by Dan Loch
One year at the REACH Children’s Mass Fr. Mike asked the children, “Who knows what a leper is?” A hand shot up. The boy ventured, “It’s like a tiger.” Undaunted, Fr. Mike continued, “Only one cured leper came back to say thank you to Jesus. What did Jesus say?” Another hand shot up. The girl confidently answered, “You’re welcome.” We think of the 10 Lepers Gospel as the “Thank you” Gospel.
But disease, healing, and salvation are just as much what the readings are all about this Sunday. Both the First Reading and the Gospel tell of a person who has been cured returning to acknowledge and give thanks to God. In the First Reading Naaman, a great and powerful general and a foreigner like the Samaritan of the Gospel, emerges from the Jordan completely healed and this triggers another kind of healing or transformation. Naaman now says he is Elisha’s “servant” and professes faith in the God of the country that he previously mocked. This sets up for us the Samaritan’s thank-you to Jesus after his cure in the Gospel.
Naaman and the Samaritan each in his own way bring the healing power of God, the saving grace of God, to our full attention this Sunday. Paul, too, in the Second Reading is such a mediator of the good news. He brings the Gospel to those who are in need of salvation. When people are open to his preaching, they are transformed and made ready to receive eternal glory.
Leprosy was a dreaded disease in Biblical times. People with skin diseases were labelled “unclean” and forced to live away from others. Was this just wise contamination control? It likely also was the ancient-world’s erroneous conviction that disease had to be a punishment from God for sinful behavior. Yet the leprosy, the disease, in the Gospel does generate a metaphor for sinfulness, the condition that makes me separated from God and alienated from society.
We all recognize that what makes the Samaritan unique – and another “good Samaritan” – is his gratitude. One came back to give thanks. “He was a Samaritan” – that short, single, stand-alone line is devastating. Luke – and Jesus – again tweak the noses of the canonical Jews. The Samaritan is a double outcast, unclean and a foreigner. Once again the one on the margins, living in a “no-man’s-land,” has shown up the shortcomings of the faith of the Jews, those more centrally-placed and self-presumptively more-favored. Once again we learn that the message of salvation that Jesus brings is available to all, not just the Jews.
The Samaritan came back to glorify God – to acknowledge this manifestation of God’s presence and power – and to say thank you. This faith, as Jesus said, saved him. The other nine lepers did what Jesus instructed, did go to show themselves to the priests for examination, and experienced physical healing. They did not experience “salvation.” They did not acknowledge the source of their healing. Thanking and glorifying God got the Samaritan – and get me – beyond healing to salvation.
Luke’s Gospel this Sunday is also about hope: It tells me the “good news” that nothing makes me taboo to Jesus, not leprosy, not addiction, not atheism. For me this Gospel is an emblem of spiritual healing, a metaphor for forgiveness, and a summons to conversion. If there is some part of me which needs healing, some dis-ease, something which makes me destructive, self-destructive, or just ill-at-ease with myself, other people, creation, or God, Jesus is only too willing to reach out to me and start the process of healing, salus (Latin), “salvation.” Jesus will integrate and make whole the social and spiritual dimensions of my personality. To Jesus there is no such thing as an unclean or untouchable person. So too for us in the Christian community.
Several significant questions jump into my mind upon hearing this Gospel: What persons and events am I grateful for? What gets in the way of my being grateful? What is my “leprosy,” my dis-ease for which I need healing? Am I with the nine cured lepers, doing all the correct things, but without noticing and acknowledging the wonder of God’s creation and God’s goodness to me? Or like the outsider, the Samaritan leper, do I see and acknowledge the miracles of God unfolding around me?