Are we among the 9 Lepers in the Gospel?

Luke 17:11-19. Jesus, having cleansed ten lepers, is grieved that but one returneth to give thanks, and he a stranger
Luke 17:11-19. Jesus, having cleansed ten lepers, is grieved that but one returneth to give thanks, and he a stranger (LoC no copyright via wikimedia)

This Sunday, we read about when Jesus went to cure the 10 lepers but only 1 came back to give thanks. It’s Luke 17:11-19 if you forget the story. All over the Gospel we read about lepers: but who were they?

Leprosy is a disease that eats away the skin. In the ancient world, nobody really knew how to cure it and you could get it through contact with a leper. Therefore lepers were shunned. They had to live apart. They had a hard time finding work since nobody would eat anything or use anything they touched.

In ancient Israel, everyone believed this was a curse from God. It wasn’t just that you were separate but everyone thought it was because God was cursing you so they thought if they helped you, they might be cursed too. So what were lepers to do? They eked out an existence at the edge of society forming small cliques like these 10 lepers. Just image yourself there.

Now when Jesus cures them, it’s not just a medical cure, it’s a complete restoration of life. They can return to their family, get a job, and resume worshipping God in the temple. They are new men. Yet the moral of the Gospel is that only 1 returns to thank Jesus. Why? I think there’re 2 main reasons the other 9 didn’t return: they didn’t want to admit who they were, and they thought they deserved it.

They didn’t want to admit who they were

In ancient Israel, even being an ex-leper was a stigma. We have 9 lepers who didn’t want to admit they had been lepers, and so they don’t dare return to the man who cured them. They don’t want to admit they ever needed to be cured.

Pope Francis teaches us just the opposite. When Fr Antonio Spadaro interviewed him a few weeks back, one of the questions was: Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?  That’s the Pope’s birth name. He responded, without show with “a sinner.” To say such a thing means that he understood that he needed to be sanctified by Jesus. Plain and simple.

You may have heard the phrase by St Teresa of Avila that “humility is truth.” It took me a long time to understand what that meant. These 2 counter-examples show us. The Pope admitted the truth that he was a sinner while the lepers didn’t admit the truth that they were lepers.

They thought they deserved it

Jesus looks each leper in the eye as he cures him
Jesus looks each leper in the eye as he cures him

Some of the 9 lepers may have realized they were lepers. They didn’t lie. Yet, they didn’t give thanks. Maybe they thought they deserved it.

Have you ever seen a spoiled brat? The kid who throws a temper-tantrum in the checkout line because mom won’t buy him a 15th candy. Or the kid who complains that he got 23% in Math when he didn’t spend 2 minutes studying. These people think they deserve everything.

Even though they were adults, some of the lepers probably thought that way. Jesus had to give them their due. They’d suffered so long with leprosy that they really deserved that someone should come and give them even some relief.

There’s an interesting trick question on driving tests: In situation X, who has the right of way? The answer is always: the law never gives right of way but says one car must yield it. Similarly, so often people ought to give us something but that doesn’t mean we deserve it. Men ought to open doors for women, adult kids ought to give their parents birthday gifts, a husband and wife ought to say “Hello” and “I love you” at least once a day. Yet none of them “deserve it.

How much more is this true of God! He has nothing he ought to give us. Even our existence at this very moment and the fact we’ll be able to get up after, walk home, and go to bed is a gift of God. We can give him thanks for all these things; and the bigger gifts above them. Mother Teresa gives us an example of how to do this when she says: “I am ready to accept whatever He gives and to give whatever He takes with a big smile.”

We need to be like Mother Teresa and Pope Francis. We need to be honest about who we are before God, and we need to accept everything as a gift. Each of us, myself included has some area we can improve here. For those of us in Canada, we have extra reason to think of gratitude this weekend because it’s Thanksgiving. I was reading a spiritual author, Thomas H Green, the other day and I want to finish with his words about Jesus and Gratitude: Jesus “seems to be much more receptive to gratitude than to complaints… thankfulness and trust are by far the best ways to ‘blackmail’ him and reach his heart.”

This is a slightly revised version of a reflection I gave during a Eucharistic Hour this Thursday. Contrary to normal policy, I wrote it all out.

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