2 KINGS 5:14-17. |. 2 TIMOTHY 2:8-13 | LUKE 17:11-19
We often turn to this account of the ten lepers who were cured by Jesus. We read it on Thanksgiving Day as a reminder to be thankful for all God has given us. But that sentiment, though good and noble, only brushes the surface of its teaching. Let’s look at the passage closely.
Jesus was making his last journey to Jerusalem. He’ll be arrested there and executed. He and his disciples were making their way through Galilee, the northern most area of what today we call Israel, just west of the Golan Heights. Jesus grew up there in Nazareth. The group was heading south to Jerusalem in Judea and were going to make their way through unfriendly Samaria. The hatred between Jews and Samaritans could be attested to by a gauche custom that Jews had if they were unfortunate enough to pass through Samaritan territory. Upon leaving, they would take off their sandals and beat the unclean dust of Samaria from them so they wouldn’t pollute the pure soil of Israel with it.
The group was about to go through the town gate. They were most likely planning to buy provisions or, perhaps, to spend the night. They suddenly heard voices shouting out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” A group of lepers had spotted him. They may have had a camp outside the town since they were forbidden to enter. Even at this moment they were some fifty yards away and as was the custom.
Jesus shouted back at them. “Go. Show yourselves to the priests.” Only a priest, after examining a leper, had the authority to declare a person cured and therefore admitted back into society.
The group of lepers started to walk away, presumably going to the priests. As they walked away they were cured. The blotches and ulcers dried up leaving no trace of the disease. One of the lepers realized that he was cured and returned to Jesus to offer profound thanks. Jesus told the leper, “Stand up and go! Your faith has saved you.” The ten lepers were cured. One was saved. What’s going on here.
Luke’s gospel is interesting in that it stresses the theme of journey. After Mary was told that she was to be the mother of the Messiah she traveled to her cousin Elizabeth. Mary traveled again to Bethlehem where she gave birth to her child. She traveled with
Jesus and Joseph to Egypt when Herod was determined to kill her child. When he came to adulthood Jesus traveled the length and breadth of Judea, Galilee and Samaria. He also traveled to the areas we today call Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Along the way, he and his disciples stopped to have dinner with a variety of people, friends and foes alike. He taught along the way and healed people along the way. Some literally followed him, others followed him by changing their hearts. Some were cured.
These ten lepers were sent on a journey to present themselves to the priests. From there they would return to society. But one returned to Jesus before he went to the priests. This was a special person. He wasn’t a Jew. He was rejected by society because of his illness, and was rejected by the Jews because he was a Samaritan. He wasn’t just cured he was saved. He was saved when his journey brought him back to Jesus to give thanks.
Luke’s theme of journey, meeting Jesus along paths of life, is an important part of this account. This man’s journey had led him away from the comfort of society and family to the horrible isolation of leprosy. He knew Jesus was a healer and so he screamed out to him for help. But unlike the other nine he took another road. He took short journey back to Jesus. He knelt down and gave thanks.
This journey is oh so subtle, but so beautiful. To give thanks, efharisto in Greek, would have rung a bell in the ear of every first century Christian. This was a reference to the Eucharistic gathering of the Christian community. This social outcast, this man in need of healing, found his way home. He was saved. He recognized Jesus, reached out to him and was healed by him, and when he opened his heart in thanksgiving he became one with the great community of thanksgiving, the Eucharistic community.
We’re all parts of various communities. But one is especially life-giving, the Christian community. In our gatherings we meet Jesus in the teachings he delivers to us. We’re strengthened to continue our journey when he feeds us with himself, the bread of life. We’re healed and saved when, like the leper, we return over and over again to give thanks.