In our gospel lesson for today, we have a story of gratitude found in an unlikely person in an unlikely place. It is the healing of the ten lepers, and in Jesus’ day lepers were quite literally cut off from the community because of their physical illness. It was a condition that was met with fear and ignorance. The leper was to be removed from sight and isolated from all communal and religious contact. In Leviticus, the law says, “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn cloths and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” Disease and isolation are multiple illnesses.
While Jesus is travelling through Samaria and Galilee on the way to Jerusalem, a group of ten lepers draws near, but they are also careful not to get too close. They drew near out of their need; they keep their distance because of their disease. Their illness creates a barrier between them and others, between themselves and the community. But notice that in the presence of Jesus, the lepers do not cry out “Unclean, unclean.” Rather, they cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
Out of the pain of their disease and the depths of their isolation, they cry out to the Lord to have mercy on them.
And he does. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priest as the law requires when someone is healed. And as they go, they are made clean. Restored to health, they will also be restored to the community. No more wearing torn cloths: tattered garments on a tattered body. No longer hair hanging over their blotched and blemished faces. No more yelling out “Unclean, unclean” from covered lips. No more dwelling alone outside the camp.
But a funny thing happens on the way to see the priests. One of the lepers who was healed turns back and praises God. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and he thanks him. And the surprise ending of this story is that the one who praises God and gives thanks for his healing is a Samaritan. He was not only physically ill, but also a social outcast and a religious heretic. The one isolated not only by illness, but also by his culture and religion turns back and gives praise to God. We are not told why the other lepers who had been healed did not turn back.
Maybe they had run off to tell their families and friends about the miracle. Perhaps they were busy trying to convince their families and friends that they really had been healed and were now safe to be around. Or maybe they were preoccupied getting jobs to support themselves. But gratitude was a highly esteemed virtue in Judaism.
It is somewhat ironic then, that it is only the foreigner who returns and gives thanks and praise to God. In the return of the Samaritan leper, we have a story that is not just about physical healing. It is a story about the healing of all those things that keep us separated from each other and exiled from God. Out of our pain, out of our isolation, out of our despair we cry out across the abyss, “Lord, have mercy on us.” In the presence of Christ, in the nearness of the Lord, we are healed, made whole, restored to our community and reconciled to God.
Our earthly lives are a journey, somewhere between Samaria and Galilee, between illness and health, between exile and return. We are all traveling along the way. Because of the devices and desires of the human heart, we will all suffer from the fear and distrust that separates us from our neighbours and from God. But rather than remaining within the darkness of our despair and keeping ourselves at a great distance from others, our Lord calls us, even as he draws near. He awaits our cry for mercy and he responds by making us whole, by restoring us to life with others and by reconciling us with God.
Pope Francis tells us that “the Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk. Whenever we embrace hope and take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.”
So what was different about the Samaritan leper, the one who did return? The difference was in his spirit. His faith in Jesus saved not only his body but also his spirit. He appreciated the healer, not just the healing. He didn’t seek help from the Lord only for his own sake; he went to him for God’s sake. He had something he could give to Jesus — his appreciation, his praise, his worship — and he wanted to give it.
We all have something that God cannot give to himself: our praise and our worship. Please don’t ever underestimate the value of these important gifts!