“He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan” (Lk. 17:16).
Jesus’ encounter with the ten lepers is recounted only by St. Luke the Evangelist. Stories of healing abound in the four Gospels: powerful signs that Jesus is the Messiah, and has come to save his people. “Saving” and “healing” are virtually the same word in the Gospels, words with a common root, reminding us that every miracle of healing is tied up with a broader vision of human salvation. As Jesus heals the sick, in our Gospel accounts, we see in our midst the Savior of the world.
The healing of lepers, in particular, is well attested in the Gospel tradition. Those who suffered from this disease were separated from the community in a unique way. Under the Law of the Old Covenant, lepers were ritually unclean and not allowed to live in the Jewish community. This prescription is probably rooted in the contagious nature of some forms of this disease, but the ritual proscription of direct contact separated lepers from the worship and community life of the People of God. Bad enough to be ill; even worse (as some discovered in the pandemic) to be quarantined and separated from family and friends.
Even more, lepers living on the margins of community were required to give notice of their presence by shouting and warning people who might get close. Again, inspired by practical considerations but nevertheless humiliating. Notice how the lepers in our reading are “keeping their distance” (Lk. 17:12) from Jesus. There’s no doubt that lepers occupied a humble place in the biblical world.
Having said this, the most distinctive thing about Luke’s account of this healing is the presence of a Samaritan among those who are cleansed. Remember: Samaritans were the Jews’ neighbors, people who observed some elements of the Law but who did not worship in Jerusalem or acknowledge the Jewish prophets. Pious Jews considered them to be “foreigners” (as it says in our reading), people who were not just different but had been brought in to replace the Jews of the Northern Kingdom who had been deported to Assyria. This terrible replacement libel, like all others of its kind, made every Samaritan the enemy of every Jew. What a horrible situation! What was different becomes something to be abhorred, sowing enmity and division between peoples.
Yet in Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, it’s the Samaritan who returns to give thanks. Jesus’ own words underscores the significance of the action. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Lk. 17:18). It’s the one who was most despised in the eyes of the People of God who turns out to be the one who acknowledges the gift of healing, the one who returns and gives thanks to God.
This is not a one-off occasion in Jesus’ ministry, a coincidence with no further significance. Jesus himself, earlier in Luke’s Gospel, tells the story of the Good Samaritan, the one who turns out to be the neighbor of the man who has been beaten and left for dead on the road to Jericho. After a priest and a Levite have each passed by the stricken man, a Samaritan takes him to safety and provides for his care. It’s not the pious who turn out to be the good guys in the story, but rather the enemy of the People. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is another instance of Jesus’ own ministry extended to a Samaritan, including the despised foreigner among those who are called to salvation.
The universal call of God to all peoples and nations is a part of the lesson we’re meant to take away. As St. Paul puts it in the Letter to the Ephesians, Christ has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14). Christ has come to bring us together. But more than this, we’re meant to see in the despised stranger a person who models for us what it means to be a humble recipient of God’s blessing. We can learn from the stranger in our midst what it is to be truly thankful, to receive a gift and return thanks for it.
Our confirmands today are receiving a gift: the grace of God through prayer and the laying on of hands. God’s grace is his power and presence that we need in order to follow through as disciples. All of us gathered here today have the opportunity to re-affirm our own baptismal vows, and to recommit ourselves to following Christ. We come to the altar this morning to give thanks to God for all he has done for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. We’re like the one in our Gospel who returns to give thanks, mindful of the gift. May we who have received the gift reach out in love and concern to the strangers who are our neighbors, whoever they may be.