Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Ten Healed of Leprosy
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
My sense is that most people find this story mildly interesting, but just figure that the lesson is that most people aren’t as thankful as we should be for our blessings. That’s true, of course, but I think there’s more going on here than a quick reading reveals.
Luke tells us that these events took place when Jesus was walking along the border of Samaria. The historians tell us there actually was a road along the border, because most devout Jews wouldn’t walk through Samaria, for various reasons. First of all, the Jews considered the Samaritans to be ritually unclean, because their Hebrew ancestors had intermarried with gentiles. The Jews also thought the Samaritans were heretics, because they only read the first five or six books of the Hebrew scriptures – the Old Testament. The Jews wouldn’t let the Samaritans worship at the temple in Jerusalem, so they built a temple of their own on Mt. Gerazim. Then the Jews sent their army to burn down the Samaritan temple. So there was a lot of bad blood between the two groups.
As Jesus is walking along this border road, the ten lepers call out to him for ‘pity.’ One of the lepers is a Samaritan, and presumably the rest are Jews. I can’t help wondering if the Jewish lepers had been driven away from their homes and toward Samaria, because lepers were considered unclean and so was the entire territory of Samaria. (It was customary for lepers to be forced to live in cemeteries because cemeteries were considered unclean, too.)
In the ancient Hebrew world, leprosy was considered to be a punishment from God for some terrible sin. The Hebrew word for leprosy literally means “striking” or “smiting,” because people understood that God struck lepers with the disease. So the assumption would be that a leper somehow deserved this terrible disease. That’s why they were crying out for pity – that’s something you ask for without having to show that you deserved it.
Hearing their cry, Jesus commands the ten lepers to go and present themselves to a priest. To be freed from the stigma of leprosy, a victim had to have a priest declare them healed or ‘cleansed.’ Even though real leprosy was an incurable disease in the ancient world, the word leprosy was used for other skin conditions like psoriasis, and some of those conditions would actually clear up, so a person could go back to their life.
But in the story, as the ten lepers are on their way to the priest, they notice that the lesions from the disease are going away. And we’re told that one of the ten ex-lepers – but only one – comes back to thank Jesus and praise God. And that one, as Jesus notes, is a Samaritan.
And that, it seems to me, gets at the real point of the story. The Samaritan had faced discrimination from the covenant people. He had been told, even before he got leprosy, that he was racially and religiously inferior. As far as the Jews were concerned, even after this Samaritan was cleansed of his leprosy, he would still be unclean to the Jews, just because he was a Samaritan.
So why was the Samaritan more thankful than the Jewish ex-lepers? It seems to me that it’s because he would have been less likely to have a sense of entitlement. He would be less likely to feel that God owed him anything, unlike the Jewish ex-lepers, who seem to have felt that God owed them healing. And because the Samaritan had less of a sense of entitlement, his heart would be more open to the profound thankfulness that comes from knowing you’ve been hugely blessed.
It seems to me this story points to a great truth about human nature. That truth is that we’re not particularly thankful for something we think we’re entitled to. Nobody writes a thank-you note to the boss for their paycheck, or to the Social Security Administration for their monthly check. That’s because we understand that those are things we’ve earned – things we’re entitled to.
It seems to me those of us who have been born and raised in the church can easily fall into the error the Hebrew people made – the mistake of thinking we’re better people than non-believers so God sort of owes us his blessing. But the New Testament is pretty clear in saying that we can’t claim to deserve our blessings, and that each one of them is a gift from God. And that includes our most important blessing, the new life we have through Jesus. And when we get that thought through our heads, we can begin to live with a real ‘attitude of gratitude.’
Let’s pray. Lord, guard our hearts against a sense of entitlement – the sense that we are more blessed than others because we are more deserving than others. Remind us day by day that all of our blessings are gifts out of your grace, so that our hearts become profoundly thankful for your gracious care. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 23 and 24; Deuteronomy 12:1-12; and II Corinthians 6:3 – 7:1. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on Biblica.com, the website of the International Bible Society.)