October 9, 2022, 2022
Luke 17: 11-19
Most of us can recall being taught by our parents and teachers that we should say ‘thank you’ and show gratitude especially when we had been given gifts or been shown kindness. Being grateful to God for everything was frequently expressed in prayers and hymns, and the story of the Ten Lepers was often used to reinforce the belief that we should have an attitude of gratitude towards God. Unfortunately, the emphasis was usually more on the ingratitude of the nine cured lepers and the rebuke of Jesus: ‘Were not all ten made clean? Where are the other nine?’ None of us wanted to be scolded by Jesus!
Earlier in Luke (17:1-3) Jesus warned his disciples that it is very serious to mislead others and he made clear (17:3-4) that they were responsible for aiding repentant wrongdoers back onto the right path. The disciples, recognised their weaknesses and asked Jesus for an increase of faith (17:5-6). Jesus asserted that even faith as small as a grain of mustard seed is enough. But then in 17:9-10, Jesus took a hard line when he said ‘Must he (the master? God?) be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told… no more than…duty’. The same abrupt tone is continued in the account of the cure of the ten lepers in spite of the praise and gratitude of the Samaritan. Jesus at first seemed to ignore the latter as he dwelt on the ingratitude of the nine lepers.
Were the nine lepers doing wrong when they went off to see the priest? No, they were doing as Jesus told them and in accordance with the Jewish Law (Leviticus 13-14… this is worth reading). They acted in good faith and were cured on the way to the priest. What joy and hope as they began their journey to being restored to life with their families, friends, home and work in normal society. Their praising and thanking of God would take place formally over many days under the direction of their priest, probably ending at the Temple in Jerusalem at some time in the future.
So why was Jesus so perturbed as he rebuked the nine lepers, in their absence, for not returning to thank him? Scripture scholars often state that Luke is using this event (parable?) to reprimand the Jews for their inability to accept his Messianic role. The cure of one confirmed leper, let alone ten, could only be seen as divine intervention. Perhaps the nine cured lepers represent those Jews who follow the rules but do not acknowledge Jesus as the fulfilment of their prophecies.
But what is this incident really about? Alyce McKenzie (Professor of Homiletics at Southern Methodist University) points to a clue in the different Greek words used to describe the physical and spiritual ‘cures’: ‘tharizo’ in 17:14 ‘made clean’ and 17:15 ‘healed’ which refers to a physical cure. Yes, all ten lepers were cleansed physically of their leprosy and went to find their priest. They were probably Jewish and so they would follow the religious Laws laid down in Leviticus. They were good law-abiding people but perhaps they lacked discernment.
The Samaritan was also ‘made clean’ and ‘healed’ but his return to thank Jesus was not simply an act of gratitude. It was also a recognition of who Jesus is. This foreigner, who worshipped on Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, returned to Jesus ostensibly to show gratitude to Jesus. But his ’praising God’ while throwing himself at the feet of Jesus, became more significant. It was an act of faith in God. Professor McKenzie focuses on the Greek word ‘sozo’ used in Jesus’s final statement to the Samaritan ‘Your faith has saved you’ (Jerusalem Bible). ‘Sozo’ denotes ‘whole healing’ which is both spiritual and physical. [According to the ‘NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon 1999’ ‘sozo’ is interpreted as ‘save’ thirty-six times and ‘saved’ fifty-six times in the New Testament.] The Samaritan is commended by Jesus because he returned ‘to give praise to God’. He didn’t go to his priest, he returned to the source of the divine power that ‘saved’ him, Jesus Christ. The nine ‘ungrateful’ lepers did the right thing. They went off to fulfil the Law so that they could return to normal life. The grateful Samaritan, not only thanked Jesus, he believed in Him.
Was this account in Luke’s gospel intended as a blunt teaching for Jesus’s disciples, who wavered in their faith, as well as for the narrow-minded Pharisees who kept the Law and knew the Messianic prophecies? Being ‘saved’ like the Samaritan required wholehearted fidelity and gratitude to God.
It is difficult to ignore the following verses in Luke: ‘…the kingdom of God is among you’ (17:21) to the Pharisees and to his disciples ‘A time will come when you will long to see…the Son of Man’. (17:22)
As a bystander in this scene what might your reaction have been to
a) seeing ten ragged lepers approaching begging for help?
b) the return of the Samaritan, the foreigner, now cured, praising Jesus?
c) Jesus berating the ingratitude of the absent nine, apparently ignoring the Samaritan?
d) ‘Your faith has saved you’ (almost as good as ‘This day you will be with me in paradise’ said to the good thief).
As I write this, I am aware that it is almost a month since Queen Elizabeth 11 died (8th Sept. 2022, the Birthday of Our Lady). Our Queen was a praying faithful, who like us vowed her life to the service of others. In her long life she remained faithful to the commitment she made as a young woman. ‘May she rest in peace. Amen.’
N.B. There are over 200,00 lepers still suffering today, mainly in India, Myanmar and Africa. Some of them live in isolation and are rejected by their families and friends. It is all the more sad because leprosy is curable with the use of proven medication.
Luke 17: 11-19
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
The Gospel of the Lord.