When we come to the conclusion of this Gospel passage, there is one very important thing we know . . . and there is another, equally vital thing we do not know.
As we will see, both bear greatly on how we respond to this episode in Jesus’ ministry.
Let’s begin with the critical truth we can immediately grasp: We know that only one of the ten healed lepers returns to Jesus to offer ecstatic praise and thanksgiving for the gifts he received. These are gifts of healing given the lepers, and, yes, there is more than one gift given here.
The first is a healing of their entire self. Not merely the body, as important as that is. Jesus has touched, and Jesus has healed, the leper’s entire sense of who they are. The shame and guilt of being so terribly afflicted. The self-loathing that gnawed away at the leper’s soul the way leprosy was destroying their flesh. There was a renewal of hope and joy and peace. We know that this happened.
We also know that another kind of healing occurred: A restoration of the relationship between the leper and their community. Those afflicted with wasting, communicable diseases were excluded from the life of the family, the village, the synagogue. This is why they call out to Jesus from a distance: They are obligated by Mosaic law to maintain physical distance from others. And this physical distance creates emotional and spiritual distance, and so intensifies the lepers’ sense of isolation, rejection, and abandonment.
But when Jesus directs them to go to the priests, and when he heals them on the way, he’s overcoming the distance from those considered sick or dangerous or sinful and the rest of the community. The priests, following the procedures laid down in the book of Leviticus, will certify that the healing has occurred, which means these ten can now live among everyone else.
To be brought back into the folds of family, friends, and community is itself a healing. And we know that this has happened.
And this is what happens every time Jesus heals.
The man possessed by demons, who howled among the tombstones, and who slashed himself bloody in his torment, when healed, he was again in his right mind, again embraced and welcomed by the people of his town.
The woman who suffered 18 years from a hemorrhage, which made her ashamed of her own body, which made her impure and so unable to eat at the same table as others, to worship with others, to be touched or loved by a partner, when Jesus healed her, she no longer was seen as an unclean outsider. Her body was whole, her mind was at ease, her place in the community was restored.
Which means that one key sign of the Kingdom of God that Jesus’ ministry announces and creates is shalom.
It’s a Hebrew word, found many, many times in the Jewish scriptures. We often associate shalom with “peace.” Its meaning certainly does include that. But more fundamentally, shalom means “wholeness” or “completeness.”
And when Jesus heals, he brings wholeness to the individual--touching the bodies, their minds, their souls--and he brings completeness to the community by restoring someone fractured from it back into right and good and proper relationship.
So we must remember:
No community is whole,
no community has peace,
no community has shalom,
no community is truly a community,
unless its members, all its members, are whole in themselves and in peaceful, life-giving relationship with one another.
That is our challenge and invitation, we who are hands of Christ in the world.
I want now to repeat what I began with: There are two truths in this story for us to explore. Here’s the one we DO know: All the lepers were healed in every aspect of their lives, but only one returned in gratitude to Jesus.
Which leads to what we do NOT know:
We don’t know why the other nine didn’t come back.
The text is entirely silent on this point. It simply says that one leper comes back.
And even Jesus seems uncertain about what happened, or rather, what didn’t happen: Then Jesus asked: Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?
We might think that the answer is easy: The nine didn’t return because they were ungrateful. That’s certainly possible. But even if it’s true in some sense or other that the nine lepers lacked gratitude, I believe this story invites us to go still further in trying to understand their choices.
When we end our engagement with this story with “one leper was grateful, and nine were not,” we run the risk of settling for an easy, obvious understanding of what we can learn from it. The moral of the story, the lesson, thereby becomes “we should always be grateful to God,” full stop.
And of course that’s true. An easy, obvious truth is still a truth.
But I believe there’s more to be gleaned from this passage. After all, despite it being unassailably true that we should be grateful to God . . . we aren’t, not always.
Well at least I’m not.
And, regardless, why is that?
