The Samaritan Leper, Codex Aureus of Echternach c.1030, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany.
For this Sunday’s Mass Readings, click here.
[Jesus said] “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Luke 17:17-18.
At the very heart of Christianity there is gratitude. The very word eucharist (from the Greek ευχαριστω, eucharistō, or thank you) means thanksgiving. It is the reason we go to Mass on Sunday, to give God thanks for the blessings we have received, beginning with life itself. A life of gratitude is a life which is based in reality. All we have, inside and out, is a gift, and for gifts we say “thank you”. The true prayer after receiving the Lord in communion is a simple “thank you”. In today’s gospel, only one of the ten lepers cured of perhaps the most dreaded disease of that time, returned to Jesus to say thank you. His life, and those of the other nine, had been completely changed when they developed leprosy. There was no cure of course. It was contagious and disfiguring, and so those who had it were excommunicated, in the true sense of the word: they were cast out of the community, forbidden to come near anyone else, ever. Hence the gospel description of them standing at a distance, and having to shout to the Lord for help. There is an additional twist in this story, as the only one who returned to Jesus was a Samaritan. The introduction to today’s gospel says Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem. He was traveling from his homeland of Galilee and to get to Jerusalem he had to go through Samaria. As I have mentioned many times before, there was no love lost between the Jews and the Samaritans, even though both were Jewish. The Samaritans denied that the Temple in Jerusalem was the true temple; that was to be found in Samaria. Samaritans claimed that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, were alone the Word of God; all the other books, including the prophets, the psalms and of course today’s reading from the Second Book of Kings, were simply pious writings. There is nothing to compare to the hatred to be found sometimes in families, and here in the Holy Land itself it was to be found in spades between these two groups. Hence the astonishment that the Samaritan leper alone returned to give thanks to the Jew from Galilee. Even Jesus called him a “foreigner”. But the final twist is this: this man is the only one in all the gospels who thanked Jesus for what he had done!
One can find gratitude in St. Paul writing from prison where, as he says, he sits in chains “like a criminal”. He was under sentence of death for his beliefs; he had sent away Onesimus, the man who had done his best to help him, but whose conversion to Christianity meant he was more valuable as a missionary than as a servant to Paul, who writes: “But the word of God is not chained. Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus…” Paul is grateful that as a servant of God, he has been able to bring others to the freedom of the love of God in Jesus. He is thankful that God has called him to such a life, and he rejoices in their happiness. I guess it is like seeing the silver lining around the darkest of dark clouds. The darker the cloud, the brighter the silver lining! Paul compounds this with his famous declaration of the faithfulness of Jesus, no matter what. In all and every circumstance, in the bleakest of bleak situations when all seems to be lost, Jesus is faithful to us “for he cannot deny himself”. In other words, we are never alone, never. Jesus, our faithful companion and leader is with us always when we let him. We might not have leprosy (which can still be found however), but we might have cancer, we might be in terrible situations, we might on the other hand be very comfortable; whatever our situations might be, we have a faithful leader directing our actions in the way of truth and righteousness. And we should never forget to say thank you for the peace and confidence he gives us no matter what. So however negatively we might consider ourselves, perhaps unable to forgive ourselves, remember that Jesus actually cleansed a leper whom most Jews would have considered an enemy of the people twice over, as he was also a Samaritan. But he was the only one who returned and thanked the Lord, who accepted his thanks and who was the one who stood by him. And so it is and should be for all of us.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.