Commentary on the Readings
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 13, 2019 – Year C
From healing to faith
We can run the risk of reducing the message of today’s Gospel to a lesson of good manners, to remember to say thank you to those who help us. The Samaritan leper is taken at times as a model of gratitude and no more. Interpreted in this way, the scene with which the story concludes—a group of persons inexplicably discourteous and an unhappy Jesus—communicates sorrow more than joy, while in every page of the Gospel we await only joy. The theme is not gratitude.
Jesus remains surprised: a Samaritan—a heretic, a non-believer—had a theological insight, which the nine Jews, sons of his people, educated in the faith and knowledgeable of the Scriptures, did not have. Along the way, all ten were aware that Jesus was a healer. The great news was immediately announced to the spiritual guides of Israel. God has visited his people. He has sent a prophet on par with Elisha. Until here, all the ten arrived.
A new light brightened only in the mind and heart of the Samaritan: he understood that Jesus was more than a healer. In his act of salvation, the leper captured the message of God. He, the heretic who did not believe in the prophets, had surprisingly intuited that God has sent him, whom the prophets announced: He opens the eyes of the blind, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised to life and the lepers are made clean (Lk 7:22).
He is the first to truly grasp that God is not far from the lepers. He does not escape nor reject them. He knew what he must say to those who institutionalized, in the name of God, the marginalization of the lepers: get over with religion that excludes, judges, condemns the impure persons! In Jesus, the Lord appeared in their midst; he touches and heals them.
The message of joy is this: the impure, the heretics, the marginalized are not only closer to God, but they get to him and to Christ first and in a more authentic way than the others.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Make, O Lord, that our Christian community does not marginalize the lepers but touch and heal them.”
The Background: we are in the second half of the IX century B.C. Damascus has extended its domain on the major parts of Syria and Palestine. The personage most seen and esteemed of the kingdom is Naaman, the commander in chief of the army. He should be the happiest and most fortunate man but for his leprosy, a terrible sickness regarded as one of the worst punishments of God. One day a girl from Israel, captured during an attack, reveals to him that in her land there is a prophet who does extraordinary healings. It is Elisha, the disciple of Elijah.
Naaman goes to see him. When he is about to reach the house of the man of God, a servant comes to meet and advises him to wash himself seven times in the river Jordan. Naaman is indignant. He is waiting for Elisha to do some ritual, an invocation to his God, or an imposition of the hands. He does none of these. Elisha does not even get out to greet him. Cursing, he is about to depart when his servants approach and give him some basic reasoning: if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, surely you would have done it. Why don’t you follow such a simple command?
Our reading is inserted at this point of the story. Naaman goes down to the Jordan river, washes himself seven times and his flesh becomes like that of a child’s; he is healed (v. 14). He returns to thank Elisha with a gift, but Elisha refuses to accept it: he does not want that for fear of being misunderstood. The healing must not be attributed to him, but to the Lord. Naaman understands and exclaims: “Now I know that there is no other God anywhere in the world but in Israel” (vv. 15-16), from now on I will not adore other gods but the Lord.” For this, he asks to carry some sacks of “sacred soil” to construct, in his city, an altar to the Lord (v. 17).
Naaman is healed not only of bodily leprosy but also of the soul. From paganism, he passes on to the faith in the only God. Both healings are given to him gratuitously: they are a gift of God.
The reading ends here, but the story is not over and I believe it is worth remembering how the dialogue between Elisha and Naaman concludes. This man’s decision—as we have seen—to adore the Lord along his journey of faith, is only the beginning. He becomes immediately aware of the difficulties. A moral problem disturbs him, doesn’t leave him with a tranquil conscience. He wants to show himself to Elisha, whom he already considers his spiritual guide. Let us listen to his moving confession.
“In my country—he says—I have the task to accompanying the king during pagan ceremonies in the temple of Rimmon. When he kneels down before the statue of the god, the king leans on my arm and I also have to prostrate. Going back to Damascus I’ll return to this service and even with a heavy heart, I have to do an idolatrous gesture. In short, I know I will commit sin but it is inevitable.”
Naaman does not claim that Elisha approves his action but asks only for understanding his weakness (v. 18). Let us appreciate the sincerity with which he accepts his weakness but, what to answer him? How to put in accord the coherence with the moral principles and the mercy towards the sinner?