Why do I--or we, if I may say so--sometimes fail to give thanks to God and mean it down to the core of our being, like the one leper so clearly did?
I won’t presume to be able to fully answer that question. But I think there are at least two reasons why the nine lepers might not have felt or expressed gratitude.
The first is this: We can forget the sacrament of poverty.
You might not be surprised to hear a Franciscan talk about poverty. After all, St Francis was always going on about it, and embracing poverty is one of our three vows.
But I think the genius of St Francis is that he recognized poverty--as he understood the term--is not merely a truth about those with a religious vocation. Instead, poverty, rightly understood, is an element of all our lives . . . and, if we let it, poverty is a source of profound joy and peace.
This kind of poverty is not about material lack. It’s not even primarily about what we have or don’t have. Instead, poverty is most essentially about what we are and our relationship with God.
So what are we?
What are you?
You are the one God gives infinite gifts to, from the existence of the universe to the next breath you will take. Everything is a gift from God to you. The thirteenth century Franciscan theologian St Bonaventure said the only reason for anything to exist is God’s overflowing love, love which seeks to express itself by making you and by placing you in a creation filled with signs of that love.
And this is our poverty: Everything around us that gives us joy and excitement and pleasure and peace, everything we are, everything we can do and be . . . it all comes from God.
In God’s universe, there is no such thing as the self-made person.
No one pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Instead, everyone is always dependent on God and everyone receives an infinity of gifts from God.
This is our poverty. But paradoxically it’s not poverty in terms of what we lack. It’s a recognition of all we have and from whom we have it.
This is why, as I said, poverty is a sacrament. Our true nature--being created to receive over and over, endlessly, what God urgently wants to give us out of love--is a sign. That’s what a sacrament is, a sign.
Maybe some of the nine lepers failed to see this sign. But I don’t really feel I can point a finger of judgment at them; after all, every second of my life is as much a miracle as their cleansed, healed bodies, and I so often blindly move through time as if everything around me, in me, weren’t miracles from the God who loves me beyond all telling.
There’s possibly another reason why the nine didn’t come back to Jesus: Sometimes love is frightening.
Sometimes, because of how we might see ourselves, when love touches us deeply . . . it can feel like too much. Like we can’t take it in, or accept it, or trust it to truly become part of our lives.
Or we can feel we don’t truly deserve that kind of love.
Sometimes, getting the thing we most need, getting what we have most intensely hoped for, can be so upsetting. What if someone decides I’m not really worthy of the gift? What if I do something wrong and show myself not good enough to deserve the gift? What if they take it all back, just when I’ve come to believe I’m healed?
I can imagine a leper, looking at their new, beautiful, tender skin, and being able to wonder only how long until the rot returns.
And it’s very hard to express thanks for a gift you can’t truly believe is yours. Maybe some of the nine didn’t come back because they didn’t dare trust they were really healed. Maybe they didn’t think they could be healed . . . were worthy of being healed.
Many people, I sadly believe, have had experiences that erode their capacity to believe that God’s gifts are truly for them, that’s God’s infinite, eternal love is truly for them.
I wish I knew how to heal this kind of broken heart. I don’t. I confess that in my uncertainty my thoughts turn to Our Blessed Virgin Mother. More than any of us, she knows the challenge, the burden, of trusting in the depths of God’s love. And we must offer up to Her our prayers for those who struggle to believe in God’s healing, in God’s grace, in God’s love. May She intercede for them, may She send comfort and trust and peace to them . . . and to us all.
But we must remember we are each also a theotokos. Our Blessed Virgin Mary was the theotokos when She bore God into the world through Her body. We are each similarly called to incarnate Christ in the world. Through our prayers, words, and actions, we can bear divine love into a world starving for it.
We can give birth to healing of body, mind, and spirit,
we can reconcile communities and lives fractured by estrangement,
and we can each be sacraments to one another of the poverty that is our greatest blessing.
And if we do, little by little, moment by moment, life by life, in the age of ages, we will all come to Christ in gratitude and praise.