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Samaritans in Luke

Why is the Samaritan the only one who thanks Jesus in Luke 17?

Healing of Ten Lepers

Q. In Luke 17 where Jesus tells the ten healed lepers to show themselves to the priests, much is made of the Samaritan being the only one who thanks Jesus. But why would a Samaritan run off to present himself to a Jewish priest, who is not going to talk to him, much less examine him?

A. I see the story of the healing of the lepers in Luke 17:11-19 in line with the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. According to all we know about the strained relationship between Judeans and Samaritans, a Samaritan taking such dedicated care of an injured Jew would be as unlikely as a Samaritan going to a Jewish priest to be declared pure again—and by that action being reintegrated into the community, actively worshipping on the Jerusalem temple.

Luke’s point is not historical, but pedagogical. He first of all wanted to depict Jesus as a powerful healer (Luke 17) and gifted parable teller (Luke 10). But above all, he wanted to make his (Jewish?) readers jealous of the Samaritans, and through jealousy, to urge them into action. Look, he said, if a Samaritan, whom you all despise, already did what God demands from humans, how much more should not you teachers of the law become active and do what is right (Luke 10:25)?

Luke 10:37a tells me that the teacher got the message, “The one who showed him mercy,” whereas Luke 10:37b, “Go and do likewise” is directed to all readers/listeners of the parable and makes clear what the entire story is all about: act if you do not want that the despised Samaritan is “better” than you. Luke 17:11-19 runs along a similar line: the despised “foreigner” is the only one who recognizes Jesus’ power and praises God.

But back to the lepers: to show oneself to the priests is to have the healing confirmed. But note that the Samaritan does not actually go to Jerusalem, but that he does act exactly how Luke wants all people to act when they encounter the healing Jesus: to prostrate themselves before Jesus and to thank God. Luke likes to use scandalous or marginal persons and events to get his message across: widows, a “smart” manager (Luke 16:1-14), a Samaritan; the parables above illustrate this point nicely.

  • Jürgen K. Zangenberg

    Jürgen K. Zangenberg holds the Chair for History and Culture of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity at the Faculty of Humanities at Leiden University (Netherlands) and holds an appointment at the Leiden University Faculty of Archaeology. He has served as codirector of the Kinneret Regional Project since 2002.