The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Untouchables

Why does Jesus keep his distance from the lepers and heal them as they’re walking away?

By Tony Jones

Gospel Reading: Luke 17: 11-19

For Sunday, October 10, 2010 – Year C, Ordinary 28

From a ways off, the team o’ lepers shout to Jesus, asking for his help. We’d like to think that Jesus would call lepers over to him, that he’d touch them (or allow them to touch him), like he does with the Hemorrhaging Woman, the Blind Beggar, and the Poor and Lame all around him.

A ‘High-Touch’ Savior?

We like to think of Jesus with kids in his lap and lost sheep over his shoulders. He’s a hugger, just like your pastor in the narthex on Sunday morning. Seriously, how many times have we heard that people today lack human contact, that they need more touch. And we’d like to think that Jesus — and, by extension, followers of Jesus — would provide that to a [insert Christian euphemism here] lost and hurting world.

Lepers! That’s the perfect biblical metaphor for touching the untouchables. Mother Theresa did it all the time, shocking visitors to Calcutta by providing loving touch to lepers without any fear of contracting the horrific disease herself.

But Jesus doesn’t call the 10 Lepers over to himself. He doesn’t walk over to them. Instead, he keeps his distance and tells them to go see the priests. As they’re walking away, they are healed of their leprosy (presumably by Jesus, though the text doesn’t say that exactly).

A Dehumanizing Text?

One of the things I like most about the miracle, and the reason that I think they’re so important to the Jesus narrative, is that Jesus repeatedly re-humanizes persons who have been dehumanized by the religious authorities of the day. Be they paralytics, blind men, or bleeding women, Jesus touches and heals those who are considered unclean and thus unworthy of worshiping the Lord in the Temple. By healing them, Jesus is restoring them to fullness and, most importantly, to Temple worship.

But it seems less than humanizing that Jesus doesn’t approach the 10 Lepers. Then he heals them as their backs are turned to him, as they’re walking away.

When only one comes back to express his gratitude, Jesus is torqued off that the other nine are ingrates. But maybe they’re just pissed that Jesus didn’t touch them.

The Hardest Question

Why does Jesus keep his distance from the lepers and heal them as they’re walking away?


Tony Jones is the author of many books, including The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. He blogs at The Tony Jones Blog. And he’s teaching a D.Min. cohort on Christian spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary beginning in 2011.


  1. Many, if not most of Jesus’ healings do not involve touching, but a command: the paralytic by the pool of Siloam, blind Bartimaeus, The paralytic in Mark 2, the man with the withered hand in Mark 3, etc.

    What is it about commands that they heal people?

    Also, in this story as in Mark 1:44, the priests are off stage. Their role in society is to determine who sheds the status of “sick person” and who does not; so they keep people ill as much as they heal them. Illness, in contrast with the physical conditions of disease, is a social status, a cultural condition. The disability rights movement is acutely aware of this. A continual status of illness can produce enough stress to cause physical disease. Jesus releases the leper from the status of illness, which in fact may stop the disease process.

    Note that the ten lepers are “cleansed” (catharsis) or “cured” (therapeuomai) of their leprosy, but only one of them is “saved” (sozo): the grateful one. Perhaps he is the only one who recognizes that there is no salvation in the temple priesthood, which is after all dedicated to the function of defining people as “ill.” He has not only gratitude, but a related gift, faith like a mustard seed. It uproots the temple, as it does the mulberry tree in the preceding saying of Jesus.

  2. Grant Effer says:

    Just a thought, certainly not a theological treatise. Perhaps, he just doesn’t have time for this kind of distraction. Jesus is on a purposeful journey – Luke’s story. His ability to heal is no longer a question in most people’s minds. His objective, Jerusalem and the cross, are very close. The healing of leprosy (or whatever skin ailment they may have had) was like an illustration near the end of a sermon. The sermon (Christ’s journey so far) has been about saving the lost (this comes up again in Luke 19). To heal 10 more lepers is more “doing” and Christ uses this quick illustration to point out that its not the healing he wants the disciples to focus on but God’s salvation plan. For that we should be eternally grateful!

  3. Ed says:

    I don’t think raising a question the text does not deal with is helpful. I don’t think one should take issue on Jesus not touching the lepers. Whether or not “not approaching” the lepers or “not touching them” is “less humanizing” (in Jesus’ or our culture?)is not what the text is all about. This narrative is simply about God’s saving grace (which is available to all) and the proper response to it–a life lived in faith and gratitude for what God has done.

  4. Lisa says:

    Maybe Jesus doesn’t touch them because he doesn’t want to re-victimize them. When the text says (vs. 14), ‘He saw them’, it misses the point. The Greek grammar uses the verb ‘seeing’ without an object (them). ‘Seeing’ here is mainly used to mean ‘to perceive, to know’.

    Instead of ‘When he saw them (10 lepers), he said…’, it should read, ‘And seeing, he said….’. I think the original language allows for us to to consider that Jesus was’seeing’ what his Father was ‘seeing’. Whole human beings. Not lepers. God sees, perceives, knows them as healed. Jesus doesn’t see lepers, he sees 10 whole human beings who are not defined by leprosy.

    Just a thought.


  5. Michael says:

    Jesus not touching the lepers is another illustration of how Jesus kept the law while at the same time being the fulfillment of grace within the law. Remember Jesus said “I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.” By the law the lepers where not allowed to go near anyone who was not a leper. Further more,if a non-leper touched a leper they where considered unclean. So by Jesus not calling them to him he helps the lepers keep the law. In addition, by not touching them he to keeps the law.

  6. Rev. Jenn Glover says:

    Kudos for pushing the text and asking the tough questions. Our scriptures are intended to be wrestled with, questioned, and pulled apart– how else will God speak through this Living Word?

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