by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“One of the lepers, realising that he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. This man was a Samaritan. Jesus took the occasion to say: ‘Were not all ten made whole? Where are the other nine? Was there no one to return and give thanks to God except this foreigner?’”    Luke 17: 11-19

If this Sunday’s gospel-reading has done nothing else for me, it has made me reflect, yet again, on a question with which I have often wrestled: Where did Jesus get the ability to cure people and breathe new life into them? Moreover, the question that Jesus asks of the Samaritan who returns to thank him, makes me wonder if he expected a word of appreciation from those he helped. There seems to be a bit of an edge of personal hurt when he asks aloud to anyone within earshot: “Were not all ten made whole? Where are the other nine? Why is this foreigner the only one who came back to give thanks to God?”   (Luke 17: 17-18).

I cannot find anywhere else in the Gospels where Jesus expects to be thanked for the cures and healings he worked. What’s more, given that he was fully human, he did not have at his disposal some store of divine power on which he could call whenever he encountered people who were sick or physically and mentally disabled. I am convinced that the power he had over illness, disability and evil spirits came from the depth of his prayerfulness and his extraordinary faith in God. I can find nothing else in the stories of Jesus’ miracles to suggest that Jesus ever went looking for accolades or expressions of gratitude either for himself or for God.

So, what is behind his lament that the Samaritan was the only one who returned to thank God? I suspect it has something to do with the ongoing frustration that Jesus had with the religious authorities who repeatedly accused him of flouting the Law and the Prophets. In response to their allegations of his breaking the Law, Jesus had questioned their inability to accept that the spirit of the Law mattered more than adherence to the letter of the Law. He was critical of there inflexibility when it came to interpreting the law and their fundamentalism when it came to applying the Law. The very fact that he had stopped to listen to the group of lepers when they called out to him was a breach of the Law in the eyes of the religious leaders. The lepers themselves had dared to cross the line of the isolation imposed on them, and Jesus had broken the law by engaging with them, even though it was from a distance.

The Book of Leviticus clearly stated the restrictions imposed of people suffering from leprosy: “The person who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out: ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is upon him, he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”   (Leviticus 13, 45-46)

In a world in which medicine was not a well-developed science, the measure of quarantining lepers as described in the above excerpt from Leviticus appears to be a wise public-health measure taken to prevent contagion. In time, however, a view developed in Jewish society that serious illness was visited on people as a divine punishment for personal sin. Lepers came to be regarded as sinners themselves or as being punished for the sin of a family member or ancestor. Eventually, anyone suffering from any single one of a number of skin diseases was categorised as a leper and, as a result, was segregated from the community and labelled as an untouchable. What began as quarantining developed into unjustified punishment for sin. Anyone who recovered from a skin disease could be readmitted to the community only after his or her recovery was authenticated and certified by a priest.
By directing the ten untouchables to present themselves to a priest, Jesus was making sure that they were adhering to the only process that would free them from stigma and readmit them to the community from which they had been expelled. However, the twist in the tale was that these ten lepers clung to life on the edge of a village that bordered both Galilee and Samaria. Serious illness acts as a leveller in a group in which every member has become an untouchable. The Samaritan leper was effectively no different from his companions. However, there was deep and long-lived enmity and bitterness between Jews and Samaritans. They refused to engage with one another. So, while ten untouchables were cured, only nine would be acceptable in Galilean society. Even if a Jewish priest were to grudgingly certify the Samaritan’s cure, the latter would still be regarded as ritually unclean and expelled from a Galilean village community. So, he probably saw no point in presenting himself to a Jewish priest and, instead, went back to the only Jew who he believed would accept him.

The welcome which Jesus gave him was: “Your faith has made you well.” Might Jesus have been referring to a wellness of mind and heart, a cure from intractable racial division? After all, here was a Samaritan approaching a Jewish rabbi to express his gratitude. Rather than commenting on the thoughtlessness or ingratitude of the nine who did not return to him, Jesus was expressing his frustration with a society that would readmit them and scorn and reject a man whose ethnic origins were different.

During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly reminded the religious leaders, who watched him so intently in the hope of catching him breaking the Law, that compassion trumped inflexible legalism. In healing people and restoring them to community, Jesus reminded them that they, in their turn, had a responsibility to live differently, to bring life and love, compassion and understanding to people around them.

We, too, have all been recipients of God’s gracious love. Surely, that compels us to give our time, attention and energy to chipping away at whatever creates divisions among us, be it ethnic difference, gender, sexual orientation, academic qualifications or religious affiliation. What in our minds and attitudes are the boundary lines which have become uncrossable? Whom do we regard as untouchable or unapproachable because of our deep-seated fear, our ingrained prejudice or blind ignorance?

Without further comment, Jesus cleverly asked: “Were not all ten made whole? Where are the other nine?” Might he not have been suggesting that they were in their new-found comfort zone on the side of a border where prejudice and bigotry were rife? Only one had been cured of mind, heart and attitude as well as of leprosy. That Samaritan claimed his true freedom and turned away from bitterness and prejudice. Is there not in the Samaritan’s action a similar challenge for us?