Christ Healing the Ten Lepers, Visoki Dečani Monastery, Ruga sali ceku, Dečani, Kosovo.
[Jesus said], “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Then he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” Luke 17:17-19.
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In any doctor’s diagnosis there is one word which is dreaded above all others: incurable. Despite all the spectacular advances made in medicine over the last 150 years, that word can still be heard in surgeries everywhere. More and more often, perhaps, it is spoken in relation to a rare disease which research laboratories are reluctant to commit their resources into investigating. The pool of such stubborn maladies might be narrowing, but we still have the likes of Parkinson’s in our midst, incurable and relentless. At the time of Jesus, almost any disease could be considered incurable, and some were dreaded above others, leprosy being one. That word was probably applied to a variety of awful skin conditions, and as there was no way to help those who suffered from any of them, harsh rules were applied in an effort to stop them spreading:
“Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean! He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Leviticus 13:45-46.
The word for outside the camp is excommunicated. The dark days of the AIDS outbreak in the early 1980s might have been the closest we have come to a time similar to that, when such a diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence; or maybe the earliest days of the COVID virus, when little was known or understood about it. But with leprosy the pace of the disease is slow, eventually culminating in death. And remember, there was a very old belief in Jesus’ day that such a disease was the consequence of sin either of the person with the leprosy or his/her parents, the greater the sin, the worse the affliction. Hence little pity, care or concern for those afflicted. Except from Jesus. No words of condemnation or fear from him, just a message of hope. But he did have an expectation of gratitude from those he had helped. Well, he did get that, but only from the last person he would have expected it. We have often seen the hostility between the Samaritan version of Judaism and Jerusalem orthodoxy at that time. Jesus even called the Samaritan a “foreigner” which underscores the prevailing religious division. But, again, there was no condemnation from the Lord, only an approving word that the man had thanked God, and a recognition of the man’s faith. Is there an echo here of the prevailing sense of co-operation between most of the Christian churches today, compared to the barely concealed loathing of my own youth?
There are a few other points of interest in today’s readings. What do you make of Naaman the (pagan) Syrian’s request to take “two mule-loads of earth” with him on returning to his homeland so he could worship God rather than his own gods? It comes from another ancient belief that all gods were gods of place. If Naaman could take some Palestinian earth with him, he would pray while standing or kneeling on it to pray to the God of Palestine as if he were in Palestine! The Jews, during their exile in Babylon, slowly realized that you could pray to God anywhere, a radical new idea. Then there are the ten lepers “standing at a distance” from Jesus. Why? Because they were forbidden to approach anyone not afflicted with the disease. Indeed, they were to call out “unclean” as they walked along, so that everyone could avoid them (Leviticus 13:45). It was believed that being near such a person was dangerous and the disease contagious. In this, they were actually correct. Finally, Jesus praised the cleansed leper for giving thanks to God for his cure. Saying ‘Thank You” is extremely important. Remember that the word Eucharist, ευχαριστώ in Greek, simply means “thank you”. The most important sacred action we Christians can perform is to proclaim a profound “thank you” to God for sending his Son to us, remaining with us, and becoming present among us at every, well, eucharist. And that might well be the point of all of today’s readings.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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