Outside a certain village on the border between Samaria and Galilee, Yeshua encountered ten lepers. They beseeched the famous healer for mercy. Moved with compassion for the otherwise hopeless men, Yeshua instructed them to go show themselves to the priests in fulfillment of the Torah’s requirement. Bewildered, the men set out to do as he said, and as they went, the leprosy fled from their bodies.
Sometime later, one of the ten lepers, a Samaritan, “turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at Yeshua’s feet, giving thanks to Him.” The Master remarked, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18). As He usually did, Yeshua deflected credit for the miracle. He dismissed the Samaritan with the words, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19).
The story contains an allusion to the story in 2 Kings 5 where Naaman the leper, a Syrian foreigner, came seeking healing from the Hebrew prophet Elisha and the God of Israel. Even the geography of the story alludes to the Naaman story. Luke places the story of the healing of the ten lepers on the border between Samaria and Galilee. Naaman probably used that same route to reach the Jordan after he left Elisha’s home at Dothan just south of the Jezreel Valley. The two stories are similar in that, in both cases, a foreigner receives a divine healing and expresses gratitude to the God of Israel.
Read outside of a Jewish context, one might misunderstand the gospel story of the ten lepers to infer that Jews are particularly ungrateful. Read through the common lenses of replacement theology and Christian supersessionism, the story seems to illustrate the unworthiness of the Jewish people and contrast it against the worthiness of non-Jews.
On the contrary, the intended ironic punch-line to the story works only if both the Gospel writer and his readers reckon Samaritans to be outside the pale and of a lower spiritual dignity than the Jewish people. That’s how Jewish people in the first century regarded Samaritans, and the Gospels assume that worldview. For example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan employs the same reversal of expectation. In that parable, we would have expected the man who showed mercy to be Jewish. When it turns out to be a Samaritan, it’s a real shocker that forces us to open our eyes to the dignity and goodness of all human beings, even when they come from outside of our religious circle.
In the story of the ten lepers, the gratitude of the Samaritan is supposed to deliver a similar shock value. It is meant to illustrate just how inappropriate ingratitude is for Jewish people. The morale of the story works like this: If a Samaritan knows enough to express appropriate gratitude to God for a miraculous healing, how much more so should the Jewish people do the same? It’s a subtle rebuke for the poor reception Yeshua and his disciples sometimes experienced during their years of ministry.