First Reading: II Kings 5:14-17
Epistle: II Timothy 2:8-13
Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
Today’s First Reading and Gospel reading both contain the same theme: a foreigner comes to man of God in Israel in order to be healed from leprosy. The man is asked to make a show of faith and when he does so, he is healed of his leprosy. In gratitude, the former leper returns to the man of God to offer thanks and is given a further, greater gift: knowledge of who is the one, true God.
Naaman the Syrian
The first reading opens with Naaman plunging seven times in the Jordan River. In the text from the second book of Kings (fourth in the Douai-Rheims Bible), just before today’s readings, Naaman actually balks at the order of Elisha. Being a foreigner, no doubt used to the spells and incantations of the priest and magicians of pagan gods, Naaman states, “"Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper” (5:11). He is about to return to Syria in anger when his servants tell him that it would cost him nothing to do the very simple thing that Elisha asked him to do. (5:13) Thus, Naaman takes a step in faith and is rewarded not only with the cure of his leprosy but with an even greater gift: Faith in the one, true God of Israel. One is reminded that Our LORD sanctified the waters of the same river 800 years later with His Baptism and in doing so instituted the sacrament of Baptism which cleanses sin and grants sanctifying grace without which one cannot have the gift of supernatural Faith.
About 120 years after the events described, the Assyrians conquered Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. As their custom in any land they conquered, the Assyrians deported the entire population and replaced them with those of other nations that they had conquered. The territory of the ten tribes in the northern kingdom of Israel was repopulated by the Assyrians with five other nations. In turn, Assyria was eventually conquered by Babylon, who also conquered the kingdom of Judah and destroyed the capital of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. The Babylonians did not deport the entirety of the population of Judah and those that remained in the land often intermarried with the inhabitants of what had been the northern kingdom of Israel.
Although Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return from Exile in 539 B.C., many chose to remain in Babylon. Many of those who did return did not do so right away. It was eighty years before Ezra the Priest-Scribe would arrive in Jerusalem and begin his efforts to reeducate both those who had returned from Exile and those who had remained in the land in the prescriptions of the Torah. His reform measures, particularly those aimed at the practice of intermarriage with non-Jews, were often met with stiff resistance. The divide between the returned exiles and those who had remained in the land, who most of the returned considered to be “heretic half-breeds” (as one of my former pastors in college had called them), eventually became a schism. The Jews continued to worship God in the rebuilt Temple at Jerusalem, while the Samaritans setting up their own on Mount Gerizim.
The Ten Lepers
All of this sets the context of the events recounted in the Gospel reading, which tells the listener in the opening lines that Our LORD is on His final journey to Jerusalem for Pesach (Passover). At the end of this road is the Cross. Certainly the fame of His healing miracles has spread throughout the region. These lepers, who most likely live together outside the village have assembled to ask Him to heal them. Yet they stay at a distance, not violating social conventions. Or perhaps, although they ask in faith, it is not complete? Do they not know for sure if He will heal them or do they somehow fear despite believing He has the power to heal them, that they could somehow infect Him? How often do we ask Our LORD to heal us yet fear to draw close to Him?
The lepers refer to Jesus as Master (Latin: Domine, also translated as Lord) the same title used by the Apostles (except, notably, Judas). Everyone else, especially the scribes and Pharisees, call him “Rabbi” (teacher). Despite this, they seem afraid to say their request out loud. They do not explicitly ask for healing but there would be no other reason for the lepers to present themselves to Our LORD as they do. Sometimes, it takes being thoroughly mired in decay and corruption, in a way that alienates from our community and ultimately communion with God, that forces us to realize that any healing, any grace granted to us by Him is undeserved. There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve it, for it is purely out of pity (fueled by indescribable, immeasurable love) that He condescends to us in His unfathomable Divine Mercy to grant them to us.
