The Lepers’ Faith

The readings for Sunday,October 9, 2016, Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; and Luke 17:11-19.

Once again Luke reminds us that Jesus & Co. are “on the way to Jerusalem.”

Jesus was entering a village. Ten lepers approached him. Note that he was not in the village, but close to it. Lepers had to remain outside the walls of a town. Here is the legislation from the Torah, the Law of Moses. This legislation is so ancient that it still refers to “the camp” of the Israelites in the wilderness. “Command the people of Israel that they put outside the camp every leper…. You shall put out both male and female …, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I will dwell,” Numbers 5:2-3. It was not a matter of avoiding contagion but a matter of ritual impurity, excluding lepers from places where the Lord God was said to dwell. Further legislation, “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose. He shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain outside the camp as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall dwell alone in a dwelling outside the camp,” Leviticus 13:45-46.

The ten lepers of this story therefore stayed at a distance from Jesus and his companions. They called out to Jesus, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” The cry of the lepers is put into the form of a prayer, a Kyrie, eleison. Faithful to the Torah of Moses, Jesus did not heal them by calling them to himself and touching them. Instead he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” En route to their destination they experienced a cure. Jesus cured by remote! The law of a cured leper presenting himself to a priest for examination is found in Leviticus 14:2, “This shall be the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest.” The presentation is followed by elaborate rituals described in Leviticus 14. Their purpose: Restoring a now whole person to the community.

One point of Luke’s story is the faith of the lepers in Jesus. Without being cured, they obey his command to approach the priests. Their faith is rewarded by their cure “as they were going.” One of the lepers, seeing that his leprosy had disappeared, turned around to go back to his benefactor, or as Luke expressed it, “…returned glorifying God with a loud cry.” The phrase “glorifying God” as a reaction to Jesus is a Lucan favorite. He uses it eight times. The grateful man, following Semitic custom, prostrated himself at the feet of Jesus, thanking him. Then Luke adds significantly, “But he was a Samaritan.” Bad blood between Jews and Samaritans dated back to the time of Solomon who died about 922 B.C Here was a Samaritan paying homage to a Jew.

It is one of several instances in Luke’s Gospel demonstrating how Jesus crosses society’s artificial boundaries and reconciles the unreconcilable. Another example: When Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate, this Roman authority decides to send the prisoner Jesus to Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. Herod examined the prisoner, then sent him back to Pilate. Luke writes, “And the two became friends with each other that very day. Up to now they were enemies.” Jesus responded to the man’s emotional expression of gratitude, “Were not the ten made clean? Where are the other nine?” For the sake of Luke’s instruction we must assume that the other lepers were Jesus’ fellow-Jews. It is a refreshing characteristic of Luke’s Gospel to present despised outsiders in a favorable light. He has much good to say about Samaritans not only in his Gospel, but in his Acts of Apostles. Think for example the parable of the Good Samaritan — who is also favorably compared to the seemingly neglectful religious leadership of the Jews of the time.

Jesus continues, “Was no one found to return and give glory to God but this foreigner?” He was outside the House of Israel, yet even this outsider was capable of faith in Jesus. Therefore Luke writes, “Jesus said to him, ‘Get up and go. Your faith has saved you.’” In Luke’s time that statement had shock value for those to whom it was directed. There was an ongoing struggle in the early Church over the acceptance of non-Jews into the Christian Community. Paul’s Letters and Luke’s Acts of Apostles bear witness to this struggle. Both authors dedicated themselves to the acceptance of non-Jews and under fewer restrictions than conservative groups demanded. Luke’s two books are addressed directly to a Christian Community of Gentile (non-Jews) converts. Luke himself writes of Simon Peter leading the Church toward acceptance of Gentile converts. He attributes these words to Peter, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation (nationality) anyone who reveres him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”