At the outskirts of an unnamed village, ten lepers are found in a group, having heard of Jesus’s approach. From a distance (as was by law required of their condition), they call out to him. . . . Jesus’s response is noteworthy: he does not lay hands on them, but in a fashion reminiscent of Elijah’s messenger’s direction to the Syrian general Naaman (2 Kgs. 5:10-15), he sends them to show themselves to the priests, as the law required ( Lev. 13:19; 14:1-11).
It is helpful for the modern reader to recall that for Jews, the quarantined group were by their disease exiled from the temple and from all forms of full communal worship, though it happens that together, had they all been Jews, they would constitute the minimum for a minyan (Wright 1996: 191-92). By definition, the lepers are ritually unclean, unholy, outcasts from the people of God.
Luke’s narrative suggests that it will be in the process of their faithful obedience to Jesus’s command that the ten will suddenly recognize that they have been healed. This is indeed what happens. We must imagine the sudden, joyous discovery, as they pick up their pace en route to the priests.
One, only one, stops himself and returns to the source of his deliverance, the true physician. With a “loud voice” he “glorified God.” Healed, he may now come close to the Lord; he falls down at Jesus’s feet and gives him thanks (Luke 17:12–16). And now Luke adds his skillfully withheld point: “And he [autos is emphatic] was a Samaritan” (17:16). That, in this narrative, is the real kicker.
Were the other nine Jews? Luke does not say; his point is that the only one who expresses gratitude for his deliverance is not a Jew. (If the others are, there is poignancy on several levels, one of which is that in the extremity of their disease they are forced to form a community of sorts with the Samaritan, a man with whom, in normal circumstances, they would have nothing to do. Luke sees but understates the irony.)
Jesus’s rhetorical questions are not to the healed man but to his disciples and are designed to heighten the contrast between gratitude for God’s mercy from a “stranger” and the oblivion of the rest to their great gift and its giver. This indirection also points to a deeper truth. Marshall is on the mark, I think, to point out (1978: 652) that the term “stranger” (allogenēs), while a New Testament hapax legomenon, was precisely the term used on signs prohibiting foreigners from passing the inner barrier of the temple (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.418). Thus, the one who could never have worshiped in the temple, here overcome with gratitude, worships Jesus.
And gratitude is critical to what follows, for it indicates a further crucial distinction. To the grateful man Jesus says, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well” (17:19). All ten have been physically healed, but only one, having established right relationship with Jesus, is now fully reconciled to God.