This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 17:11–19:
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” As they were going they were cleansed. And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Then he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”
I’ve told this joke before, but it fits so well here. A grandmother walks with her young son along the beach, he dressed in his finest clothes from his hat to his shoes, on a nice summer day. Suddenly a massive wave crashes down upon them, and the grandson is carried off to sea. The grandmother looks up to the sky and pleads, “Oh Lord, if only you bring back my beloved grandson, I will be forever grateful and will spend the rest of my days praising Your name.” Suddenly another wave crashes down on the beach, and the grandson is washed onto the shore, drenched but perfectly healthy. The grandmother embraces him, checks him out, and then looks back at the sky. “So,” she says to the Lord, “where’s his hat?”
Today’s Gospel and our first reading both reflect on gratitude and its lack among those who see themselves as the Lord’s own people. In 2 Kings, we recall the cleansing of Naaman, but our reading leaves out the introductory verses of his story. Naaman had become a mighty commander in the army of Syria, one of the nations that battled at times with the northern kingdom of Israel, a century before it would fall to the Assyrians. Naaman hears from an Israelite slave that Elisha the prophet could cleanse him of leprosy, and offers a fortune to the king of Israel at that time to make it happen. The king refuses, suspecting it to be some kind of trap, but Elisha tells the king to let Naaman come.
Naaman eventually does what Elisha instructs and finds himself cleansed, and becomes so grateful that he wishes to give Elisha a fortune as well. Elisha refuses the gifts, knowing that the glory belongs to the Lord and not himself, and Naaman converts to worship of the Lord. However, immediately after this reading, Elisha’s servant Gehazi goes after Naaman to exploit Naaman’s gratitude and gets silver and fine garments. Because Gehazi exploited the work of the Lord for his own pecuniary gain rather than rejoice in Naaman’s conversion for its own sake, Gehazi gets cursed with Naaman’s leprosy and was driven from Elisha’s presence. Gehazi’s sin is made clear to all, while a foreigner discerns the blessings of the Lord and rejoices with worship and gratitude.
The case of the healed Samaritan provides a parallel to this lesson. Jesus offers the ten lepers cleansing from their disease, without any apparent need for ceremony or physical action. He merely tells them to show themselves to the priests — a necessary step for healed lepers to rejoin communities — and they become cleansed as they proceed to do so. Even though all ten clearly recognized Jesus and His ministry for the Lord, nine of them simply accept the healing without a word of thanks, either to Jesus or to God for the miracle. The only man who offers praise and thanksgiving is the Samaritan, a man from what had been the Northern kingdom of Israel, whose inhabitants by then were considered as heretics to Judeans. Yet of the ten men, only the Samaritan knows to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to the Lord.
The lesson in pairing these two events is very clear. We risk becoming complacent with our status as children of God, and forget the origin of those blessings we enjoy. We demonstrate attitude rather than gratitude. Whatever the Lord does, we begin to feel we were owed in the first place — and then start to wonder why we didn’t get more. Certainly for me, I too often look up at the sky and ask, “So, where’s the hat?”
There are other lessons, too, especially for those who do try to remain cognizant of the Lord’s blessings. For one thing, the cleansing of both Naaman and the Samaritan serves to remind us that our very knowledge of the Law and attempts to follow it do not make the Lord exclusive to ourselves. Naaman was a great commander against the people of the Lord, but God chose Naaman to serve His purpose. In Jesus’ ministry, we hear at times about Samaritans who respond more openly to His call, and Jesus makes a Samaritan the paragon of brotherly love in one of His most famous parables. Jesus’ Great Commission charges the Apostles to save the whole world, in accordance with His teaching that we should love our enemies as well as our neighbors. By that, Jesus means to spread the Word of salvation so that all may have life in the Lord, including the Naamans and Samaritans of our time as well.
We do not own the Lord; all belong to Him who choose it. Rather than act with envy or sullenness, we should embrace those and show them the path to the Lord. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul urges the churches to follow that path for the sake of the Lord as well as those who come to Him. “I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory,” noting this had led to his own suffering “even to the point of chains.”
Did Naaman and the Samaritan understand this, too? Consider what it would have cost both to worship the Lord in their time. Naaman brought back two mule-loads of dirt with Elisha’s blessing to worship in his native land, “for henceforth your servant will not offer burnt sacrifice to any god but the Lord.” How would that have been received in Syria? How would the praise of the Samaritan for Jesus, a Judean, been received in the former northern kingdom? The readings imply that they both discarded those considerations out of gratitude and love of the Lord.
They didn’t ask about the hat. And neither should we.
The front page image is “The Prophet Elisha refuses the Gifts of Naaman,” Pieter Fransz de Grebber , 1637. On display at the Frans Hals Museum, The Netherlands.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.