"The Healing of Ten Lepers" by James Tissot (late 19th century).
2 Kgs 5:14-17
Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
2 Tim 2:8-13
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).
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
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 manmarked by the terminal illness of sinis 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.
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.
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.
reminds usas we say in the Liturgy of the Eucharistthat 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.)