In the introduction to Sunday’s Gospel passage, we are reminded that Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. He is in the region between Samaria and Galilee. Jesus frequents boundary spaces and is about to cross a social boundary again by his association with lepers and with a Samaritan.
When Jesus and his band of disciples draw near to a village, ten lepers approach, calling out to him but keeping their distance because they are unclean. There could be no contact whatsoever with a leper. The emotional pain must have been as bad as the physical pain. They were removed from their family, from their community, and forced to announce that removal on a daily basis.
Lepers tended to roam together, looking for food, begging for assistance from a great distance, learning to yell in loud voices, both from the need to warn others, and to beg for help from across the way. The mixed group of lepers in this Gospel passage is presumably made up of both Jews and Samaritans, their common disease uniting them despite their deep divisions of ancestry, religion, and history.
We are told that ten lepers encounter Jesus. They don’t ask for healing but for pity, for whatever Jesus might give them — food, clothing, shelter, whatever he can offer. They must know Jesus’ reputation for compassion—they address him by name and as “Master”.
Jesus responds to their plea by telling them to go and show themselves to the priests to confirm their healing, and it is on route that they are made clean.
In the Old Testament two people were cured of leprosy — Miriam, the sister of Moses, who had leprosy for seven days and was miraculously cured (Numbers 12:9-15), and Naaman, of whom we hear about in the First Reading. When he obeyed Elijah’s instruction to wash seven times in the Jordan River he was healed. And that’s it, in the Old Testament. Healing a leper had not been done in Israel for seven hundred years, and was thought to be an earmark of the Messianic Age when leprosy would no longer afflict people. In the New Testament Jesus heals lepers often. It was God revealing: this is the Messiah. This is the Christ. This is Emmanuel. God is with you.
Of note in this Gospel passage is the statement: “As they were going, they were cleansed.” Literally, “in the going, they were cleansed”. There came a point — as they began to trust and obey Jesus — that their healing took place. That is, as they turn to make their way to the priests they must have looked at their bodies. The hands of one man are still mangled. Another man looks at his leg, which ends with a filthy rag at the knee. Another looks at his skin, and finds it as repulsive as ever. Each of these lepers was no better off than he had been a few minutes earlier, when they first encountered the famous teacher. Yet, they headed off as instructed and on their way, they were healed. In order for the miracle to happen, these men had to start walking in faith.
Though we speak of someone who “believes,” we know belief doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Faith is manifested in what we actually do. Because these lepers believe, they obey and go.
After the healing of the ten lepers, the focus narrows to one of the ten, who alone turns back to find Jesus, and falls at his feet, thanking him and glorifying God—in a loud voice. Only after he humbles himself in thanksgiving do we learn that the one who has returned to this borderland is a Samaritan, outsiders in Jesus’ day.
The account concludes with Jesus saying to this one, “’Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” This suggests that this leper has received something more than the others. They received healing but this Samaritan receives something deeper. His faith prompted him to return to the feet of Jesus in thanks, and that personal contact, that personal submission, signifies a healing that is more than skin deep.
In one sense ten lepers illustrate faith, in that they took Jesus at his word and acted upon it, but in another sense, nine fell short of saving faith. The nine got what they wanted from Jesus in terms of healed bodies, but they went no further. They received the temporal benefit of healed bodies, but it is only to the one thankful leper who returned that our Lord proclaimed, “Your faith has saved you”.
All ten lepers had faith; but only one experienced deep gratitude; while ten men prayed, only one praised. Jesus’ life is framed by people glorifying God: the shepherds at his birth and the centurion at his death. Here as elsewhere it marks Jesus’ work of healing and restoration. To respond rightly to Jesus is to praise and glorify God.
May we too be boisterously thankful for our daily blessings. Thankful enough to throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet. Thankful enough to voice Jesus’ question as our own, “Where are the other nine?” and help them find their way to him.
There is no doubt something else to be gleaned from this account; something about those who live on the margins of our communities, who are treated as invisible or unlovable because of how they look or who they are or where they come from.
And we might also consider the parts of us that are hidden in the borderlands of ourselves where we may least want to be seen but most need to be touched. Jesus, who is not afraid of borderlands, does not mind meeting us in those places, and it may be that by allowing him there, we will find, in our deepest selves, a new outpouring of the grateful love that makes us well.