Lepers were the “zombies” of the ancient Middle Eastern world, the “living dead” whose illness cut them off from the land of the living.
What is called “leprosy” in the Bible included a wide range of skin diseases. In some cases recovery was possible; in other situations it was impossible.
The Law prescribed, “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!” (Lv 13:45). If a leper thought he was cured, he had to present himself to the priest, be sprinkled seven times with the blood of a bird, be bathed and shaved, separated from others for seven days, and then offer further sacrifices (see Lv 14).
That is notable because Naaman, the commander of the army of the Syrian king, was simply told by the messenger of the prophet Elisha, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan” (2 Kgs 5:10). Naaman angrily refused at first, unimpressed with the Jordan River compared with other, apparently greater rivers. He did not, Origen of Alexandria wrote, “perceive that it is our Jordan, and not the prophets, that removes the uncleanness of those who are unclean because of leprosy and heals them.”
The Jordan River is the most significant river in Scripture, the boundary that Joshua crossed when entering the holy land and the body of water in which Jesus was baptized when beginning his public ministry. As a symbol of salvation it pointed to the Sacrament of Baptism, in which man — marked by the terminal illness of sin — is washed, purified and made whole. When the Gentile Naaman was cured of leprosy, he recognized the uniqueness of the God of Israel and declared he would only offer sacrifices to him. In this acknowledgement of the God of Israel, Naaman pointed to a coming covenant meant for all people.
That New Covenant is evident in today’s Gospel reading. Having just chastised the apostles for their lack of faith (see Lk 17:5-6), Jesus was met by 10 lepers crying out, “Master!” — the only place in the Gospel of Luke the title is used by a non-disciple. Jesus did not heal them on the spot, but told them to show themselves to the priest, as the Law required of those healed. In other words, he required them to take a step (or several steps) of faith, a command that surely made an impression on the apostles.
All 10 were physically healed, yet only one returned, giving glory to God (as had Naaman) and falling at the feet of Jesus. “You see,” wrote St. Athanasius about this thankful leper, “those who give thanks and those who glorify have the same kinds of feelings. They bless their helper for the benefits they have received.” Ten lepers had called Jesus “Master,” but only one of them showed that he really did believe that Jesus was Master and Lord.
It reminds us — as we say in the Liturgy of the Eucharist — that it is proper to give him thanks and praise. The story also shows that while many of the Jews did not give thanks for the goodness of God, there were others, including the reviled Samaritans, who would and did. The lesson for the apostles, notes Biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, was that “they are not to expect thanks, but rather to give thanks to the one who has saved them.”
The repentant sinner, knowing he is the “living dead,” rejoices in the new life given by the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.