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.”
A while back, we attended a talk with a young priest, and the conversation discussed gratitude. He suggested that our dinner prayers as Catholics were incomplete. Yes, we asked for God’s grace over the food at the beginning, but did we express any gratitude at the end? Did we thank the Lord for the pleasantness of the experience once it was all over?
I’d like to say that stuck with us, but I’ve yet to take his advice. That occurs to me now, along with the joke about the grandmother and the hat, in today’s Mass readings. Today’s Gospel reading is no parable but a recounting of an event in Jesus’ ministry. Ten lepers got healed by Jesus, but only one had the heart to express gratitude for his healing — and that was a Samaritan rather than a Judean.
This parallels the story of Naaman from 2 Kings in our first reading, at least to some extent. Naaman was a powerful Syrian general, not only an outsider to the Israelites but an enemy. When he developed leprosy, his servant girl — an Israelite — suggested that Naaman seek out the prophet Elisha for healing. In earlier verses from 2 Kings, Naaman wants Elisha himself to perform a magic rite, but Elisha instead sends a messenger to give Naaman a simple task — merely immerse himself seven times in the Jordan. Naaman becomes angry that Elisha didn’t perform a ritual himself, but is talked into doing what Elisha instructed. When it works, Naaman converts to the Lord and tries repeatedly to reward Elisha, who refuses any compensation.
Both cases tell actual stories, as opposed to parables, yet both are instructive on the role of faith and of gratitude within it. Leprosy has largely faded from human experience, and medical science has caught up with that which still exists. At that time, though, leprosy was a disease that meant a life sentence of solitude away from everything but other lepers. That meant its sufferers could not worship in the proper manner, as they could never be ritually clean again. It cut them off from family, friends, the entire community out of fear of contagion.
This is how sin works on us as children of God, too. It is a disease that separates us from the Lord and His family, not by His choice but by ours. Jesus came to heal us of our sins in the same manner in which He heals the ten lepers in this tale, to return us to our family forever.
But have we become numbed to this? The only one who understood this to be a gift came from outside of the Judean community. The nine Judeans who simply walked away appear to have had no gratitude for this at all, perhaps because they felt they had a right to the healing. In the same manner, we who have the gift of faith and the sacraments can fall easily into the same trap of arrogance and presumption. Rather than forgiveness and grace being gifts of Christ, we start viewing them as birthrights and obligations, and have no gratitude in our hearts when we do receive them.
Gratitude is necessary for the full grace and forgiveness of Christ, as this Gospel reading shows. Even in the story of Naaman, it took the Syrian general’s frustrated gratitude to direct him to the Lord. When Elisha refused to accept a gift, Naaman converts to the Lord for the rest of his life instead. Had Elisha taken the reward, Naaman’s gratitude would have fallen in the wrong direction — toward Elisha rather than God. Naaman’s perseverance in seeing his healing as a gift is what saves him.
Paul writes about the virtue of perseverance in faith to Timothy in our second reading today. “This saying is trustworthy,” Paul instructs: “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him.” Perseverance in faith requires us to remember that our faith is a gift, given to us by the Holy Spirit in order to fight the disease of sin. It’s not too much to ask for a thank you now and again when its power rescues us from sin’s deadly effects.
The front page image is “Cleansing of the ten lepers” from the Codex Aureus Epternacensis, c.1035-1040. Currently on display in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“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.