• 2 Kgs 5:14-17
• Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
• 2 Tim 2:8-13
• Lk 17:11-19
Zombies have long been a part of popular culture, with numerous movies and books presenting stories about the “living dead” (or “undead”) whose decaying bodies and grotesque features repulse and frighten healthy humans. They are the deadly outsiders who are a mortal threat to society; they are beyond hope, without any chance of being restored to real life.
Lepers were the “zombies” of the ancient Middle Eastern world, the “living dead” whose illness cut them off from the land of the living. What is called “leprosy” in the Bible included a wide range of skin diseases. In some cases recovery was possible; in other situations it was impossible. The Law prescribed that “the leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean’” (Lev. 13:45). If a leper thought he was cured, he had to present himself to the priest, be sprinkled seven times with the blood of a bird, be bathed and shaved, separated from others for seven days, and then offer further sacrifices (Lev. 14).
That is notable because Naaman, the commander of the army of the Syrian king, was simply told by the messenger of the prophet Elisha to, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times” (2 Kgs. 5:10). Naaman angrily refused at first, unimpressed with the Jordan River compared to other, apparently greater rivers. He did not, Origen wrote, “perceive that it is our Jordan, and not the prophets, that removes the uncleanness of those who are unclean because of leprosy and heals them.”
The Jordan River is the most significant river in Scripture, the boundary which Joshua crossed when entering the holy land and the body of water in which Jesus was baptized when beginning his public ministry. As a symbol of salvation it pointed to the sacrament of baptism, in which man—marked by the terminal illness of sin—is washed, purified, and made whole. When the Gentile Naaman was cured of leprosy, he recognized the uniqueness of the God of Israel and declared he would only offer sacrifices to him. In this acknowledgement of the God of Israel, Namaan pointed to a coming covenant meant for all peoples and nations.
That new and everlasting covenant is the evident in today’s Gospel reading. Having just chastised the apostles for their lack of faith (Lk. 17:5-6), Jesus was met by ten lepers crying out, “Master!”—the only place in the Gospel of Luke the title is used by a non-disciple. Jesus did not heal them on the spot, but told them to show themselves to the priest, as the Law required of those healed. In other words, he required them to take a step (or several steps) of faith, a command that surely made an impression on the apostles.
All ten were physically healed, yet only one returned, giving glory to God (as had Namaan) and falling at the feet of Jesus, an expression of humility and devotion. “You see,” wrote St. Athanasius about this thankful leper, “those who give thanks and those who glorify have the same kinds of feelings. They bless their helper for the benefits they have received.” Ten lepers had called Jesus “Master”, but only one of them showed that he really did believe that Jesus was Master and Lord.
It reminds us—as we say in the Liturgy of the Eucharist—that is proper to give Him thanks and praise. The story also shows that while many of the Jews did not give thanks for the goodness of God, there were others, including the reviled Samaritans, who would and did. The lesson for the apostles, notes Luke Timothy Johnson, was that “they are not to expect thanks, but rather to give thanks to the one who has saved them.” The repentant sinner, knowing he is the “living dead”, rejoices in the new life given by the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the October 10, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)