28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leprosy was one of the most dreaded diseases of the ancient world. In the Gospels we have a clear picture of the roads of Palestine, particularly those near the entrance of the towns, haunted by lepers, who would hold out their dreadful fingerless hands to awaken the pity of those who passed by, but who would only succeed in terrifying them by the horrible "lion's mask" that the disease sets upon the sufferer's face. Sometimes it happened as in today's gospel that these wretched people would go about in groups.
There was no cure for leprosy. The only remedy was to cast the leper out from society. The leper was to go bareheaded, wearing special clothes; he was to live far away from towns and villages, and whenever he came near a healthy person he was to call out in a loud voice, "unclean, unclean." It is no wonder that the disease was considered a spiritual as well as a physical malady.
Today's first reading as well as the Gospel both deal with a miraculous cure of the dreaded disease of leprosy. In the reading from the Book of Kings we have the recounting of the famous story of Naaman, the Syrian warlord, who traveled to Palestine to find the prophet Elisha and was finally cured by bathing in the waters of the river Jordan.
Today's reading is not so much concerned with the cure of the foreigner, Naaman, but with his response to his cure. Discovering that "he was clean of his leprosy," Naaman with his whole retinue returned to Elisha and offered thanks to God for literally saving his life. "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel."
Luke's gospel account today is also concerned with the response of the lepers that Jesus cured. All year we have been following Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Here in chapter 17 Jesus is traveling through Samaria and Galilee when a group of ten lepers calls out to Him. "Jesus, Master, have pity on us." In most of the miracles in the gospels someone asks Jesus for help, and then He either says or does something to effect a cure. It's always clear that the faith of the petitioner is the most important element in every miracle.
In this case, since lepers were not even allowed to get near any healthy person, Jesus responds to their act of faith by curing them from a distance. He merely asks them to follow the rules and show themselves to the priests of the village in order to get a kind of certificate of health. Just as in the first reading the emphasis here is not on the miraculous cure but on the response of the one leper who returned to Jesus after his cure.
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.
Just like Naaman this man was a foreigner. Jesus remarks on the gratitude or thankfulness of the Samaritan as opposed to the ingratitude of the nine other lepers.
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?
What is the importance of thankfulness? Ironically, when we say thank you to someone, it does us more good than the person we are thanking. Psychologically or spiritually it is very important for us to acknowledge that we have received help and that everything we have received is not necessarily due to our own efforts. Gratitude is better than ingratitude. A grateful person is healthier than an ungrateful one.
Thankfulness to God for all He has given us is especially important. The central part of our Catholic faith is the Eucharist. The word "Eucharist" is derived from a Greek word which literally means thanksgiving. We could just as properly call it Holy Thanksgiving. In other words, every Sunday we have an opportunity to join with our community in bringing up our gifts of thanksgiving to the altar. Now don't we realize that this offering of thanks means more to us than it does to the Lord? Does the Creator of all things need our coins and dollars? Remember when we were children we would give our mother or father a little trinket for their birthday. They didn't really need it but they accepted it with joy because it was a token of our love and appreciation. For us it meant that we had a loving father and mother. What a source of consolation!
Today we live in the wealthiest society on the face of the earth. Even our poor have a standard of living that would be the envy of others living in other parts of the world. And yet there are disturbing signs. Who can deny that there is so much unhappiness in our country today. Millions of people are taking anti depressant medication. Just the other day the newspaper carried a story about the increasing use of anti-depressant drugs among teenagers.
Could it be that our unhappiness is related to a failure to give thanks. Why do so many people feel like spiritual lepers, unloved and unwanted? Parents no longer require their children to give thanks at meals, or even to attend Mass. Either we are pitiable creatures who feel we have nothing to be thankful for, or we have become a society of ingrates.
In either case we are in trouble whether spiritually or mentally. St. Paul says in today's second reading, "if we deny Him, He will deny us." One of ten lepers returned to give thanks. Is our percentage any better today? But to that one our Lord said,
Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.
Reading 1. 2 Kings 5: 14-17
Reading II. 2 Timothy 2: 8-13
Gospel. Luke 17: 11-19 (the ten lepers).