Back when I was a student, some of my more creative colleagues acted out this gospel story [Luke 17:11-19], changing the 10 lepers to 10 “leapers” - and hopping around the sanctuary accordingly. I remember the occasion, but not the point. And I confess that ever since then it has sometimes been somewhat difficult for me as a preacher to approach this story with the seriousness Luke intended and which it undoubtedly deserves!
But sickness is certainly serious. Diseases scare people. You don’t have to be a hypochondriac to be unnerved whenever some new plague presents itself. I was a boy back at the time of the last big polio epidemic in the U.S. in the 1950s, and I can remember how frightened people were by a dangerous disease, against which they felt so defenseless. I remember the panic in the 1980s when HIV/AIDS was killing thousands of people. More recently, we’ve seen epidemics of viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. And now we see the scary Zika virus practically around the corner.
Having experienced all this in our own time, we should easily understand how frightened and threatened ancient peoples felt, faced with the mysterious illness they called leprosy. Those afflicted with it were often legally segregated outside cities and towns (as was done in 19th-century Hawaii). Indeed, the sick are often seen as a threat – or at least a source of discomfort – to be avoided by those who think of themselves as healthy and normal.
In actual fact, what the ancients called “leprosy” was often a curable skin condition – hence the Law’s provision of a procedure for examination by the priests, But until one had been examined and certified as cured, the leper was considered impure and unclean. Cut off from normal social life, the lot of the leper was a hard one - until suddenly into all this misery moved Jesus, for whom the fact that the sick were shunned and despised did not detract from their significance in his sight. All the lepers said was, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” The sick don’t need to say much. They can communicate quite effectively just by being who they are.
Desperation often makes for hope. So, when commanded to go and show themselves to the priests, they went immediately.
And, suddenly, they were cleansed - whereupon one of them, realizing what had happened, returned to thank Jesus.
Presumably, the other nine went on to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests as Jesus had directed them to do. But this 10th leper was a Samaritan. As misfortune often does, disease had brought together people who would not normally have associated with each other. Once they had been healed, however, once the barrier that united them by separating them from the society of the healthy had been breached, then all the normal social barriers reappeared.
Presumably, the Samaritan could have found himself a Samaritan priest in Samaria. It is quite likely he did that anyway when he finally returned home. Once healed, however, something special had happened to him, something so special it changed his whole outlook. He returned, glorifying God in a loud voice, fell at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him. Seeing he had been healed, his vision broadened and - like that other famous foreign leper Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:14-17) - he was drawn into the deeper insight we call faith. He recognized not only what had happened but why. And the why was Jesus. Leper no longer, he was still a Samaritan; but he was no longer an outsider in relation to God. And so he responded with faith and thanksgiving.
Gratitude is the first fruit of faith. It’s our response to the God who - as Paul said to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:8-13) - always remains faithful. Giving thanks is what it actually means to live as a Christian. It is our awareness – made individual and personal in each one’s own experience of God’s particular kindness – an awareness that God’s power to save is greater than all the obstacles we or the world put in his way.
And that is why the Eucharist (a word which literally means thanksgiving) has to be at the very center of our Christian life. Our thanksgiving finds its center in the Eucharist, because that is where we find Jesus, our one and only healer and savior. Through him, with him, and in him, we give thanks to God the Father for all that he has been for us and done for us. But true gratitude cannot be confined to one hour each week or one event in a year – any more than the Samaritan’s gratitude could authentically end in one single emotional scene. My whole life must become one extended Eucharist, one prolonged prayer of thanksgiving, giving thanks for what God is doing right now for me and with me and within me.
After he had been healed, Naaman, that earlier foreigner, also found faith, and he too returned to give thanks. Not only had he been healed, his whole life had been changed. So he took some of Israel home with him, so that, wherever he went in the world, he would be able to worship the Lord on the Lord’s own land. What will we taken home from here? We are here today, as every Sunday, to celebrate the thanksgiving that stands as the very center of our lives as the Lord’s grateful people. So how will we continue to give thanks – to be truly thankful people - today, tomorrow, and every day?
Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 9, 2016.