One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories growing up was when I was seven or eight years old. I woke up early and came out of my room to find Mom working on turkey and Dad reading his Bible. I caught the tail end of the sunrise and thought about some things I was thankful for. After breakfast my two younger sisters and I piled into the car with Dad and drove down to central Phoenix, where we hiked Camelback Mountain with friends from church. My youngest sister was still a toddler, so my dad carried her in a hiking backpack. She spotted a Gila Monster that day, which she pointed out to the rest of us as “Big Bug!” After we returned home the extended family gathered for a delicious Thanksgiving meal.
With Thanksgiving just two days away, I’d like to call your attention to a simple Bible story that teaches us some important lessons about giving thanks. This story is recorded in Luke 17:11–19.
“Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. And they lifted up their voices and said, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’
So when He saw them, He said to them, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.
And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan.
So Jesus answered and said, ‘Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?’ And He said to him, ‘Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.’”
In this passage, Jesus is ministering in a region along the border between Galilee in the north and Samaria in the south. He is entering an unnamed village when He is met by ten of society’s most famous misfits: lepers.
The word “leprosy” in the Bible was a generic label for various skin conditions. (Contrary to many Sunday school lessons, it was probably not the same as modern leprosy or “Hanson’s Disease” and did not cause fingers or toes to fall off, etc.) However, leprosy was still a dreaded condition—not primarily because of the physical suffering it caused, but because it resulted in isolation. According to Old Testament law, people with leprosy had to live outside the camp. They were required to stay away from others and to cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” wherever they went. In those days, there was no known cure for leprosy. The only hope for recovery was healing.
However, Jesus had a reputation for healing lepers. So, when these men heard that He was in town, they were not going to miss their shot. They couldn’t get close to Him because of the laws, but they stood at a distance and shouted, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” This was their only chance! Would Jesus heal them?
When Jesus saw the men, He said something unexpected. “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” That was it. Now, Christ’s command was a reference to the Old Testament law, which said that if a person was cured of leprosy, he was to show himself to a priest who would confirm the healing, perform a ritual, and pronounce the individual “clean.” The only problem in this instance was that the men were not clean yet! Jesus told them, “Go show yourself to the priest,” but when they looked down at their hands, they were still leprous! Even more startling, Jerusalem was at least a two-days’ journey away!
I’m guessing that those men didn’t spontaneously start walking. There was probably some “What did He say?” and “Could He possibly have meant that?” However, amazingly, in the end, they obeyed by faith, before they saw any sign of healing. I don’t know how far down the road they traveled before the cleansing took place, but it could not have been far. Perhaps one of the lepers looked at his friend and said, “Joseph! Your face!” “What about my face?” “It’s healed!” “Hey look! My hand is clean, too!” And instantly, they realized that Jesus had healed them. Overjoyed, they all hurried onward to Jerusalem to complete the ritual, eager to be reunited with their families and to return to their lives.
All, that is, except one of them. The Bible says that one man returned. Why only one? What was different about this man? One commentator put it this way: “In the heart of the one… something was born that was not born in the hearts of the others, something that drew him back to Jesus in spite of the decision of the nine to go on, something that could not draw the others… because they grasped only at the healing, and not also at the Healer.”1
When the man finally found Jesus, he fell at His feet thanking Him. It is at this climactic moment that Luke decides to insert a vital piece of information: “He was a Samaritan.” The first readers of Luke’s gospel must have been shocked. He was the last one they would have expected to display gratitude to a Jewish rabbi! And yet there he was giving thanks to Jesus.
Christ’s response to the Samaritan drives home the primary lessons of the text. First, He asks, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine?” Jesus not only approves of this man’s actions, but He also disapproves of the others. He continues, “Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” In other words, the fact that it was the Samaritan who responded properly, while those who should have known better rushed on ahead was particularly disappointing to Christ. Finally, Jesus gives the poor Samaritan a word of assurance: “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well” —or, as the CSB more accurately puts it, “Your faith has saved you.” All the lepers had some degree of faith to begin the journey prior to their healing. However, only the Samaritan leper had saving faith.
That reality brings us to “the moral of the story” —“saving faith produces thankfulness.” At first glance, Jesus’ pronouncement in verse 19 could be confusing. Was the man saved by thankfulness? No, he was saved by grace through faith. After all, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.” But how was his faith evidenced? The outward, observable demonstration of saving faith in this man’s life was thankfulness.
So, what lessons do we learn from the Samaritan leper?
1. We must prioritize giving thanks.
If you were to ask the other nine lepers whether they were grateful for what Jesus did for them, I’m sure they’d say “yes, of course!” But only one made time to go back and tell Jesus. In the same way, if you were to ask many Christians, “Are you thankful for the gospel?” they would certainly say, “Yes, absolutely!” And yet, somehow, we rarely get around to saying “thank you” to God, whether through prayer or in song.
I would venture to guess that many professing Christians in America who assume they are marked by gratitude would be shocked to learn how rarely they actually stop to give thanks to God. Are you one of those people?
2. We must be God-focused and humble.
Luke says that the Samaritan leper returned glorifying God with a loud voice. I wonder what that sounded like. Was he singing? Was he simply saying, “Praise God! Praise God! Praise the Lord!” over and over? Either way, this man was certainly not being cool. If he were in high school, his classmates would have given him the sideways glance. Others who didn’t understand the situation might have shied away from him, thinking he was crazy. But he didn’t care. He was just glad to be healed!
You see, this leper recognized the plight from which he had been rescued. He didn’t forget how bad it was to be a leper as soon as he was healed. He had been ostracized, separated from his family and friends, doomed to live a solitary life outside the camp, having no hope of healing or renewal apart from a miracle—but God had done a miracle, and now, everything was different! His entire future was changed. He was now free to hope in ways he had never dared hope before! He was healed! He was clean! And so, quite honestly, he couldn’t care less what anyone else thought of him. All he cared about was praising God and thanking Jesus.
Nothing will kill thankfulness like pride. But you and I have no reason to be proud—and every reason to be humble! Spiritually speaking, we share a lot in common with the Samaritan leper. Like him, we had a disease we could not cure. Like him, we were separated from God’s people. But sadly, we often forget our own stories. If we were to remember where we came from, we would be the humblest, most thankful people on earth. This Thanksgiving let’s examine our hearts and make sure that our view of God is big and our view of ourselves is small.
3. We must submit to the Lord.
What was the Samaritan saying by prostrating himself before Jesus? He was saying, “You are my benefactor; I owe You everything.” “Bought by such love,” the hymn says, “my life is not my own. My praise, my all, shall be for Christ alone.” Sadly, many professing Christians seem to miss this. It’s like, “Thanks God. Thanks for the salvation. I appreciate it.” But then they go and live however they want. They have no time for God in their lives. They don’t realize that becoming a Christian means becoming a slave to Christ, nor can they fathom how much they owe.
One of the biographies on my shelf is of a pastor named Robert Murray M’Cheynne. M’Cheynne wrote a poem called, “I Am a Debtor.” Here is the first stanza.
“When this passing world is done,
When has sunk yon glaring sun,
When we stand with Christ in glory,
Looking o’er life’s finished story,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know—
Not till then—how much I owe.”
Are we even trying to fathom how much we owe God, or do we think that He owes us? Heaven help us! The world says, “It’s your life; do what you want to!” But as Christians, we cannot accept that advice, because we know we are bought with a price.
This Thursday, we as dads have the perfect setup to teach our kids about thankfulness. But they will never learn thankfulness from us unless we are thankful ourselves. Let’s allow these three lessons from a Samaritan leper to wash over us so that we are prepared to bless others.
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 878. ↩