Commentary on the Healing of the Ten Lepers (Luke 17:11-19) by Fr. Randy Flores, SVD
I wrote it sometime last year for the Extraordinary Month of Mission (October 2019) upon the request of the Propaganda Fide. — Fr Randy Flores SVD
“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.”Jean Massieu
The quote is attributed to the French deaf educator Jean Massieu (1772-1846) and has become a universal proverb. Its inverse can mean that to be ungrateful is to show that you lack an essential thing inside you. In our country, it is a shock to read that out of the ten lepers who got healed by Jesus, only one came back to say, “Thank you.” Those persons have no utang na loob (lit. “no debt of one’s inner self”). To be grateful is not just a social obligation of reciprocity but an affirmation of our interiority which becomes a spiritual act as well. “Thank you” in one of our languages is Dios ti agngina (“God will value you”).
The Healing of the Ten Lepers is found in the third phase of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (or the Lukan Travel Narrative, chaps. 9-19). It could have been reshaped by the Old Testament story of the Healing of Naaman (cf. the First Reading in 2 Kgs 5:14-17).
The army commander of Syria, a great man, trusted by the king and a valiant warrior, Naaman, however, is a mesōrāʽ — one afflicted with “leprosy,” the ancient world’s most dreaded disease. Ironically, it takes a “little girl, an Israelite war captive, for this “great man” to discover its cure. The cure, as the unnamed girl counsels Naaman through his wife, is to be in the “presence” or “before the face” (lipnē) of the prophet who is in Samaria (2 Kgs 5:3).
The narrative becomes excursive before it reaches the scene of the personal encounter between the two. Naaman must first ask permission from the king of Aram who tells him go with a letter to the king of Israel. Bringing with him gifts, Naaman journeys to Israel along with the letter that mistakes the king of Israel for the healer.
Thinking that the king of Aram is trying to pick a quarrel with him, the king of Israel tears his clothes, perhaps as a sign of anxiety. It is at this point that the narrator informs us of Elisha who comes to learn, not of the letter, but of the tearing of clothes. Being a prophet, he perceives the problem right away and tells the king to send the sick person to him that “he may know (yēdaʽ) that there is a prophet in Israel” (5:8). Personal encounter and acknowledgement as the Hebrew verb yādaʽ implies, are crucial for the commander’s healing.
Naaman arrives at the prophet’s house but not without an impressive entourage. He thus expects from the prophet a more complicated and elaborate healing session fitting to his status as army commander. The prophet, however, does not come out to meet him but sends simply a word what to do—to take a bath in the Jordan river dipping himself seven times. That is too simple to do that Naaman cannot believe it. Did not the prophet say the sick person must go to him? Don’t they have better rivers back home?
We are given a hint here by the narrator that to be cured is not the same as to be healed. The former is physical while the latter is internal. Despite Naaman’s indignance of the prophet’s shabby treatment of him, he obeys. When he realizes that he is cured, he “returns” (shub) to Elisha to thank him though not in words but in kind. The offer of gifts signifies gratitude. There he finally meets the prophet in person. The long story leading to the encounter ends but the Naaman’s new life begins. He is now cured and healed as well. The total healing, a METANOIA of sort, is a result of his obedience to the word of the prophet and the personal encounter with him. It would lead him in the end to acknowledge the God of Israel.
In the Healing of the Ten Lepers which is found solely in Luke, the evangelist tells his readers that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem but that he is to “pass through” [Gk. DIA MESON] an area between Samaria and Galilee (cf. 17:11) hence moving from east to west rather from north to south. The movement is baffling, but the evangelist could be providing his readers a hint that Jesus is in a strange land, in the territory of the enemies.
Luke has earlier told of the lack of hospitality of a Samaritan village prompting two of his close disciples to be outraged (cf. 9:53-54). This “passing through” then would not just be incidental but salvific as well (cf. Acts 10:38).
The ten lepers take the initiative to approach Jesus but are “keeping their distance.” The phrase may mean a quarantine following the purity laws (cf. Lev 13:45-46) but also is Luke’s way of showing that the sick, out from the shame and trauma of their condition, will also receive God’s call like the Gentiles “who are far away” (cf. Acts 2:39). It is a reminder that God is the one who takes initiative. The lepers address Jesus as “Master” (EPISTATES) rather than the usual “Lord” (KYRIE) and this may suggest that the faith that the lepers have in Jesus is only preliminary. They plead Jesus for mercy, obey his command, but unable to perceive the real meaning of their healing.
Luke highlights the fact that Jesus “saw” the ten lepers as a response to their prayer. Elsewhere Luke connects “seeing” (HORAŌ) with “saving” (e.g. Luke 13:12). In this initial encounter, healing does not come right away like Naaman’s case. Faithful to the Torah, Jesus commands them to present themselves to the priests (cf. Luke 17:14). To be healed then would imply listening to the word of Jesus and, again like Naaman, exerting an effort as well to be personally grateful to the healer.
One might recall here what Luke says of discipleship as hearing the word and act on it as well (cf. Luke 8:15,21). Nine lepers, however good their intentions are to obey Jesus’ order and however privileged they are to encounter Jesus in person, are unable to take the greater risk—to be converted to Jesus. Only one of them does it—an “enemy” as he is a Samaritan. Jesus later describes him as “foreigner,” and the latter should have to show himself to the Samaritan priest at Mount Gerizim.
When, however, he “sees” that he is cured, he “returns” to Jesus (cf. Luke 17:15). For Luke, “seeing” (HORAŌ) means the Samaritan’s eyes of faith have been opened. Yet he needs now to make a personal decision for that faith and that is shown when he decides to “return” (HYPOSTREPHEIN) to Jesus.
The foreigner’s impassioned reactions of glorying God, falling at the feet of the Master and giving him thanks (EUCHARISTEŌ) indicate that in this second personal encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan is not simply paying a debt of gratitude to Jesus but experiences a total healing and an interior change. Gratitude is normally expressed to God and this the only occurrence in the New Testament that it is spoken to Jesus. At the end of the story, the foreigner, whose faith in Jesus has made him well, is now ready to be sent to mission: “Rise and go your way” (Luke 17:19; cf. 10:3).
The Healing of Naaman and the Healing of the Ten Lepers are both stories anchored on theme of interior conversion through a personal encounter with God (or Jesus in the case of the latter). Such encounter happens because of a personal crisis like a serious illness and it is a divine initiative. It is up to the person to take the further step to recognize and acknowledge the meaning of this encounter that will lead him or her to conversion.