There are several stories about Jesus cleansing lepers in the Gospels. The story as it is told in Luke’s Gospel is perhaps the most familiar to us. This passage is often used for Thanksgiving Day as a story of gratitude and is certainly a lesson in the necessity of being grateful. This morning’s explanation of this story at Mass centered on the thought there might be something for which we have not thanked God.
There is also another dimension to this Gospel that often escapes us that St. Luke includes as a non-Jewish evangelist, someone who knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. St. Luke tells us that there were ten lepers and that one of them was a Samaritan.
The number ten is an important detail in this version of the story. Jewish men needed a “minion,” ten men, to pray. (Remember the story of Abraham bargaining with God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.) Ordinarily, the nine Jewish lepers would not allowed a Samaritan in their company. Ever since the children of Israel had come back from the exile in Babylon, they had been at odds with the Samaritans. It quickly becomes evident that these outcasts from society have made this accommodation in order to be able to hang on to some semblance of normalcy in their lives. Normally, they wouldn't have had anything to do with a Samaritan, but in their need, they are ready to make concessions.
When they realized they had been cleansed, the nine Jewish lepers went to the priests so that they could offer the required sacrifices and be declared clean. This step was necessary before they could rejoin their families, their communities. This step was necessary before they could enter the Temple or the synagogue. This step was necessary before they could engage in commercial activity or ordinary human interchange with their fellow Jews. I can imagine their reaction to the realization that they had been cleansed. Who wouldn’t run to the priests in this situation? However, they no longer need the tenth man.
The Samaritan did not have to have a priest declare him clean. He was free to go back to Jesus to give thanks for his cleansing. Even if he had wanted to continue to be part of this group, he would have been rejected.
Jesus asks a rhetorical question. Where are the other nine? The question is rhetorical because he knows where they are. He knows what they are doing.
The Samaritan prostrates himself before Jesus; in other words, he worships Jesus by falling on his face before him. He is not only grateful for what Jesus has done, he is also expressing his faith. He believes. Jesus tells him that he has been saved by his faith, a familiar statement uttered by Jesus after many of his healing miracles. The other nine have put their faith in the Law. The Law, however, doesn’t save. As St. Paul wrote long before the Gospels were composed, we are saved by faith.
So while this story is a story of gratitude, it is also a story of isolation and of prejudice. The Samaritan is a model of gratitude for us, but he is also a model of acceptance and tolerance as he returns to give thanks to someone who is not of his own race. On so many levels, this story speaks volumes.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator