21 PENTECOST, PROPER XXIII - C - 16 LUKE 17. 11-19
In today’s first lesson the leper is a great man, the commander of the army of the King of Aram. He had just recently led his army to a great victory. Despite his military success and his fame among his own people the disease that plagued him remains the object of his focus. Leprosy was the most dreaded disease of the time. It brought great physical suffering and isolation. Only God could heal it.
As one might imagine Naaman was willing to do whatever it would take to relieve himself of the dreaded disease. So when his wife discovers that a captive from Israel claims that there is a prophet in Samaria that can cure him, Naaman wastes no time in searching him out. His pride, however, almost costs him the opportunity to be cleansed.
When Naaman arrives at the prophet’s door, Elisha does not come out to greet him, as Naaman expected, but sends a messenger instead to instruct him to wash himself 7 times in the River Jordan and he will be clean. Naaman becomes furious, not only did the prophet not show himself, but there are rivers in his own country, why the Jordan?
Had not those with him intervened Naaman would have returned home a leper. “You have come this far, why not do as the prophet says? What will it hurt?” Thus his companions encouraged him. Setting his anger and his pride aside, the commander of the army immerses himself 7 times in the Jordan as instructed and his flesh is restored.
In all humility and with a genuine sense of gratitude he returns to the prophet, and this time Elisha meets him and receives his praise, “ Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
The gospel is another story. Here there are ten lepers; nine Jewish and one Samaritan. We don’t know their status or their names. Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem and they approach him outside a small village between Samaria and Galilee. Lepers were not allowed in Jerusalem.
Obviously they have seen him before and recognize him. Instead of placing their hand over their mouths and announcing themselves “unclean” as required by the law; they call out to him by name “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Jesus instructs them to go and show themselves to the priests.
According to the law of Moses only the priests could pronounce one clean. By doing so, the individual was restored to society. But again, it would take a miracle, one that only God could perform.
Jesus’ sending them off to the priests is a test of their faith. They go as if they have already been made clean. It is while they are going the healing takes place. They all have faith to go and all are cleansed; but the nine Jews take it as a matter of course; only one, the Samaritan has the responsive love in his heart which prompts him to return to give God the glory.
He had no need to see a priest. The disease had united him with the others. It was a union that, under normal circumstances, would have never taken place. Jews and Samaritans had no dealings with each other. But now that they were cleansed of their leprosy the Samaritan was again separated from the others, not by religious prejudice as one might imagine, but by gratitude.
The Samaritan turned back to give thanks and to praise God. “Where are the nine? Jesus asked. They did what Jesus instructed them to do, they went and showed themselves to the priests who must have been more than surprised to see them made clean.
No doubt they were asked how? And in their excitement told that it was Jesus who healed them. The priests must have wondered who this Jesus really was, for only God could cure such a disease. Was he saying that He and God were one in the same?
Perhaps, then, they did not return to give thanks because the priests warned them that this Jesus was a marked man and they would do well not to be seen with him. Or maybe they were so elated over their restoration that they were in a hurry to be re-united with their family and friends and simply did not think about going back. They were not any less cured, but less grateful.
The nine Jews represent the majority who benefited from Christ’ coming into the world who were more than willing to receive from God’s grace but who fail to be thankful. The Samaritan who turned back represents the minority portion who received Christ in faith and thanksgiving to the Glory of God. Either way the Samaritan puts the nine Jews to shame who, for whatever reason, did not turn back and give thanks to God.
Where do we see ourselves in these two stories? If we look at them through the lens of our relationship to God both of the stories reflect our own. Our leprosy is our sin. Only God can cure it; only the blood of Christ can wash us clean. Baptism is where we began the journey of faith.
It is a lifetime road to God we travel. Along the way we sometimes react to life’s situations like Naaman in today’s first lesson. When we need God’s grace the most we let our anger and or our pride get in the way of His healing love. Only when we let go of all of that and with all humility and genuine gratitude acknowledge Him as the source of our wholeness, do we truly recognize the benefit of His grace.
There are times in our lives when we are more like the nine lepers in today’s gospel rather than the one Samaritan. We fail to give thanks to God “always and for everything,” as St. Paul says in Ephesians 5.20. Too often we take God’s grace and love for granted, as a matter of course. We are obedient out of faith but without gratitude.
True, faith and healing go hand in hand. All ten were faithful. Faith cured them all. But there is something else at work here; the rhythm of faith and gratitude that enables us to recognize Jesus as the source of our wholeness; a recognition that elicits a responsive Love prompting us to give God the Glory.
Pray God, to give us the grace to be like the one who turned back, being faithful with a thankful heart. And pray God we will always be able to recognize the One who died and rose again as the source of our wholeness, and the Hope of our calling, even Jesus Christ Our Lord. AMEN+