Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Tim. 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
Have you ever extended a simple kindness or courtesy to someone … like holding the elevator so that the person can get in, or holding open the door for someone coming into a building behind you …and instead of the brief “thank you” or simple nod of acknowledgment and appreciation that good manners would call for … the other person does nothing and simply continues on his or her way, with no indication he or she is grateful for or even aware of this simple courtesy?
I must confess, this is a pet peeve of mine and when it happens to me, I have often been tempted to respond in a less-than courteous way. On more than one occasion I have wanted to come back with an emphatic, “You’re welcome!” … even though no “thank you” had been offered. I have to wonder if this sense of being just a little peeved or ticked off is what’s at work in Jesus in today’s Gospel story from Luke. Here Jesus has performed another of his healing miracles as he continues on his long journey to Jerusalem. He hears the cry of these ten lepers – social outcasts of the day. This story, by the way, is unique to Luke and doesn’t appear in any of the other three Gospels. Hearing the cry of these lepers to “have mercy on us,” Jesus brings healing into their lives. This healing not only restores them to physical health, but also restores them socially to their families and friends who previously would have shunned them. And of these ten … only one has come back to express his thanks. Jesus asks, almost incredulously: “Ten were cleansed, weren’t they? Where are the other nine?” Jesus wants to know why all ten haven’t come back with this same sense of gratitude and appreciation.
Gratitude is certainly one of the main themes of the scripture readings we have before us. A sense of thankfulness and appreciation for what God has done and can do is something we are all called to cultivate and to express. This one healed leper, realizing that he has been freed from what must have been a horrible burden, comes back to Jesus simply to say “thank you.”
And he is not the only one we read about expressing thanks in today’s readings. Our first reading from the second book of Kings tells a similar story. There we hear just part of a very dramatic passage – the entire 5th chapter of the 2nd book of Kings – about the healing of Naaman, the commander of the army of the King of Aram. Naaman has previously been told by his wife’s servant girl – a Jew – that he should seek out the prophet Elisha who can cure him of his leprosy. And so Naaman travels to Israel and after doing what Elisha tells him to do – bathing seven times in the Jordan River – his skin, we are told, becomes like the “flesh of a little child.”
There are numerous points of similarity between these two stories – the healing of Naaman and Jesus’ encounter with the ten lepers – but I’d like to focus on just three of them.
- First, in both stories, the healing takes place in response to a request.
- Second, the divine intervention elicits a human response.
- And third, the ones who are held up as examples of faith – Naaman and the Samaritan leper – are not Jews, but are individuals who would have been considered to be beyond God’s embrace.
First … Healing Occurs in Response to a Request
Leprosy or any illness or disease has the power to rob us of physical health and wholeness. But even if we are in the best of physical health, I’m sure that each one of us knows some part of our heart or spirit that is in need of God’s healing touch. The simple lesson for us from the example of Naaman and the lepers is that – recognizing our lack of wholeness – we must not be afraid to ask. In fact, this is something that we do at the beginning of every Eucharistic liturgy … even echoing the words of the lepers … Lord have mercy … Kyrie eleison!
Second… the Divine Intervention Elicits a Human Response
Very few, if any of us, will likely experience the type of miraculous cure that we hear about in today’s scriptures. And yet, as people of faith, we must believe that God is actively at work in our lives and in our world. This work may not be what we want, but like Naaman and the Samaritan leper, are we first able to recognize that Healing Hand of God in our own lives? … and second, do we respond to that healing with a sense of gratitude and appreciation? The Samaritan Leper had just a “thank you” to offer to Jesus. In turn, Jesus’ reply tells us that this simple “thank you” was an indication of his faith. Likewise, Naaman is also filled with gratitude … so much so that he wants to express this gratitude with a gift. Elisha, however, will have none of it. As if to make sure that God gets the credit for this miraculous work, Elisha refuses Naaman’s lavish gift. Because Naaman has now come to believe in Yahweh, the God of Israel, Elisha does let Naaman take two mule-loads of earth with him so that he can still worship Yahweh “on the land of Israel,” even if he is geographically distant.
Third … God’s Love is Universal
Finally, perhaps the most striking similarity between these stories is to take note of the one who is identified as “faithful.” Naaman not only was a not Jewish, but he was a warring enemy of the Jewish king. The grateful leper in Luke was a Samaritan. As non-Jewish lepers, they were “outsiders” in every sense of the word. Not only were they outsiders because of their leprosy, but because they were not part of Yahweh’s Chosen People; the “group” they belonged to was considered by pious Jews to be beyond God’s care and God’s love.
We humans are very good at emphasizing our differences, at seeing distinctions that separate “us” from “them” – however “us” and “them” are defined. We categorize people by:
- skin color
- political party
- citizenship status
- health status
- sexual orientation
- … the list could go on and on.
In itself, such categorization isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But – depending on our own ideas about any one of these categories – we run the risk of making judgments about people and groups of people. Too often we see others – based on some label – as either “in” or “out.” We marginalize them. We have a tendency to make differences into divisions and borders into barriers.
Sadly, religious people do this just as much – if not more – than others. Yesterday I caught part of a film on TV documenting the struggle in Massachusetts for marriage equality. I was struck by how much those who oppose such efforts wrap their opposition in religion and religious expressions. While filming one of the many protests at the State House on Beacon Hill, one young woman, a lesbian, told how she had seen her parents on the other side, protesting against the marriage rights that she was advocating for. With tears in her eyes, she described how painful that was and said, “God made me, too!”
Despite our penchant for labels and barriers, today’s scripture readings speak loudly that the way we see things and the way God sees things aren’t always in sync. Every person on the face of this earth can make those words their own: “God made me, too!” God’s call is universal and is not limited by the human boundaries we seem so fond of.
“Where are the other nine?”
Several comentators on today’s reading ask the question – following up in Jesus’ own question. “What happened to the other nine?”
As we continue our celebration, let us realize that in a very real way, you and I are the other nine. We may not have the disease of leprosy, but we are in no less need of the healing touch of God’s love … a healing touch for our minds, our bodies, our hearts, and our spirits. Even as we recognize this, let us recognize even more so that with God there are no outsiders, no individuals or groups that are “unclean,” “outcast,” or “on the margin.” All people … regardless of whatever other label we can come up with … all people are part of God’s one family … and that with God as our loving Father/Mother, we are all brothers and sisters.