Just as Elisha did with Naaman, Jesus does not immediately heal the lepers. Rather, He tells them to go show themselves to the priests. This was a requirement of the Torah, that a leper show himself to a priest who would judge him as taharah “clean,” no longer tumah, free from the taint of leprosy and able to once again participate in ritual communal worship. (Leviticus 13) Jesus Himself stated that He had come “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” (Matthew 5:17)
But even more importantly, He is asking them to literally step out in Faith and trust that He will heal them. Jerusalem is still a ways off and it would be immensely frustrating to travel all the way there to find one had not, in fact, been healed. A true test of Faith would have been to not heal them until they had reached Jerusalem. Yet it is possible, likely even, that some of them would have turned back before then. Our LORD never asks us to show Faith beyond out capacity. He once again condescends to meet us where we are.
"None but This Foreigner?"
When the one Samaritan (former) leper returns, Our LORD refers to him as a foreigner, despite the fact that they were in Samaritan territory (or at least close to it). Obviously, this is a reference to the reality that the Samaritans were descendants of the five nations brought in by the Assyrians to settle the land after God allowed the Ten Tribes to be dispossessed of it. By living in Galilee and beginning His ministry there, Our LORD has begun the reversal of this as foretold by Isaiah the prophet. (Matthew 5:15) Yet it is the Samaritan who recognizes who exactly Jesus is, that He is even more than the Messiah. He “falls at the feet of Jesus” and thanks Him. This is a gesture of profound humility, gratitude and ultimately homage. Our LORD does not correct him but rather praises him saying that by thanking Jesus, the former leper is thanking God! There is no denying Our Blessed LORD is fully aware of His divine nature and unapologetically proclaims to those with “ears to hear.” Like Naaman, after being healed of leprosy, a foreigner recognizes the God of Israel.
As He does so often after performing a miracle, Our LORD tells the former leper, “Your faith has saved you.” From what has his faith saved him? He is already healed. All the other lepers showed the same amount of Faith in asking for healing and all were healed. Is Our LORD merely highlighting that? Or is he perhaps saying that the faith of this Samaritan former leper will induct him into the New Covenant that Our LORD will inaugurate with His Blood when He reaches Jerusalem?
We do not know what happened to the other nine. Did they ever reach Jerusalem? If they did, did they return to their homes in Galilee and not think much of Jesus again? Did they perhaps stay in Jerusalem knowing that Our LORD was headed that way and wait for Him? Were in they in the crowd that welcomed with palm branches and royal acclamations? Or did they get caught up in the mob that called for Our LORD to be crucified? This rejection of Our LORD by the inhabitants of Jerusalem led to its destruction and their exclusion from the New Covenant. Our LORD is saying that this man will not be in that number.
The New and Everlasting Covenant
Although he does not go to the Temple, the Samaritan leper does present himself to a priest. Our LORD, Jesus Christ is THE Great High Priest of the New and everlasting Covenant. As a result of the aforementioned rejection, He was crucified and this perfect offering to the Father is made present on that altar at every Catholic Mass, by the ministerial priests of the New Covenant, acting in persona Christi. Much as the priests of the Old Covenant not only offered sacrifice, but could judge a person as ritually clean, so the priests of the New Covenant can administer the saving grace of Our LORD’s Precious Blood to render us clean. For that Blood of the spotless Lamb of God has the power to wash away an impurity and corruption far greater than leprosy.
While leprosy corrupted the body, sin corrupts the soul. Just as leprosy eventually resulted in physical death, mortal sin results in spiritual death, and if left unconfessed and therefore unabsolved that spiritual death will be permanent…and eternal. Just as lepers were tumah, ritually unclean, and therefore unable to participate in communal Temple worship, so does mortal sin prevent us from receiving holy communion and again, if left unconfessed and therefore unabsolved, will result in eternal exclusion from the communion with God that is the Beatific Vision.
Therefore, if you are in need of healing and cleansing from sin, “Go and show yourself to a priest” in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Don’t shout from the road. Be not afraid to draw close to the merciful Heart of Our LORD, pierced and broken on the Cross, that He described to St. Margaret Mary, “Behold the Heart that has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify to Its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this Sacrament of Love” Thank Our LORD for all His mercies and gifts. Be like the one leper, not the other nine.