The miraculous healing of the 10 lepers, according to St. Luke, happens at a distance, as it were off stage, like the healing of the Centurion’s servant. It’s remarkable how little personal interaction is involved. There is no stretching out of the hand, no healing touch, no word of power, no discussion about faith. Jesus simply orders the lepers to show themselves to the Priests; they go, and they are cured. So the dramatic emphasis of this story is not at all on the miracle, but on what follows: on the giving of thanks, and its lack.
St. Luke the gentile, writing especially with a gentile audience in mind, highlights here the identity of the man who came back: he was a Samaritan. Immediately we are reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37). In both stories there’s a contrast in behaviour. The action of the outsider puts to shame that of the insiders who should have known better.
According to the Old Testament law, leprosy renders a person not only contagiously diseased, but also ritually unclean. So lepers have to stand far off. The Greek word they use in their anguished cry to Jesus is: Eleison! Have mercy! It’s the very word we sing at the beginning of Mass, and in the Good Friday liturgy. With the lepers of the Gospel story, we also cry out to Jesus, because we also recognise our radical need for God’s mercy. But with the lepers also we boldly confess, with complete faith and trust, the power of Jesus to help us. Then, following the prompting of this story, with the Samaritan we return and give thanks.
It’s good for us to identify ourselves very closely with this leper, because what Jesus did for him is a sign or foreshadowing of what he has done for each of us. As St. Paul put it to the Corinthians: You have been washed clean, you have been sanctified, you have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 6:11). Or as St. Peter puts it in his first letter: Formerly you were a non-people; now you are the people of God. Formerly you were outside mercy. Now you have received mercy (2:10).
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Priest and Levite who pass by on the other side represent religious people who somehow miss the point of their religion. They are so caught up with their own concerns, or so focussed on their need to preserve their ritual purity, that they shamefully neglect a manifest duty of charity. In today’s story of the ten lepers, the nine who fail to give thanks seem no less shockingly neglectful. They also can represent all who receive the Lord’s mercy and love, yet somehow pass it all heedlessly and selfishly by. Who of us does not feel in some degree convicted by this warning? Who among us has not at times been so caught up with his own concerns, his worries, problems or pains, that he has somehow missed the point, and failed to remember, or even notice, the goodness, mercy and love of God, and the blessings lavished upon us in Jesus Christ our Lord?
Ingratitude is a horrible thing. In one of his homilies St. Bernard describes it as “the enemy of the soul”. He pictures ingratitude as “a burning wind that dries up the fountain of piety, the dew of mercy, and the flowing stream of grace” (In Cant. Serm 51:6). Where there is ingratitude, he says, “merit is emptied out, virtue wastes away, and benefits received are lost”.
St. Paul tells us we should give thanks in all circumstances (cf. I Thess 5:17), or for all things. Part of the vocation of any Christian, very much so of any monk, is to give God thanks and praise, on behalf of those who do not know him, and even on behalf of dumb creation. We thank him for our being; for the created world we live in; for the food we eat and the air we breathe; for our family and friends, our occupation, our health, for those we live with, for our country, and its relative peace and prosperity. We thank him for special moments of grace, for the inspiration of good example, for the sources of encouragement or consolation or joy that come our way.
And if our portion is predominantly trials, difficulties, pains and griefs, then according to the teaching of the Apostle we thank him for those also, for in them we are more closely united with Christ crucified, and enabled to enter ever more deeply into his Sacred Heart.
But beyond and above all these things - as it were in a higher mode – more radically we thank God for Jesus Christ himself; for his Incarnation; for his saving death and life-giving resurrection. This is for us the gift of gifts and the grace of graces. If all other lesser gifts were to be taken away, yet leaving us with only Christ, then we would be rich indeed, and with good cause for endless joyful thanksgiving.
The Greek word Luke uses for the leper’s thanksgiving in today’s story is “eucharistein”. And we are here now because we know that the best possible way of expressing our thanks to God for all his gifts is through participation in the Holy Eucharist. Here is made present Christ’s self gift to the end: his body offered for us in sacrifice, his blood poured out for us. Here Jesus gives us himself, not in part, but wholly. He gives not of course craving our gratitude, but freely, simply, out of love. Yet we are the ones who will benefit if we receive him with open hearts and minds; if we notice what he has done for us, and return due thanks. Having that attitude of mind we will truly live the Eucharist, and receive from it the life, blessing, health and holiness Jesus wants to give us.