It is often interesting when reading about one or other of Christ’s healings to note that he very often forgives the sins of the sick person and this forgiveness seems to bring about their physical healing. At other times Jesus his puts out his hand or makes some other sign like putting paste on a blind man’s eyes. In most cases we can identify a particular moment when the healing takes place.
However, this does not seem to be so in the case of these ten lepers which are the subject of the Gospel text today. Of course, according to the law these lepers could not come near to Jesus so there was no possibility of him touching them. And for the same reason we can imagine that the words they spoke to him and the words Jesus spoke to them were most probably shouts rather than ordinary speech.
Anyway, all Jesus says to them is to go and show themselves to the priests. This was in order to prove that they had been healed. They go on their way, and only after they have left Jesus do they discover that they have actually been healed. It is very interesting that the word used here for healing is ‘cleansed.’ It is as if the disease of leprosy is some kind of pollution which has now been purified. To be cleansed implies washing and we immediately realise the connection with Baptism which washes our souls and frees us from sin.
In the Hebrew mind leprosy and sin are very much wrapped up together. We can see then that the separation of the leper from the rest of the people imposed by the law obviously has two purposes. First it separates the mass of the people from possible infection from disease but then it also separates the community from what is perceived to be a sinful person. A subsidiary factor is that this separation from the community of the leper is a real punishment for those who are effectively deemed to be sinners.
Nine of the lepers finding themselves healed simply follow Jesus’ instruction and presumably go off to the priests to be officially declared cleansed. Only one of them before going to the priests first returns to Jesus to express his gratitude. This gratitude was obviously very deeply felt; as it says in the text, ‘he turned back praising God at the top of his voice and threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.’
We can only imagine what a relief it was to that poor leper to be freed from his affliction. He could now return to his family and loved ones, he could wear decent clothes and resume his livelihood. It meant a return to normality as well as freedom from poverty and a life of absolute misery. He could now hold his head up high and take his place in society after what was probably months and perhaps years of ostracism.
Luke observes in the text that this man was a Samaritan, which presumably meant that the other nine were Jews. It is interesting to note that the great division between Jews and Samaritans which was observed in the society of that time means nothing to lepers. They are so poor and so isolated that religious differences mean nothing to them; they are glad of each other’s company deprived as they are of the companionship of anyone else.
The fact that the man was a Samaritan is important because it is an indication that Jesus’ mission was not only to the Jews but to every person in the world. The fact that the Jews despised the Samaritans and that this man who was grateful was a Samaritan is a way of Jesus rubbing it in that while the Jews may be the Chosen People this does not mean that they are privileged above all other people in the world. There are other examples of this, most notably in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
This passage set before us today underlines the importance of gratitude in our lives. All too frequently we fail to express gratitude to those who help and support us. Young people especially tend to take their parents and brothers and sisters for granted. They don’t always realise the great sacrifices that other people make on their behalf.
Raising a family in today’s world is no easy task, it inevitably involves huge sacrifices of time and energy and it can often mean deep heartache. When I was chaplain to a women’s prison, I met a number of women who had admitted to a crime which was actually committed by their daughter. So that their daughter would not be separated from her own children the mother went to jail on her behalf. This was indeed a very great sacrifice.
But, of course, the one that we all need to be grateful to is God himself. Everything that we have comes from him and most especially the gift of life itself. He is the author of creation and so he is the one from whom all life flows. So, we should certainly not neglect to express our thanks to him for all that he has done on our behalf. If God was not there, constantly bestowing his love and goodness on us, we would not even exist.
From this there is only one conclusion to come to and it is that thanksgiving ought to be a very important part of our prayer life. Of course, there are many components to prayer such as the expression of sorrow, making offerings to God, listening to his Word, asking for the things we need, praising God’s greatness and so on. But we must not ever omit thanksgiving from this list. You will note that all these varieties of prayer are to be found in the mass and indeed the long Eucharistic prayer is often regarded as a great prayer of praise and thanks to God.
I think too that when we return to our seats after receiving Holy Communion it is a very special time for us to express our thanksgiving to God for the gift of his Son who we have just received under the forms of bread and wine. And at this quiet moment we can offer him our gratitude for all that he has done in our lives, for all the gifts and joys that he has given us, for the guidance and protection that we have received from him.
Like that leper, before we receive the validation of the world we turn to offer our gratitude to the one to whom we owe absolutely everything.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket