2 Kgs 5:14-17 • 2 Tm 2:8-13 • Lk 17:11-19
Leprosy, as we understand it today, probably did not exist in the Middle East in biblical times. The horribly disfiguring disease we call leprosy, Hansen’s Disease, was one of the plagues of Europe that was introduced into the Middle East quite possibly by Crusaders there to save the Holy Land and by European merchants.
What the Scriptures refer to as leprosy included a wide range of unpleasant or unaesthetic skin problems or diseases, many of which were only temporary. Although often far less medically threatening, the leprosies of the Scriptures could be even worse for they carried a social dimension. Those with anything labeled “leprosy” were by law immediately made social outcasts, a result of the lack of understanding of medical problems. Anything that was not understood was seen as the doings of evil or the result of sin. To keep the evil or the sin from spreading, people were labeled as “unclean” and exiled from the community, often being forced to live in special encampments.
While such ostracism sounds terrible, we are no more sophisticated than the ancients. In living memory we would not let blacks live among whites. We created internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Many push to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Why? Appearances and a lack of understanding.
It is a reality that people with serious illnesses become isolated and lonely. Many of our elderly are left alone and abandoned in nursing homes. We are still making lepers.
Naaman, in our first reading, and the Samaritan, in the Gospel, who both enjoyed cures from leprosy, had another strike against them in addition to leprosy. Neither were Jews and, therefore, were truly unwanted. The cures they received, the REAL cures, were not from ailments. The real cures were that Naaman the Syrian and the Samaritan found places within the community. Naaman came to worship the Lord of Israel and the Samaritan came to be a member of the community of believers.
There is an important dimension beyond the cures that we witness in our readings today. We also see a spirit of gratitude being expressed. Gratitude to God is something in short supply in our lives today, yet the response of gratitude is part of the focus of each reading. Gratitude is something we must find within ourselves and give expression to.
Paul sat in prison awaiting execution as he wrote to Timothy. Many prisons of Rome were airless, dark cisterns converted into places to chain prisoners to walls. Meanwhile, the Christians of Rome were fleeing the city to escape the persecution of Nero. Paul had been left behind in prison, abandoned and alone. But Paul did not despair. Rather, he wrote to his beloved friend, Timothy, a young man Paul loved enough to call his son, encouraging Timothy to live a life of gratitude. We have been freed from sin by Jesus Christ. “So what if I am in prison?” Paul seems to say. If we stay faithful, if we hold out, we shall live with Christ. Paul’s gratitude was that this knowledge gave him the strength to endure.
Today, we may show less gratitude. A recent study said few parents teach children to write thank-you cards for gifts anymore. If true, it is safe to assume that signs of gratitude to God have lessened as well.
The Scriptures call giving thanks as “making a return to the Lord.” We see Naaman dedicating himself to prayer and praise to the God of Israel in thanksgiving. The Samaritan returned to Jesus with overt thanks not so much for a cure but for being allowed to know who God really is. Paul gratefully endured hardship and willingly awaited death in order to share the great gift of faith he had been given. Paul believed his perseverance would give others courage to persevere. Paul called the giving of self for the sake of God real gratitude.
But what of us? How do we make a return? Do we dedicate ourselves to “thankful praise” to God? What do we have to show of our dedication to God in our homes? How many of us even dedicate daily time to prayer? After asking for something from God, how many of us make a special trip to the church to say thank you to Jesus? What kind of return do we make to the Lord?
Are we to be modern-day lepers in whom people see the leprosy of stinginess and selfishness. Or, in our gratitude, will people see the power and glory of God?
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.