Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Ten lepers cry out to Jesus for mercy in the Gospel we hear this weekend. They are standing at a distance, as required by law. Leprosy being a contagious disease, those with the disease in the time of Jesus (and even today) were separated from their families and communities. When they cry out to our Lord, they do not ask to be healed, they ask simply to be treated with mercy, to be seen, spoken to, to be offered some hope. The Lord gives them far more than they ask, sending them to the priests to show that they have been healed. Made new, these former lepers go their way, with only one returning to give thanks and he is a Samaritan.
When Jesus sends the lepers to show themselves to the priests, He is acting in accord with the Jewish law (see Leviticus 14 for more on this law). In the Gospels, leprosy becomes a strong metaphor for sin. Just as a leper’s skin and outward appearance is marred by the crippling effects of the disease, so the human soul is damaged by the effects of sin. Further, sin has a communal dimension, the sin of an individual leading to his separation from others around him, to division within the community. Leprosy, likewise, separates people from their community and sends them into isolation. When Jesus sends these lepers to the priests in accordance with the law, he is helping them not only with their physical healing, but also to be reintegrated into the common life of their village, to return to their homes and families, to no longer live in isolation. Spiritually, if leprosy is a metaphor for the effects of sin, Jesus is also bringing them back into a right way of living according to God’s law and word. He shows them the greatest of all mercies, healing both body and soul.
It is the Samaritan who returns to give thanks. As a foreigner, a non-Jew, the Samaritan is not bound by the same laws. Yet he started out to show himself to the priests, too. We can see in this moment a brief nod to the power and goodness of God’s law. Even one who juridically, legally speaking is not bound to the law is able to and willing to follow it. The commandments are truly for all people and God wills that all would follow His law. The Jewish people stand as witnesses of the goodness of the law, and the obedience to the law expressed by the nine lepers leads the tenth to go with them, to spiritually join them. But in the Samaritan we also see that the law alone does not satisfy everything. He returns to Jesus to give thanks. His faith is on display. When Jesus sends him on his way, He is acknowledging the conversion of heart that has taken place. This man, once a foreigner, outside the law, now desires to live by God’s law and live a life of faith in Jesus. He has come to know what Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt. 5:17).
The healing grace of God, the mercy that not only brings healing to the body but also to the soul, the gift that restores our relationship with the community, is always available to us, too. We are the Samaritan, returning Sunday after Sunday to give thanks and to worship the God who extends this mercy to us. Each time we come to the Lord in the confessional we cry out with the lepers “Jesus, Master, have mercy.” His response will always be to call us to live in accord with God’s law. Not the law only, but also to see ourselves in a genuine relationship with Him. Our leprosy taken away, we an approach Him with confidence, joy, and love.