The easiest solution for Elisha would be that of entrenching behind the juridical dispositions, coldly apply the norms and—if it happened—to threaten whoever allows a compromising and incoherent life. But Elisha who is a true pastor of souls does not behave in this way. He knows the principles, but he knows how to behave in front of a person in difficulty from whom it would be foolish to claim immediate perfection. “But go in peace”—he says to him. We can imagine these words said with a smile, that friendly smile of one who understands the anguish and the spiritual drama confided to him.
When Paul writes the second letter to Timothy, he is in prison, in Rome. He already underwent a first process during which no one had the courage to present himself to testify in his favor (2 Tim 4:16). Many friends abandoned him or were lined up against him (2 Tim 4:9-15). The pagans considered him an evildoer and the Jews, a traitor. This is the lot that awaits to whoever dedicates himself faithfully to the cause of the Gospel!
What consoles the Apostle in this difficult situation? The thought that Christ also passed through the same sufferings and misunderstandings before entering into the Father’s glory! For this, he says to Timothy and to himself: “Remember Jesus Christ!” (v. 8). To arrive at salvation it is necessary to tread the same way. “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him. If we endure with him, we shall reign with him” (vv. 11-12).
What happened to Paul and Jesus is repeated in the life of each authentic disciple. Those who commit themselves in favor of their own community must also acknowledge the criticisms, misunderstandings, and even persecutions. But despite the difficulties, they must cultivate serenity and joy, convinced that the message of love and peace they announce will bring abundant fruits. “The Word of God is not chained” (v. 9).
It was said in the time of Jesus: “Four categories of persons are treated as dead: the poor, the leper, the blind and the childless.”
The lepers could not approach the village and places where they used to live, as they were considered impure, like the cemeteries. Some rabbis declared that if they had met a leper they would have stoned him and shout at him: “Return to your place and do not contaminate other people.” All diseases were considered a punishment for sins but leprosy was the symbol of sin itself. God used it—they said—to strike above all persons who were envious, arrogant, thieves, responsible for murders, making false oaths and incestuous. The healing of leprosy was a miracle comparable to the resurrection of a dead person. Only the Lord could cure it. But first, they have to atone for all the sins that had caused it.
The lepers felt rejected by all: by people and by God. Since these were the customs and mentality, one understands the reason why the ten lepers stopped at a distance and shouted from afar: “Jesus, teacher, have mercy on us” (v. 13).
It should be noted that they do not ask him for healing but only for compassion, that he be moved by their desperate condition. Perhaps they are waiting only for alms. As soon as he sees them Jesus says: “Go and present yourselves to the priests” (v. 14). The ten lepers, therefore, go and along the way they are cured.
There is something special in this miracle: the healing does not happen immediately. The leprosy disappears later, while the lepers are along the way. This makes the episode similar to the story in the first reading. Naaman is healed after departing from Elisha.
Seeing himself cured, one of the ten lepers turns back and finding the Master, falls on his knees to thank him.
He is a Samaritan. Jesus marvels that only he, a stranger, felt the need to give glory to God. He lifts him up and says to him: “Rise up and go; your faith has saved you.”
We notice foremost that the story does not speak of one but ten lepers. Luke does not underline this particular just for the record. The number ten in the Bible has a symbolic value: it indicates the totality (the hands have ten fingers). The lepers of the Gospel represent therefore all the people, the entire humanity far away from God. All of us—Luke wants to tell us—are lepers and we need to encounter Jesus. No one is pure; we all carry on our skins signs of death that only the word of Christ can cure.
Whoever is not aware of one’s own condition of being a sinner ends up considering oneself righteous and with the duty to condemn others to the margins. God has not created two worlds: one for the good ones and the other for the wicked ones but—be it in the present or in the future—a unique world wherein he calls all his children to live together, all sinners saved by his love.
The same message is contained in a second paradox: leprosy puts together Jews and Samaritans, unites persons who, while in good health, despise, hate and fight each other. The awareness of common disgrace and suffering gathers them in friendship and solidarity.
And this is exactly what happens in the spiritual field: if one considers himself just and perfect, inevitably one raises the barriers and fences for self-protection from “lepers.” Whoever realizes himself a leper will not feel superior, will not judge, not distance himself, not look down but will be in solidarity in good and in bad with the brothers.
Jesus is not afraid to be considered a sinner. He is not a “Pharisee” who distances himself from the impure. At the end of the story of the healed leper, the evangelist Mark notes that, after stretching his hand and curing him, he could no longer enter publicly in a city but stayed outside in deserted places (Mk 1:45).
