Extravagant Grace

The story of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) appears often in instructional material for children. I certainly remember learning from this story the lesson of gratitude. The moral of this story was that no matter how ungratefully others might respond to acts of kindness, I should always express thanks, either to God or to other persons. Sometime my parents reinforced the lesson with the gentle reminder, "What do you say?" whenever someone gave me a gift. While the lesson I learned as a boy still applies, this biblical story points not just to human behavior but to Jesus’ extravagant grace. In choosing this week’s Old Testament and Gospel passages, the bishops have highlighted the brilliance and subtlety of Luke’s gospel. In his first public pronouncement in Luke (ch. 4), Jesus explicitly links himself to the story of Elisha’s healing of Naaman the Syrian. Just as Elisha went beyond the borders of Israel in order to demonstrate God’s power to a foreigner, so also Jesus will include both Gentiles and Jews in his healing activity. Furthermore, Jesus includes a parallel reference to Elijah’s provision for the Widow at Zarephath (4:26). To reinforce this connection between Jesus and Elisha/Elijah, in chapter 7 Luke includes two miracle stories (healing the centurion’s servant and raising a widow’s son), that mirror the great prophetic deeds spoken of in chapter 4. Jesus links himself to Elijah and Elisha because he will bring a prophetic ministry to those who least expect it. In chapter 17, the focal character is a double outcast--both leper and Samaritan. However, he alone returns to Jesus, "glorifying God in a loud voice" (Luke 17:15). This Samaritan echoes Naaman, who proclaimed after his healing, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel" (2 Kings 5:15). For both of these men, outsiders to Israel, the experience of healing led directly to praise. As their bodies are made whole, they undergo spiritual transformation. But what about the other nine lepers? They did at least follow Jesus’ command to go to the priests, so we should not be too harsh toward them. What is striking about this story is that Jesus did not act like a parent and prod them with, "What do you say?" In spite of the fact that they are not as admirable as the Samaritan, they still benefit from Jesus’ extravagant compassion. When the Samaritan returns to Jesus, however, he benefits even more. Kyle A. Keefer
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