Luke LIII: Lk. 17:1-19
In Escape from Reason, Francis Shaeffer argues that one of the central elements of the turn of Western Civilization away from God has been a turn toward despair – a certain hopelessness about God, human life, and the universe. Despair tends to spread bitterness and apathy, but Jesus came to give us a joy that can never be taken away (Jn. 16:22).
The Text: This section opens with a stern warning from Jesus about causing others to sin (Lk. 17:1-2). Jesus urges the disciples to watch themselves and one another carefully, being ready and willing to rebuke, repent, and forgive quickly, regularly, and continually (Lk. 17:3-4). While the disciples assume this must require enormous faith, Jesus says it’s actually a very small and humble faith (Lk. 17:5-6). In fact, Jesus says we should think of confronting sin, repentance, and forgiveness like servants think of serving their master (Lk. 17:7-10). The following story is surely meant by Jesus/Luke to illustrate the whole point of all of this: on His way to Jerusalem, Jesus is met by ten lepers crying out to Him as their master, to have mercy on them (Lk. 17:11-13). Jesus commands them to go and show themselves to the priests for examination, and as they go towards the temple, they find themselves cleansed (Lk. 17:14). Then one of them, seeing that he was cleansed, turned around, praising God with a loud voice, and he came and fell at the feet of Jesus, giving Him thanks (Lk. 17:15-16). Jesus marvels that the only one of the ten who returned to praise God was a Samaritan, and He sends the man away, saying that it is this kind of faith that saves (Lk. 17:18-19).
Sin & Uncleanness
In the Bible leprosy was not merely a skin disease. It was a form of contagious uncleanness that could show up in a skin disease but also an itch, swelling, spots, mildew or mold in garments or houses, unclean animals, corpses – even sexual relations, menstruation, and childbirth made individuals unclean temporarily, and all of these were contagious (Lev. 12-15). In addition to specific cleansing rites, in the Old Covenant, all of Israel’s sins and uncleanness were dealt with on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:16, 19, 30). Sin caused guilt for particular transgressions, but uncleanness is the contagious nature of certain actions and events in a fallen world. Both of these categories are necessary for understanding the world that God has made, our sin, and our redemption. This is why John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Fallen people need forgiveness and cleansing. Even in the New Covenant where all things have been declared “clean,” the category of “uncleanness” has not been abrogated – otherwise, why would John say God “cleanses” us (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14)? The point of the Old Covenant cleanliness laws was to teach Israel that all of these things affect us and others and our relationship to God; they are contagious. Likewise, all of our actions and conditions still affect us and others today. They are contagious either for good or evil, drawing us toward God or away from Him. So we certainly must ask: is this thing sinful or not? But we must also ask: what is this thing here spreading? Everything we do is either spreading despair or joy. Everything we touch, every situation is contagious with resentment or praise.
Jesus Makes People Clean
Imagine being that Samaritan leper, suffering day by day, separated from family and community, ostracized, despised, lonely, and then on this day, crying out to this Rabbi Jesus for mercy (Lk. 17:13). What could He do? Even the plea for mercy seems so desperate. Then He tells them to go into the city to the priests – would they be scorned and rejected for coming into town unbidden (Lk. 17:14)? And then as they turn to go to the priests in simple but courageous obedience to this Master, they see the spots and sores and skin legions fade away before their very eyes (Lk. 17:14). While we don’t know what the other nine did, we know what the one Samaritan did. When he saw that he was healed, he turned around praising God with a loud voice (Lk. 17:15). Why did he turn around and begin praising God with a loud voice? Because he was clean. Because the thing that made him a curse, the thing that made him a danger to other people, the thing that drove him into isolation – that thing was gone. Now instead of spreading uncleanness and defilement and despair, he was set free to share the cleansing of Christ, the love of Christ, the joy of Christ. Do you understand this man? Do you feel what he felt in that moment? If you are a Christian, you do, but if you are not, then you wish you did. This story is here because it answers and illustrates the point of what has just come before. For the disciples of Jesus to live boldly, confronting sin, repenting of sin, and forgiving sin over and over again, they must have this kind of faith. It is not enormous faith. It’s faith like a grain of mustard seed, but it is powerful faith because it rests in simple obedience to the Master (Lk. 17:10). And this simple obedience begins with believing that Jesus makes us clean (Lk. 17:19).
In one sense, you might say that the entire Christian life is the space between verses 15 and 16. The Christian life begins with seeing that you have been healed and then turns around (“repenting”), praising God with a loud voice until you finally come to Jesus Himself and fall on your face at His feet, giving Him thanks. The Christian life is a Eucharistic life, a life of rejoicing and thanksgiving. This is why Paul writes, “Rejoice always, and again I say, rejoice!” – from a Roman prison cell (Phil. 4:4-6).
The tasks of confronting sin, repenting of sin, forgiving sin are often terrifying, but they are also great litmus tests of our faith and joy. Are you confronting that sin because it annoys you or because of the joy of Christ? And if someone confronts you, are you offended? Why? Isn’t the truth far worse than they know and now you’re clean? Or do you run immediately to justify yourself by saying that it isn’t a sin? Maybe so, but is it unclean? Is it spreading Christian joy? Or is it a root of bitterness that will defile many (Heb. 12:15)? And even if it is honest joy in your heart, what if it causes your brother to stumble? Isn’t there an even greater joy in laying your freedom down for the sake of others (Rom. 14:13ff)? And why can’t you forgive your brother seventy times? Haven’t you been forgiven much more? This is only possible through the joy of being cleansed in the blood of Jesus (1 Jn. 1:7). If the whole Christian life is one of praising God with a loud voice, then rebuking sin, repentance, and forgiveness are central to spreading that joy. Sin and all uncleanness spreads despair and bitterness, but the blood of Jesus spreads light and joy and fellowship.