I was just a boy back at the time of the last big polio epidemic in the U.S. in the 1950s. People were frightened by a dangerous disease, against which they felt defenseless. When asked what he remembered about those days, Doctor Albert Sabin (the scientist who developed the second polio vaccine, the oral one) remarked: “the fear! You never lost sight of the human side of what you were doing. You were driven by the knowledge that there was human misery. … Thousands of people were crippled and dying.”
When we recall the fear felt by people in the past in the presence of polio and in the present whenever some new plague presents itself as a possible threat, we should easily understand how frightened and threatened ancient peoples felt faced with the mysterious illness they called leprosy. Those afflicted with it were often segregated, according to the Law, outside cities and towns (as was done more recently in 19th-century Hawaii). Indeed, the sick are often seen as a threat – or at least a source of discomfort – to be avoided by those seen as healthy and normal.
In fact, what the ancients called “leprosy” was often a curable skin condition – hence the Law’s provision of a procedure for examination by the priests, But until one had been examined and certified as cured, the leper was considered impure and unclean. Cut off from normal social life, the lot of the leper was a hard one. Suddenly, into all this misery, moved Jesus [Luke 17:11-19] – for whom the fact that the sick were despised did not detract from their significance in his sight. All the lepers said was, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” The sick don’t need to say much. They can communicate quite effectively just by who they are.
What were they expecting from Jesus? Did they actually hope for a cure? Why not? Desperation often makes for hope. Often the only thing a desperate person has left is hope. So, even when, instead of an immediate cure, they got the command to go and show themselves to the priests, they went immediately. And, suddenly, they were cleaned.
We are told that one of them, realizing what had happened, returned to thank Jesus. Presumably, the other nine continued on to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests as Jesus had told them to. But this 10th leper was a Samaritan. Disease had brought together 10 people who would not normally have associated with each other. Once they had been healed, however, once the barrier that united them by separating them from the society of the healthy had been breached, then all the normal social barriers reappeared.
Perhaps the Samaritan could have found himself a Samaritan priest in Samaria. Maybe he did that anyway when he finally returned home. Once healed, however, something special had happened to him, something so special it changed his whole outlook on life. He returned, glorifying God in a loud voice, fell at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him. Seeing he had been healed, his vision broadened and - like that other famous foreign leper Naaman [2 Kings 5:14-17] - he was drawn into the deeper insight we call faith. He recognized not only what had happened but why. And the why was Jesus. Leper no longer, he was still a Samaritan; but he was no longer an outsider in relation to God. And so he responded with faith and thanksgiving.
Gratitude is the first fruit of faith. It’s our response to the God who - as Paul said to Timothy [2 Timothy 2:8-13] - always remains faithful. Giving thanks is what it actually means to live as a Christian. It’s an awareness – made individual and personal in each one’s own experience of God’s particular kindness to one – an awareness that God’s power to save is greater than all the obstacles we put in his way.
And that is why the Eucharist (a word which literally means thanksgiving) has to be at the very center of our Christian life. Exactly one a month ago our diocese came together for an amazing celebration of thanksgiving, our own Diocesan Eucharistic Congress. But what happened that Friday and Saturday in Sevierville is not meant to stay in Sevierville! Our thanksgiving finds its center in the Eucharist, because that is where we find Jesus, our one and only healer and savior. Through him, with him, and in him, we give thanks to God the Father for all that he has been for us and done for us. But true gratitude cannot be confined to one hour each week or one event in a year – any more than the Samaritan’s gratitude could authentically end in one single emotional scene. My whole life must become one extended Eucharist, one prolonged prayer of thanksgiving, giving thanks for what God is doing right now for me and with me and within me.
After he had been healed, Naaman, that earlier foreigner, also found faith, and he too returned to give thanks. Not only had he been healed, his whole life had been changed. So he took some of Israel home with him, so that, wherever he went in the world, he would be able to worship the Lord on the Lord’s own land. What have we taken home from Sevierville? We are here today, as every Sunday, to celebrate the thanksgiving that stands as the very center of our lives as the Lord’s grateful people. So what will we take home from here to continue our thanks – today, tomorrow, and every day?
Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 13, 2013.