Commentaries on the Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has made you whole. (Gospel)

THERE ARE A NUMBER of concurrent and related themes running through today’s readings. All can be linked to our own personal experiences and, hopefully, we will see how they operate in our lives in either a constricting or liberating way. These themes may be enumerated as, negatively, uncleanness, leprosy, ostracism, imprisonment and, positively, cleansing, healing, wholeness and thanks.

At this stage in Luke’s gospel we see him making his way south to Jerusalem, the goal of his life’s mission. He has just reached the southern border of the northern province of Galilee (where he came from) and Samaria, which was sandwiched between Galilee on the north and Judea on the south.

Ten lepers

As Jesus enters a village he is greeted by ten lepers who come out to meet him. (Incidentally, they are all men [Greek andres, ’].) “They stood some way off.” As lepers they were compelled to cry out “unclean” and to ring a bell when they saw people approaching. People in those days did not know much about the causes or the nature of leprosy but they did know that it was contagious. No cure was known and it slowly ate away the extremities. So those who were believed to have leprosy had to keep a safe distance from all other people. Hence the expression, “They treated him like a leper.” Very likely, some unfortunate people who had non-contagious skin diseases were also lumped together with them. They all were treated as outcasts, forced to live on the fringes of society, an object of both fear and contempt.

Still some distance from Jesus they called out in desperation: “Jesus! Master! Take pity on us! (Kyrie! Eleison, )” They had no illusions about their helpless situation. Their only hope now was the compassion of Jesus, their Master and Lord, who was the living embodiment of the mercy and compassion of God. A mercy and compassion they had long ceased to expect from their fellow-citizens.

Jesus makes no fuss. He simply tells them to “Go and show yourselves to the priests”. On their way to carry out this instruction they discovered that they were cleansed and healed. Clearly this was a reward for their unquestioning and trusting response to Jesus’ instructions? A reward for their faith in him. And why did Jesus tell them to go to the priests? Because it was not enough for them to be healed; they would also have to be officially declared clean by the religious authorities. Only then could they be fully integrated back into “normal” society.

Only one comes back

Finding himself cured, just one of the group went back “praising God at the top of his voice”, threw himself at the feet of Jesus and expressed his deepest thanks for what had happened to him.

“The man was a Samaritan.” Much of the punch of the story is in those five words. As a Samaritan, he belonged to a hated and despised group. In this case, he was an outcast twice over. Even the disciples of Jesus were heard to speak violent words against Samaritans. And it says a lot for the miserable lot of lepers that there could be Jews and Samaritans together in one group. In their shared misery, other prejudices were forgotten.

Yet, after they were cured, it was not the members of God’s chosen people who came back to express thanks to their Lord but this outcast, a man who would be regarded as an outcast in Jewish society, even if he did not have leprosy. It was a foretaste of the future composition of the Christian communities.

Jesus’ reaction

Jesus highlights this fact by his own reaction. “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”. This alien, this outsider and, by implication, this godless pagan (or at least, dyed-in-the-wool heretic), a person who is presumed to be far from God is the one who is most deeply aware of God’s action in his life. We, too, in our time must have met non-Christians who had a much better sense of God working in their lives that some of us who carry the label “Catholic”.

“Rise up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.” The man is called to resurrection, to new life and to walk the Way of Jesus. His deep insight into what he has experienced has been a saving experience for him. There is far more here than physical healing. The whole person has been fully restored in his relationships both with God and with his neighbours and the community.

A message for us

On reflection this passage can say so much to us in our own lives. Leprosy, thank God, once such a terrifying disease has largely disappeared from many parts of the earth. Where it is still to be found, modern drugs are able to control it and even to heal it. We also know now that, although contagious, occasional contact with a leprous person is not dangerous.

However, leprosies of different kinds are still endemic in every society, no matter how sophisticated. In some parts of the world whole communities of people are neglected, despised, exploited and alienated. In every society there are people who are marginalised, sometimes by “benign neglect”, sometimes by outright discrimination and oppression. Racism and communalism are rampant everywhere, sometimes very openly, sometimes in more subtle but equally hurtful ways.

And we need to remember that prejudice and non-acceptance occurs in all directions, not just from the majority downwards. Minorities can be equally prejudiced against the surrounding majority. There can be divisions between one minority and another. We can all be guilty of making lepers of others.

