This Sunday is the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle C. Our gospel recounts the story of Jesus and the 10 lepers he encounters on his travels through Galilee and Samaria. The journey towards Jerusalem (begun in Luke 9:51) resumes with the introduction of new characters: ten lepers. It may be noted that the disciples play no role in this story. For a brief moment the on-going theme of forming discipleship seemingly takes a backseat, as the accent is upon God’s mercy and salvation. Several commentators hold that this account marks a new turn in Luke’s telling of the gospel moving from an accent on discipleship to the larger theme of “Responding to the Kingdom” as the cleansing of lepers is taken as a sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom.
This story is only in Luke. While at first glance Mark 1:40-45 may appear parallel to our passage, it is considered parallel to Luke 5:12-16. Interestingly, the placement of the pericope (an extract from a text, especially a passage from the Bible) is appropriate for a journey narrative since one would only expect to encounter lepers on the road. According to the Law, persons with a leprous disease were required to live “outside the camp” (Num 5:2-3) and cry out “Unclean, unclean” whenever anyone approached (Lev 13:45-56). The other details are realistic. Lepers tended to live in groups (2 Kings 7:3), they avoided contact with non-lepers (Luke 17:12; Num. 5:2), but they stayed near populated areas to beg for alms. Such was their life until a priest could certify healings (Lev. 14:2-32).
The story of the grateful Samaritan leper evokes the OT story of the healing of Naaman, a foreigner who likewise had suffered from leprosy (2 Kings 5:1–19). The reference seems clear given several common elements: the characterization of Naaman and the Samaritan as lepers and as foreigners, the Samaritan location, the communication from a distance, the delayed cleansing (after leaving the healer), the return of the healed leper, praise from the healed leper, and thanksgiving. The point of the pericope is both Christological and theological: the story underscores again the connection between Jesus and God’s prophets in the Scriptures, and it emphasizes that not only do Israelites receive the benefits of salvation, but foreigners do as well. In this way the reader is prepared for the next section of Luke when the references to the Kingdom of God are clear and direct.
Yet the account is more than a simple healing miracle. In the immediate context, the lesson of gratitude complements the parable of the unworthy servant (16:1-13) and again emphasizes the disciple’s duty to compassion and mercy as seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “ ‘Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?’ He answered, ‘The one who treated him with mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (10:36-37). As in that parable, so too here, part of the lesson is that one can never repay God’s mercy, but one can respond to God’s mercy.
Image credit: CodexAureus Cleansing of the ten lepers, Public Domain, Wikimedia