An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year, C, Luke 17:11-19, October 13, 2013
WHEN THE TWO commercial jets that terrorists had hijacked brought down the historic World Trade Center in New York, leaving in its wake thousands of casualties and tons of debris, bringing havoc to the American psyche, a number of people went to the nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral to thank the Lord for having been absent in the vicinity of the twin-tower when the tragedy struck. They attended Mass in gratitude to God who saved them from the disastrous attack. But events of course are not always as mind-boggling as the assault on the World Trade Center. And what is or has become ordinary does not normally make a dint. Understandably enough, when one becomes accustomed to an event, however momentous it may be, it becomes so normal that he misses to see even its significance, still less perceive the meaning that has yet to be uncovered in the long run. A sacristan, for example, may tend to regard the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ to be just an ordinary part of the rite, no different from the making of the sign of the cross at the beginning of the mass. Indeed, sometimes it takes the inquisitive mind of a little boy, who wishes to have his first communion, to make us realize the profound significance of the ritual. At other times, it requires the touch of God’s finger to make us aware that what is happening is far from ordinary, as in the miracle of the Eucharist in Lanciano, Italy. And only then are we conscious that the hand of God is behind what is happening before our very eyes.
Today’s Gospel about the healing of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) provides us an example of that experience. At the outset, it may be noted that leprosy was a general term in the ancient world to cover a variety of skin anomalies. from rashes, acne, boils to actual Hansen’s disease (Lev 13). In instances of actual Hansen’s disease, the afflicted were ostracized from villages, although they lived near enough on the outskirts to receive alms. Their isolation, which was regulated by Lev 13:45-46 (see also Num 12:15; 2 Kings 7:3-4), was bridged by warning the people of their approach by shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” Whether the ten lepers in the present story had Hansen’s disease or not, the data do not enable us to determine. At any rate, the episode seems to be a miracle story, in which the lepers called out for pity and mercy, and Jesus answered their plea by healing them while they were on the way to the priests to present themselves for examination (Lev 13:49). One gets the impression that here Luke shows Jesus as a healer who meets the needs of those who cry for help. He is portrayed as a liberator who frees the afflicted from the slavery to evil condition and restores them to the community of Israel.
It seems, however, that—as Luke narrates it—this is not the main point of the Gospel story. For one thing, the narrative ends with a pronouncement: “Your faith has been your salvation” (Luke 17:19). Secondly, the Samaritan’s faith is praised, obviously in contrast with that of the nine other lepers, and the gratitude of the former is starkly set over against the ingratitude of the latter. One is tempted to say, therefore, that Luke’s point revolves around the act of salvation that Jesus performed. Let us uncover what this means. To be sure, the healing of leprosy was not distinctive of Jesus. There were many miracle workers in the Near East at that time, and the Greeks called them theios aner, divine men. Which is why one can assume that although the nine Jewish lepers showed faith in Jesus, as evidenced by their shouts for help, yet they must have viewed their restoration to health as no different from the various healings that miracle workers performed in Israel. Their mindset was completely that of an Israelite who lived under the Law of Moses. It was for this reason that they were content with fulfilling the prescription of the Law, which stipulates that those cleaned of their leprosy must show themselves to the priests so they could be restored to the community of Israel (Lev 13:49).
But for Luke, the healing was not ordinary. Although the nine lepers were blind to the salvific act involved in the healing, it took a Samaritan—a social outcast and religious heretic in the eyes of the Jews—to recognize that what happened to all of them was more than a miracle of healing and restoration to the community. For the Samaritan, the healing was over and above all a miracle of coming to faith in Jesus, and an experience of the salvation that comes from him. The nine Jewish lepers were completely blind to this. In the theology of Luke, Jesus is the bringer of the messianic salvation; he proclaims the Kingdom of God, makes it present in the salvific acts he performs, and invites men to experience the blessings of salvation. But to experience and participate in the messianic blessings, one must come to faith in him. That precisely happened to the Samaritan. It is for this reason that Jesus said to him, “your faith has been your salvation” (Luke 17:19). In other words, in contrast with the nine Jewish lepers, the Samaritan was more than healed; he was saved.
Consequently, in contrast to the comportment of nine Jewish leprous who did not show gratitude to Jesus because of their blindness, the reaction of the Samaritan to his experience of the messianic blessings from him, made possible by the eyes of faith, was one of thanksgiving. He recognized that Jesus was God’s agent who not only healed but brought or shared the experience of salvation. Hence, he came back to thank him, and glorified God through him. In contrast, the nine Jewish lepers did not recognize this; it was, therefore, understandable that they were content with simply carrying out the command of Jesus to show themselves to the priests. For lack of the perception of faith, they were simply healed, but never saved. They were never converted to Jesus; they remained under the Law. Hence, they did not feel the urge to thank him. They were unlike Naaman, an army commander from the Arameans in the 1st Reading (1 Kgs 5:14-17) who-- despite his being a pagan and, like the Samaritan, despised by the Jews—having been cured of his leprosy, recognized the superior power of the God of Israel at work in the prophet Elisha, and returned to give thanks, again like the Samaritan. Thus, the story anticipates the gradual blindness of Israel to God’s work of salvation in Jesus, and the growing acceptance of it by the Gentiles, whom the Samaritan represents. For Luke, this Samaritan exhibits the basic element of discipleship: faith in Jesus.