Today’s Old Testament reading and Gospel are about lepers, not leprosy. Thus we are speaking about people, not the characteristics which threaten to define them. In the Gospel, Jesus meets ten lepers walking in the middle ground between Samaria and Galilee. That Greek word ‘middle’ neatly sums up their situation. They are outcasts from both the Samaritans and the Jews of Galilee. Torn away from their families and friends, they are in the ‘middle’ of nowhere, with no sense of belonging. And yet it seems they have some sense of solidarity. Otherwise there wouldn’t be ten of them together making a bee line for Jesus. What’s more intriguing is the fact that they are a mixture of Jews and Samaritans. We don’t know how many Samaritans are in the group but there is at least one who turns out to be the hero of the story. This is very insightful. In their full health, Jews and Samaritans hate the very sight of each other, but now that they are ostracized, they seemingly can live together. There is something here about the power of sickness that can bring one to a new level of understanding and tolerance.
Lepers are supposed to keep far away from public view and, because of the great shame associated with their affliction, they keep to that rule. But when they hear of Jesus in the vicinity strange things begin to happen. They dare to approach Jesus and plead mercy. They have obviously divined that there is something special about Jesus. They have sensed that he will not turn them away. They are not to be disappointed. Jesus doesn’t heal them there and then in what would have been a grand stage manifestation of his power. Can you imagine the awe and astonishment if he did! Instead, he takes the quieter route of commanding them to show themselves to the priests and have them healed on the way. Then the priests would pronounce them clean and so they would be restored again to their families. What joy in ten different households that evening! It’s quite understandable that they would rush home to their loved ones without another thought. Surely a fairy tale beyond their wildest dreams.
The one Samaritan however did a double-think. Going by the book, the nine of them obeyed Jesus to the letter – they went and showed themselves to the priest. By the same rule, the Samaritan disobeyed Jesus for when he realised that he was cured he forgot all about the priest and turned back to give praise and thanks to God. Yet Jesus praises ‘this foreigner’ and decries the others. Obviously there are laws and laws and the law of love and gratitude surpasses all other laws. This Samaritan saw the finger of God at work in Jesus and therefore let his heart speak. Rushing back, he bowed down on the ground before Jesus and gave praise and thanks to God in his presence.
There is a deep moral in this for us all. How grateful are we for all the blessings God has bestowed on us, including the gift of life itself and a loving God who cherishes us beyond measure? One of the most satisfying feelings is to receive a sincere “Thank you” for a service rendered and appreciated. We may not always be able to cope gracefully with the situation; we might even be embarrassed by the warmth of another’s gratitude for something that didn’t cost us any great inconvenience; but still there’s joy in being thanked for things we’ve done. The contrary also holds, of course: nothing is quite so hurtful as to be consistently taken for granted, without ever a word of thanks or praise. One out of ten was a fairly poor proportion; but then, truly appreciative people, willing to make sacrifice to show their thanks, are rare enough.
The danger in today’s world is that we prize individual freedom and liberty so much that we forget to be grateful. In our penchant for entitlements we can easily begin to dictate, not just to others, but even to God and make God do things our way; make God acquiesce to our wishes so that we can be masters of our own destiny. Are there not some who abandon faith and prayer because God has not granted their requests?
This was the inclination of Naaman the leper, the army commander of the King of Syria, as he bargained with God. Hoping to be cured of his leprosy by the prophet Elisha, Naaman arrived laden with gifts of silver and gold, to pay for his cure. The prophet did not even come out to meet him, but only sent a message telling him to wash seven times in the river Jordan. This left Naaman deeply offended and disappointed and he prepared to return to Syria, raging. Why wash in this particular river, when there were so many bigger and cleaner rivers at home? “Here was I thinking Elisha would cure the leprous part,” he said, fuming.
Things had not gone as he had planned. It was only when his servants pointed out how simple was the prophet’s request that he was persuaded to try it and so was cured. In the end it stands to Naaman’s credit that he thought again, was cured and then returned to thank Elisha.
The bottom line is that God is not some kind of super-puppet who will react in the desired way when we pull the right strings. When we need a favour, the Gospel reminds us to ask with prayer and thanksgiving, because God answers every prayer for help, even if not precisely in the way we imagine, since God only grants what is for our good. Our habit should be to thank God from the heart, like Naaman after his cure, like the grateful leper who returned to express appreciation of God’s gift. While the other nine were happy to return home, I imagine that, on mature reflection, their joy must have been mingled with sadness that they did not return to Jesus to say a personal “thank you,” for what he had done for them.
Sunday, 9 October 2016