Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. October 10, 2010
[2 Kgs 5:14–17. Ps 98:1, 2–3, 3–4. 2 Tm 2:8–13. Lk 17:11–19.]
“They stood at a distance”… Well, yeah, of course they stood at a distance! They were lepers!
|Cleansing of Ten Lepers Codex Aureus Epternacensis. Artist unknown|
Nobody wants to get next to a leper. Just the mention of leprosy sends shivers up and down the spines of many people. It did back them, it still does today.
Leprosy is an awful disease – nowadays, you’ll hear it referred to as “Hansen’s Disease” after Gerhard Hansen, who identified the bacteria that causes the disease.
This disease has been around for thousands of years, and Sacred Scripture has an awful lot to say about it. If you have a few minutes, take a look at Leviticus chapters 13 and 14. It is a veritable diagnostic and statistical manual of leprosy.
Just the word “leprosy” brings the images of patches and sores on the skin; boils and red marks; and numbness in the arms and legs. The nerves die, and as these things progress, it is a very public deterioration of the body.
It causes great suffering. Searing pain. But even now, we know it is not as contagious as we might have thought. Yet, most people will still go out of their way to avoid the leper - or anyone who they think might be one.
Listen to this, from Leviticus - listen to how isolating Leprosy was even back then:
"The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean!'
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” (Lev 13:45–46).
So there they are, these ten people with leprosy, who raise their voices to Jesus, but probably not their eyes.
They ask only for pity.
They are so far along in this disease that they could scarcely hope for anything else.
They are brought down low, not only in body, but also in mind and in spirit.
And what makes all of this the worse and so deeply sad for them, and for us to even hear it: is that these ten people are really only sick because they had the great misfortune to come into contact with the bacteria. That’s all.
But the belief of the time was that the sickness they had was punishment for sinfulness.
If that were so, the disease of leprosy was a particularly awful punishment – an observable deterioration of the body in payment for the disease of the soul. Or so they thought.
How awful that must have been for these ten people! Not only did they have to put up with the pain and the ache and the isolation of this disease: they had to cope with a lot of people who never knew them, but still judged them as sinners. Unclean not only in body, but in soul and in spirit.
Imagine how they must have felt.
And so, it is no real surprise that there was even a Samaritan among them. Jews had hated Samaritans for centuries, because they thought the Samaritans were half-breeds and heretics.
They did share a common bloodline, but through pagan intermarriage, they came to believe a lot of different things from the Jews in the Southern Kingdom. You can read all about it: while you're looking at Leviticus, check out the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 17.
But leprosy is a great equalizer, so why not have a Samaritan among them? All are equally sick, all are equally isolated, equally hopeless, equally regarded as sinners. Why not befriend a Samaritan in the process?
But Jesus knows better. He looked at those ten people and he read their hearts.
And the miracle that happens - and I think this is an especially great part of the story - is not an immediate one. In response to this cry for pity, for mercy, Jesus says just this one line:
“Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
That's not really a remarkable statement, given the lives of these lepers, and the laws about them.
The priests, after all can verify if there is a cure - they can also verify if there is a disease.
So on the surface to these ten lepers, it is just Jesus reciting the law; nothing more. Kind of a disappointment.
Everybody knew at that time: No human being could cure true leprosy!
The miracle that occurs, though, occurs not in Jesus' direct presence, but "on the way" - ant this reminds us of the things that occur "on the way" in our lives! I think that is a beautiful part of this story!
Imagine you are one of those lepers:
hopeless for all your days.
You have literally nothing to lose.
You hear that there is this Rabbi named Jesus, who has a reputation as a miracle worker;
and so you stand “outside the camp” of the town.
Jesus passes by, and in just that one moment of hope that can summon up - hope that you thought was dead in your body, your mind, your spirit forever, you look, and you raise your voice, and you cry out:
Jesus: have pity on me! .... have pity on me....
That's all you can say. That must have stuck in your throat like the last gasp of a dying man.
And you hear those words of the law pronounced: "Go show yourselves to the priest..." How disappointing.
And then as you go off, you begin to feel some subtle differences in your body with each step you take. You feel better... and finally you look down at those arms that used to be filled with boils sores... and what do you see?...
New, supple skin!
You straighten up and look around you, and you see that the other nine who are with you - they know too. They're not covered with sores either!
Smiles form – joy breaks out! - shrieks of laughter, shrieks joy that come from lips that for all too long were silent – except to call out “unclean, unclean.”
And you think that since Jesus told you to go show yourself to the priest, you’d better go do that.
You go there, and show yourself to the priest - and then you go where your heart is.
Maybe you haven’t seen your family in over 20 years.
You want to kiss your wife, kiss your children. You say, "After I go to the priest, I’m going to my house!”
Maybe you know that your father is close to death and you haven’t been near him in years. You say, “I’m going to go kiss my father!"
All these things are good things. There is nothing wrong with them. These are nine people who followed the law. They did what Jesus told them to do.
And then there's that Samaritan in the group. He is still alone, still hated, still in a foreign land, still very much “outside the camp” and outside the law.
But he begins to think about retracing his steps.
He thinks, “Where and how did this happen to me? Because I woke up this morning with no hope, and now I’m cured!”
Little by little he puts the pieces together, And he comes to that very recent memory of Jesus the rabbi who actually smiled at him as he told him to go and see the priest.
And so he doesn’t go where Jesus commanded him to go.
Instead, he turns right around and he goes where he knows he has to go! Where his heart tells him to go.
He goes right back to Jesus, he praises God, and throws himself right at the feet of Jesus.
It is important to see what might otherwise pass us by in this little action: because Jesus says:
“Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Jesus didn’t say “to me.”
Only this foreigner comes back to give thanks to God!
What is being said there? Is thanks to Jesus a thanks to God? Yes! It is - we know that,
but the Samaritan didn’t know that.
He thought Jesus was a good man, a rabbi, a healer.
And yet, in going back to Jesus, the Samaritan got it right!
The Samaritan somehow, in the darkness of his memory, knew that the healing of leprosy was a sign of the messiah!
A great and glorious sign – and it happened to him – a Samaritan!
All he knows is that in the morning when the sun broke over him, it might as well , it might as well have not have broken over him at all, because he was a man with no hope.
And by evening, he had within himself a light that would never, ever be put out.
When he went back to Jesus, Jesus looked down and told him something even more beautiful: Jesus looked at him and he said: “Your faith has saved you!”
That Samaritan knew that God doesn’t really need our thanks. God knows who he is.
God is the one person in all of creation who doesn't have an identity crisis!
But we need to know who God is, and how God acts in our lives. And we need to thank God just so we keep it straight in our minds where the good comes from.
And that's where the Samaritan got it right – he realized the gift was from God!
That Samaritan has no more to wake up in the morning and think that he is outside the camp... that he's unclean, that he's hated, that he's without hope.
That's the Good News of today's Gospel.
That gift to the Samaritan is also a gift to us.
We can do this...
We can retrace our steps, too, and realize that Jesus has also offered us the gift of salvation!
Saint Paul tells us: “the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy” (Rom 14:17–18).
And we, who try to follow the example of the Samaritan,
if we do it well...
My dear friends, we will never have to sit outside the camp.