“Compelled by his great love, or rather, as the apostle says, by the excess of his love for us, he sent his beloved Son that he might make satisfaction for us, and recall us to the life which sin had taken away.” -St. Alphonsus Liguori
Luke 17:11-19: Now on the way to Jerusalem he traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered one of the villages, ten lepers came to meet him. They stood some way off and called to him, ‘Jesus! Master! Take pity on us.’ When he saw them he said, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ Now as they were going away they were cleansed. Finding himself cured, one of them turned back praising God at the top of his voice and threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan. This made Jesus say, ‘Were not all ten made clean? The other nine, where are they? It seems that no one has come back to give praise to God, except this foreigner.’ And he said to the man, ‘Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.’
Christ the Lord To this day, leprosy is an incurable disease. It can be controlled preventively, through proper hygiene, but it can’t be cured. (Leprosy is a bacterial infection that causes loss of sensation and eventual paralysis, along with the grotesque disintegration of a person’s extremities – fingers, facial features, etc.) Yet Christ cures these ten lepers with a mere command. Showing oneself to the priest was a requirement of Old Testament law for anyone who claimed to have been cured from leprosy. This law had been instituted in order to insure a full cure. They took this precaution because leprosy is highly contagious, and a miscalculation in an individual case could cause a severe outbreak among a whole village or city. Christ’s Lordship rarely appears so clearly and nobly as when he commands the powers of nature for the benefit (never for the harm) of the people he came to save – Jews and foreigners alike.
This encounter stands in sharp contrast, however, to the ongoing verbal fencing between Jesus and the stubborn Pharisees. They refused to call Jesus “Master”; they refused to accept his grace – simply put, they refused him. Why? Because the Pharisees were successful, strong, healthy, and talented, so it was easy for them to consider themselves self-sufficient. The lepers, on the other hand, had no alternative but to acknowledge their utter helplessness. Those who think they can make something truly worthy of their lives depending only on their own resources shut out the authentically transforming grace of God. What’s more, the Pharisees didn’t even see their error; they thought they were in communion with God. That kind of tragic self-deception should make each one us take a closer look at our own relationship with the Lord.
Christ the Teacher At the end of his Gospel, St John tells us that if everything Christ did during his brief earthly life were written down, the entire world would not contain the books. We can infer, therefore, that many of Christ’s miracles were not recorded in the New Testament. Why did St Luke include this one? Clearly because of the lesson that Christ teaches us by it: the ugliness of ingratitude and the beauty of gratitude.
The ten lepers had no hope but Christ. Even their closest relatives dared not come near them. They were required to live in isolated colonies, and if they had to travel, the law obliged them to ring a bell wherever they went, shouting out, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn people of their approach (which is why they addressed Christ from a distance). On top of that, they had to live with the repulsion of their own decaying bodies – the pain and the stench of leprosy are almost unbearable. Leprosy was a long, humiliating, and dismal agony, the most horrible of ancient diseases. Jesus frees these ten lepers entirely from their hopelessness and dread, and only one comes back to thank him for it – and that one happens to be a Samaritan (the Samaritans were archenemies of the Jews, racially and religiously).
We are all moral lepers. The human race was infected with mortal selfishness by original sin. Christ saved us, not with a mere command, but by his Incarnation, life, suffering, and painful death on a cross. How many of us render him sincere, heartfelt thanks for all he has done for us? Not to live with an attitude of gratitude towards God is more than being impolite – ingratitude is ugly because it’s positively unjust. Gratitude, on the other hand, is one of the most beautiful flowers in the whole garden of virtue. It directly contradicts self-centeredness, self-indulgence, and self-absorption. It builds bridges, unites communities, and softens hearts. It encourages and inspires. It cuts through discouragement and counteracts depression. It opens the soul to the truth and releases anxiety. It brings smiles and gladness wherever it blooms. What a pity that it is as rare as it is lovely!
Christ the Friend Jesus cannot resist a cry for pity. For him, a soul in need is an obligation to help. He needed no convincing, no cajolery – these lepers cried out to him from the depths of their hearts and automatically his heart was moved. We see it over and over again in the Gospels – his heart being moved to miraculous action by the needs of those around him. Of course, that same sensitivity was the motive for his coming to earth in the first place – love simply can’t hold back when it sees others in need. This truth about Jesus can be the source of our confidence in him, but it should also be the source of our own activity in the world. We who feast on Christ’s very own body and blood in the Eucharist need to share also the beatings of his heart, his desire to do as much good as possible; otherwise, our hearts will beat in vain.
Christ in My Life It’s easy for me to forget about my sins, my sinfulness, and my need for you. The slightest success puts me into a preening mode. Lord, never let me forget that all that I have and all that I am is a gift of your goodness. Teach me to live with the attitude of humble wonder and gratitude that you praised in the Samaritan. For all those people who never thank you, I thank you now…
It is a mystery to me that I am still nervous about exposing my “leprosy” to you in the sacrament of confession – you wouldn’t have instituted the sacrament if we didn’t need it. I can’t help feeling ashamed at my egoism, but I ask you to always use that shame to drive me closer to you, my hope and my salvation…
It doesn’t take much to detect the moral leprosy affecting our world; it only exacerbates the poverty and sickness that afflict so many people. It moves your heart so much – why does it move mine so little? What more would you have me do, Lord, to relieve my neighbors’ suffering? Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart more like yours…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
Art for this post on Luke 17:11-19: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. The Healing of Ten Lepers, James Tissot, between 1886 and 1894, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less.