Luke makes note of the fact that the leper who came back to thank Jesus was a Samaritan. Jesus asks the question, “Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” What is it about the fact that the leper was a Samaritan – a foreigner – that he returned to give thanks and the other nine did not? What moves the Samaritan leper to give thanks while the other nine (who were presumably not foreigners, i.e., who were Jews), did not give thanks? In his praise and in his gesture of falling at the feet of Jesus, the Samaritan reveals that he recognizes the presence of God in Jesus. This is faith – to recognize that God is with me. And the natural response of someone who encounters the living God is to give thanks, to be filled with gratitude, and to adhere to the one who has touched his life. So why does the Samaritan come to faith when the others who were also healed did not? Here is where being a Samaritan – a foreigner – makes a difference. At the time of Jesus, the Samaritans were considered by the Jews to be religious half-breeds. The people of Samaria were originally Jews but had intermarried with the pagan Assyrians who conquered Israel in 622 B.C. They subsequently developed their own form of Judaism. Samaritans were considered by the Jews to be ritually impure. Not only was interaction between Jews and Samaritans forbidden, but there was bitter hatred between these two ethnic and religious groups. We recall the mention in the 9th chapter of Luke in which a Samaritan village refuses to offer Jesus and his disciples hospitality. James and John are ready to call down fire and brimstone upon them. So we can imagine the great surprise of this Samaritan leper when his cry for pity was heard and answered by this Jewish Rabbi. The Samaritan leper encountered the mercy of God. What he received from Jesus was totally unexpected. It was the experience of being loved when he didn’t deserve it; of being wanted and included when not only his disease placed him on the margins, but his cultural and religious background excluded him as well. Used to being hated and shunned, he was embraced by Jesus. The mercy of God came to him through a person that he did not expect. This experience moves him to faith – freely to respond to God’s surprising initiative in his life. His heart is conquered by God’s tenderness toward him.
So we can see that there is much more involved with coming to faith than just receiving a cure. The other nine received a miracle, but did not come to know who Jesus is because the cure for them was not experienced as mercy. Why might this be? Why did they not return to give thanks? Judaism at the time of Jesus was dominated by the Pharisees who set up a system of rules and precepts which defined salvation and one’s participation in the kingdom of God by how well one observed the laws and fulfilled the pious practices. The faith became formalistic or programmatic. So if you did the right thing – said the right prayer – fulfilled what the law required, you would expect to receive your reward. As Paul would characterize it, they believed that they were saved by “works of the law.” You do what the law tells you to do, and it works. The rabbi tells them “go show yourselves to the priests”; they do what he says and are cured. No surprise there. That is how it is supposed to work. They did what they were told to do and got their reward. We don’t give thanks for things we earn – for things we are owed – like our paycheck. Why did the other nine lepers not return to give thanks? A faith reduced to an obligation – this is what I have to do or fulfill – generates a sense of entitlement – that I’m owed something for my faithfulness – that I deserve something for my faithfulness. And if that is the case, then what is received is not experienced as a gift or as a grace or the mercy of God upon me. I’m not moved to give thanks for what I think is my due. When faith becomes reduced to a system, it becomes something impersonal. We can do all we are supposed to do – and even be showered with blessings – but not recognize God’s presence, which is what saves us.
Naaman the Syrian, the foreigner who had leprosy, came to recognize the presence of God in Israel because he was cured of his leprosy in a very unexpected way. All of his power, authority, and riches made no difference. Only by letting go of his own idea and power and humbly surrendering to the prophet’s instruction – becoming like a child interiorly – does he receive the cure that makes him again like a child on the outside. Stripped of anything by which he could merit a cure, he is open to mercy and can recognize the gift he has received. He is moved to give thanks and wants to give a gift to Elisha the prophet.
We see in today’s readings what is the source of faith, charity, and thanksgiving – it is an encounter with the mercy of God. Do we allow ourselves to be surprised by how the Lord treats us? How he looks upon us, draws near to us, and shows us his mercy? Or do we have a sense of entitlement because of our “faithfulness” to the precepts of the Church? If participation in Mass and our charitable giving of time, talent, and treasure are experienced more as an obligation than as an expression of thanksgiving freely given, perhaps we have lost or forgotten the sense of wonder in the face of God’s mercy for us. “How is this? With all that I have done and continue to do, You still have mercy on me, on us, o Christ?” Mercy is not getting what you want, but recognizing, as St. Paul reminds us, that “If we are unfaithful He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” God cannot deny who he is – that he is merciful. This is our hope and the reason we rejoice and give thanks.