It is a curious story.
“Ten lepers” approached Jesus begging for “mercy.” Jesus understood their plea; they sought healing. Jesus instructed them to go and show themselves to the priests. This appears to be a gesture towards religious ritual based on Leviticus, as if seeing a priest is a necessary part of healing,
This shall be the ritual for the leprous person at the time of his cleansing:
He shall be brought to the priest. (Leviticus 14:2)
It turns out the instruction was merely a test. Nine of the healed lepers failed the test.
All ten lepers had heard the voice of Jesus; each responded with the intention to obey. In the process all were physically healed as they went to show themselves to the priests. But at the end of the story, only one of the healed lepers heard Jesus say,
Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. (Luke 17:19)
All were healed, only one was made “whole”. (KJV)
What is the difference?
It appears that one difference may be that the leper who was made “whole” did not obey the original instruction given by Jesus. The instruction was to
Go and show yourselves to the priests. (Luke 17:14)
We are not told about the other nine, but it is clear that at least this one leper did not in the end obey the command given by Jesus. He never made it to show himself to the priest. Instead,
when he saw that he was healed, he turned back. (Luke 17:15)
The nine healed lepers who did not return to Jesus were determined perhaps to abide by the external instruction Jesus had issued. They knew the law and sought to conform to its convention. The disobedient leper was a Samaritan. He was an outsider and perhaps therefore less bound by tradition, and expectation.
Like the other lepers the Samaritan had heard the external instruction Jesus had given. Unlike the other nine healed lepers, the Samaritan listened to a deeper voice and followed the instruction he heard in his heart. The Samaritan leper heard not only the audible voice of Jesus, he also heard the inner voice of Jesus that moved him to return and
prostrate himself at Jesus’ feet and thank him. (Luke 17:15)
Immediately following the story of the healing of ten lepers Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees. The Pharisees are committed to the external form of their religious system. They listen to the voice of tradition and convention.
These Pharisees want to know what are the signs that will indicate the kingdom of God is coming. They want to know how things work, how they can predict the future. They seek to know what the world is going to look like when God restores justice to their people. They are driven by the desire for control, predictability and the security of a reliable religious system.
Jesus is not interested in external forms, so he replies,
The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!”(Luke 17: 20,21a)
Instead, Jesus says,
the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21 KJV)
The Samaritan leper had experienced “the kingdom of God” within. He listened to the deep inner moving of love and his response to this voice caused him to be “made whole.”
When we listen deeply our heart will open, we will naturally and spontaneously respond to life with gratitude and praise. This is the true obedience God seeks from all those who desire to live in tune with their deepest nature.
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean.
15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’
19Then Jesus said to the Samaritan, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’