Jesus knew that touching the leper he made a gesture that would make him unclean and for that, he had to distance himself from the society of the pure. He touched him all the same because he chose to share the condition of the marginalized, excluded and outcasts.
The third paradox has to do with solidarity among people: the ten lepers do not try to save each one on his own. They go together in search of Jesus. Their common prayer is: “Jesus, Teacher, you who understand our condition, have mercy on us.”
This prayer is a condemnation of the pseudo-spiritual, individualistic, intimate invocation preached by those searching for “salvation of one’s own soul.” Salvation can be reached only together with the brothers. The great personages of the Bible are always in solidarity with their people. Azariah, a young man of upright and exemplary life, prays: “For we have sinned and acted perversely by deserting you. We have sinned gravely in everything and have not listened to your commandments. We have not observed them and we have not fulfilled everything you commanded us for our good” (Dan 3:29-30). Moses turns to the Lord saying: “And now please forgive their sins…if not blot me out of the book you have written” (Ex 32:32). Paul even pronounces the paradoxical phrase: “I even would desire that I myself suffer the curse of being cut off from Christ, instead of my brethren: I mean my own people, my kin” (Rom 9:3).
In paradise, no one, not even God, will be happy until the last human being is liberated from “leprosy” which puts him far away from the Lord and from the brothers.
The fourth paradox of the story is an invitation to reflect on the salvific efficacy of the word pronounced by Jesus. The lepers invoke him from a distance (vv. 11-12). They cannot go near him. Will he manage to perceive their desperate cry? Will he do something in their favor or will the distance block him to intervene? These are the doubts, the fears which harass the ten lepers but also the Christians of Luke’s communities. They do not have the fortune to materially approach the Teacher; and they doubt, which is also another obstacle.
We are convinced that when Jesus was near, when he was walking along the roads of Palestine, it was possible to approach him, touch him and talk to him. He paid attention to all, listening to every request for help and with his word, cured every disease. But now that he is no longer visible in this world and “far away”: does he incline his ears to us? Is he still interested in our “leprosy”? Is he able to save also “from a distance”?
Luke’s answer to his Christians and to us is simple: It is not the distance that can impede our prayers of arriving to him. There are no desperate situations that, with his word, even pronounced “from a distance” he could not solve. The word that heals every kind of “leprosy” continues to be announced today and its efficacy remains intact. It is enough to trust in him, like that Samaritan leper to whom Jesus acknowledges: “Your faith has saved you” (v. 19).
The ten lepers were cured along the way. Why doesn’t Jesus heal them immediately—as he always does—and not send them to the priests afterward for the prescribed verification of the law? Does he want to put their gratitude to the test?
A theological message is certainly tied to this detail of the episode. In the New Testament, the Christian life is compared to an “itinerary,” a long and tiresome journey. The healing of “leprosy” which makes us feel so far from God, rejected by the brothers and despised by our own conscience—we know and verify it each day—does not happen all at once. It comes progressively and requires a whole life. Jesus invites us to walk this way with patience, serenity, optimism and guided at every step by his word. Along the way, those who have faith will verify the marvel. They will gradually see “his skin becoming as that of a child’s” as it happened to Naaman.
We have arrived at the most difficult point of the story: why only one returned to give thanks? Why did Jesus complain of the behavior of the other nine when he himself ordered them to go and show themselves to the priests? Who disobeyed? Was it not perhaps the Samaritan?
Let us assume that the other nine returned later to offer thanks. They first went to the priests to hasten the “formalities” of verification and to be re-admitted to the community life. Then they ran back to their families and surely returned to Jesus. This is the only logical reconstruction of the facts. And why did Jesus lament?
He does not speak of thanksgiving; he is not saddened because he verified a lack of gratitude. It says that only the Samaritan gave glory to God, that is, the only one who understood immediately that the salvation of God comes to people through Christ. He is the only one who acknowledged not only the good received but also the intermediary chosen by God to communicate his gifts. He desired to proclaim it before all, his gratitude and discovery. The others were not bad, only that they were not immediately aware of the novelty. They continued to follow the traditional way: they thought that one arrived to God through ancient religious practices, through the priests of the temple.
Jesus remains surprised that his fellow Jews, even though used to reading the Sacred Scriptures and educated by the prophets, were preceded by a Samaritan in acknowledging the Messiah of God.
The fact of the healing of the ten lepers is reread by Luke as a parable, as an image of what happened in his time: the heretics, pagans, and sinners were the first ones to recognize in Jesus the mediator of God’s salvation.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.