In our own society some racial groups are very aware of being seen as different and inferior. Newly arrived immigrants can fall into such a category, even though they are legally in the country and making a significant contribution by often doing the work which local people refuse to do. It was ironic in Hong Kong during the 1980s that many Vietnamese “boat people”, who were not wanted by anybody, were housed in camps which had formerly housed “real” lepers. Even immigrant communities, which have been in a country for generations, are sometimes not fully accepted. (One thinks of some European countries or Japan, for instance.)

The new leprosy

It has more than once been pointed out that, medically speaking, the new leprosy in our day is AIDS. With better medication, it is seen as less threatening in our more prosperous societies, although it has by no means disappeared from these countries. On the contrary, in part of the Third World, especially in Africa, it is rampant and often the new medication (which is expensive) is not available.

People with AIDS and even people who are known to be HIV-positive have been treated in ways very similar to lepers in the Bible. They are expected to keep their distance; they need to be declared “clean” by some recognised authority. As with biblical lepers, the two main factors are ignorance and fear. It is very easy to contract AIDS (one contact through sex or blood is enough) but it is also next to impossible to get AIDS in the normal interaction that people have in daily life.

Some years back, even some doctors and nurses, who should be expected to know better, revealed a level of fear that was difficult to justify. In a crowded place, such as in a church or even in the confines of an aeroplane, in which there may be one person with AIDS or HIV, the person most in danger is actually the AIDS victim. He or she is vulnerable to all the viral and bacterial infections that the people in that place can carry. With their immunity systems working well, the non-AIDS people are perfectly safe in the presence of the AIDS victim.

If I knew that the person sitting beside me right now was HIV-positive, how would I feel, think, act or re-act? When the time came for the sign of peace at Mass, would I shake that person’s hand, or even give a hug (perfectly safe, actually). And, if there are people here who are HIV-positive, why don’t we know who they are? Why do they have to hide? Isn’t it because they are so afraid of being totally rejected and condemned even by us – good, Mass-going Catholics?

Fear and ignorance

But, whether we are talking about AIDS victims, or people of other races, religions or cultures, gender or sexual orientation, we need to be aware of our attitudes and what are the values of Jesus portrayed in his interaction with people of all kinds. We need to be aware of the role that both fear and ignorance play in our attitudes and reactions to people who are “different” from us. (Prejudice, from the Latin pre-judicium, means coming to a conclusion based on emotion and not on adequate data or facts leading to a truly rational, objective judgement.)

As followers of Jesus, we need not only to be aware but to promote the dignity and rights of people who are “different” by reason of race, culture, religion or any physical or mental handicap. Really, it is not those who are different who need to “show themselves to the priests” but we, the victims of prejudice, who need to be made clean of our fear, ignorance and intolerance. It is the propagators of intolerance rather than their victims who are most in need of help and healing.

God’s news cannot be chained

So, in the Second Reading from the Second Letter of Paul to Timothy, Paul speaks of the hardships he has to bear for preaching the Good News. (It is striking how much resistance people, including ourselves, show to hearing the Good News!) “I have my own hardships to bear,” he says, including being thrown into jail more than once as a criminal. But, he says, significantly, “they cannot chain up God’s news”.

There are still today in many parts of the world people languishing in jails, being subjected to the most unspeakable torments and indignities for sharing the Good News. But that does not stop the Good News from being propagated. Nothing and no one can stop that. These people, with Paul, show their chains and their jail sentences with pride and joy. Far more insidious are the chains of fear and ignorance with which so many people are tied down.

Who are the outsiders?

Today we need to ask ourselves individually and as a family or community: Whom do we openly or silently marginalise as “outsiders”, as “not one of us”, people we would keep our children away from – people we treat, in effect, as lepers.

– Supposing a son or daughter says he/she wants to marry someone of a different skin colour, a different language, different culture, even different religion – how would we react?

– If a teenage daughter says she is pregnant. What do we say to her? Can we say something different than “How could you do this to us?”

– If an 18-year-old-son says he is gay. Is our response: “Get out of this house and never come back!”

– A child is born autistic or with Downs Syndrome. Do we ask: “God, how could you do this to us?”

And so one…

Yes, we all need, with the Samaritan, to be cleansed, to be healed, to be made whole of all the toxic substances in our system which distort our relationships and the way we see those around us. We need to see that for God there are absolutely no lepers, no outsiders. All are family, all have the same Father, all are his children, all are brothers and sisters to each other. We all need to be given by each other the same love that God gives to us.




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