The story of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) is not a story about the healing of ten individuals, and it’s not about the value of expressing gratitude. It’s a story about faith that transcends tradition, that grows beyond the limits of religious practice, and that fosters a uniquely personal, authentic, and original relationship with the source of our healing.
When the disciples asked for more faith, Jesus responded as if they had no faith at all, or the wrong kind of faith (Luke 17:5-6). The faith that first drew them to Jesus was not the faith they needed if they were to keep following him. And the faith you and I started with is not the faith we need if we are to reach maturity, the abundant life Jesus offers (“Increase Our Faith,” 6 October 2019, SaunteringPilgrim.com).
In the story of the ten lepers, Jesus doesn’t precisely describe the faith he thought the disciples lacked, but by affirming the return of that one leper to praise God and give thanks for his wholeness, Jesus gives a clear example of the kind of faith that impresses him, the kind of faith that will transform us and our world, the kind of faith he invites us to grow into. It’s a faith not limited to the tradition we follow or how we follow it.
The story focuses on the one leper who returned, and that leper was a Samaritan, which is to say he was twice excluded. Because he was a leper, he was excluded from any contact with the rest of society. And because he was a Samaritan, he was excluded from the Jewish faith, considered unworthy of a relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Yet the Samaritan was among those who were healed, and he was singled out for special attention, while the others were forgotten. On only two occasions do we read that Jesus was amazed by someone’s faith, and both of them were people of a different faith. To the Gentile woman who begged him to heal her daughter, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith!” (Matt. 15:21-28), and about the Roman centurion who sought healing for his slave, Jesus said, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:1-10). Clearly faith has nothing to do with what group you belong to or what religion you practice. Even outsiders – sometimes only outsiders – are made whole by their faith.
Faith traditions and practices are important. They point us toward the object of our faith: JHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah), the One whose name cannot be pronounced; El Shaddai; Adonai; the still, small voice, or the sound of sheer silence; Giver of life; Joy of our desiring; Desire of nations; or the One of a hundred other names. Expressing our faith in words and practice helps form and focus our faith, like the finger pointing toward the moon.
The trouble comes when we focus on the finger and no longer see the moon, when we mistake our traditions and practices for the object of our traditions and practices. We come to love our religion and its traditions more than we love the God who is at the frontier of new creation, doing a new thing beyond all religions and traditions (cf. Isa. 43:18-19). We view God through the eyes of previous generations and dress up in the costumes of the past.
But the sun shines today also. God’s miracles unfold in perfect splendor all around us. We breathe Holy Spirit. We grow toward a maturity measured not by others, not even by the saints, but by the full measure of the stature of Christ (Eph. 5:13), the Christ who lives in each of us and in all of us together.
Those other nine lepers, all of them apparently good Jews who followed the rules and did what their tradition required, were healed, to be sure, and they were presumably fully restored, no less than the Samaritan. As far as we can tell, the Samaritan experienced no more or better healing than the others. But the Samaritan ignored the tradition that required him to show himself to the priests so his healing could be verified and his place in the community restored. Instead, he turned to a direct, first-hand relationship with the source of his healing. He didn’t fall in line; he fell in love.
Sometimes we need the traditions of the past to remind us who we are. And sometimes tradition can blind us to who God is creating us to be. Yesterday’s faith is to be celebrated. It has brought us to this place in our journey. But sometimes we become so good at following the rules and doing our duty and practicing our faith that we stop living like people in love, who follow no rules except the rule of love. We know how to practice the ancient liturgy to worship God at a safe distance. Do we know as well how to be in love with the God who appears in flesh right in front of our eyes? Do we have the faith that will make us well?
Questions for reflection
- Ten were made clean, healed. What did Jesus say was the source of that healing? What role do you think Jesus played in the healing?
- Nine went to show themselves to the priests, a requirement of the law that every good Jew would have observed. Only one returned to praise God and thank Jesus. “Were not ten made clean,” Jesus asked. “But the other nine, where are they?” What tone do you think was in Jesus’ voice when he said this. What do you think he was feeling toward the one who returned? . . . toward the nine who didn’t?
- What set the one who returned apart from the other nine? What, if anything, did he have before this encounter with Jesus that the other nine didn’t have? What, if anything, did he have after his healing that the other nine didn’t? Why do you think it was important to the story that a Samaritan was the one who returned?
- “Your faith has made you well.” Describe the faith of the Samaritan. Before his healing, how was it different from the faith of the other nine? After his healing, how might it have been different?
“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.