great Physician, varying his treatment according to the varying needs of his patients; how He seems to resist a strong faith, that He may make it stronger yet (Matthew xv. 23-26); how He goes to meet a weak faith, lest it should prove altogether too weak in the trial (Mark v. 36); how one He forgives first, and heals after (Matthew ix. 2, 6); and another, whose heart could only be reached through an earthly benefit, He first heals, and then forgives (John v. 8, 14).  There are here, too, no doubt reasons why these ten are dismissed as yet uncleansed, and bidden to show themselves to the priests; while the other, whose healing was before recorded (Matt. viii, 2-4), is first cleansed, and not till afterwards bidden to present himself in the temple.  These reasons I think we can perceive.  There was here, in the first place, a keener trial of their faith.  With no sign of a restoration as yet upon them, they were bidden to do that which implied that they were perfectly restored,--to undertake a journey, which would prove ridiculous, a labour altogether in vain, unless Christ’s word and promise proved true.  In their prompt obedience they declared plainly that some weak beginnings of faith were working in them; the germs of a higher faith, which yet in the end was only perfectly unfolded in one.  This they declared, for they knew very well that they were not sent to the priests for these to heal them.  This was no part of the priest’s office.  He did not cure, but pronounced cured; he cleansed, yet not as ridding the leper of his sickness, but only as authoritatively pronouncing that this had disappeared, and restoring him, through certain ceremonial ordinances, to the fellowship of the congregation (Lev. xiv. 3, 4).

Then, too, as there was a keener trial of faith, so also there was here a stronger temptation to ingratitude.  When these poor men first felt and found their benefit, it is little likely that they were still in the immediate presence of their benefactor; more probably, already out of his sight, and some way upon their journey; we know not how far, being only told that ‘as they went, they were cleansed;’ it was not therefore an easy and costless effort to return and render thanks to Him.  Some, indeed, suppose that the return of the one Samaritan did not take place till after he had accomplished all which was commanded him; that he had been to Jerusalem—that he had offered his gifts—that the had been pronounced clean—and, this his first duty accomplished, that he then returned to render thanks to the author of his benefit; the sacred narrative leaping over large spaces of time and many intermediate events for the purpose of bringing together the beginning and the end of this history.  But certainly the impression which the narrative leaves is different ;--that, having advanced some little way on their commanded journey, perhaps in the very village itself, they were aware of the grace which had overtaken them; they felt and knew themselves cleansed; and that then this one turned back in the fullness of a grateful heart to give glory to God and thanks to his great Healer and Saviour; like the Syrian Naaman, who, delivered from the same hideous disease, came back with all his company, beseeching the man of God to take a blessing at his hands (2 Kings v. 15); the residue meanwhile enduring to carry away the benefit without one grateful acknowledgement rendered unto Him from whom it came, and into whose presence a very little labour would have brought them.  The sin is only too common; for, as one has well said, with allusion to their mighty crying which went a little before, ‘We open our mouths wide till God open his hand; but after as if the filling of our mouth were the stopping of our throats, so are we speechless and heartless’ [Bernard].

Even He who ‘knew what was in man,’ who had already so often proved the ingratitude of men, marvelled at the greatness of the ingratitude here; for He asks, ‘Were there not ten cleansed?’ or rather, 'Were not the ten cleansed—but where are the nine?  There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.’  Him now he dismisses with a second and a better blessing.  That earlier had reached but to the healing of his body, and he had that in common with the unthankful nine; but gratitude for a lower mercy obtains for him a higher, a blessing which is singularly his, and reaches not merely to the springs of bodily health, but to the healing of the very sources of his spiritual being.  That which the others missed, to which their bodily healing should have introduced them, and would so have done, if they had received it aright, he has obtained; for to him, and to him only, it is said, ‘Go thy way; thy faith has made thee whole.

It gives a special significance to this miracle, and explains its place in that Gospel which is eminently the Gospel for the heathen, that this thankful one should have been a Samaritan, a stranger therefore by birth to the covenants of promise, while the nine unthankful were of the seed of Abraham.  It was involved in this that the Gentiles (for this Samaritan was no better), were not excluded from the kingdom of God; nay rather, might obtain a place in it before others who by nature and birth were children of the kingdom; that the ingratitude of these might exclude them, while the faith of those might give to them an abundant entrance into all its blessings.

How aptly does the image which this history supplies set forth the condition of the faithful in this world!  They, too, are to take Christ’s words that they will be cleansed, that in some sort they are so already (John xv. 3); for in baptism they have the pledge and promise and initial act of it all.  And this they must believe, even while they still feel in themselves the leprous taint of sin,--must go forward in faith, being confident that in the use of His Word and His sacraments, and all His appointed means of grace, slight as they may seem to meet and overcome such mighty mischiefs, they will find that health, which according to the sure word of promise is in some sort already theirs; and as they go, believing this word, using these means, they are healed.  And for them, too, a warning is here—that they may forget not the purging of their old sins (2 Peter i. 9)—nor what those sins were, how ugly, how loathsome; after the manner of these nine, who perhaps did not return, as desiring to obliterate the very memory of all which once and so lately they had been.  Let those who now are clean through the word spoken to them, keep ever in memory the times of their past anguish,--the times when everything seemed defiled to them, and they to everything; when they saw themselves as ‘unclean, unclean,’ shut out from all holy fellowship of God and men, and cried out in their anguish, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’  Let them see to it that they forget not all this; but let each remembrance of the absolving word which was spoken to them, with each new consciousness of a realized deliverance from the power and pollution of sin, bring them anew to the Saviour’s feet, giving glory to God by Him; lest, failing in this, their guilt prove greater than even that of these unthankful nine.  For these carried away temporal mercies unacknowledged; but we should in such a case be seeking to carry away spiritual; not, indeed, that we should succeed in so doing; since the spiritual mercy which is not evermore referred to its Author, sooner or later inevitably ceases from him who hopes on any other conditions to retain it.