The last two Sundays masses of September we heard from the prophet Amos, who inveighed against the lack of fidelity and the ruthlessness of many in the northern Kingdom of Israel, often called Samaria. The first Sunday of October we witnessed his fellow prophet Habakkuk thundering against the people of Judah. Today we hear a story from another prophet, one whose name is not attached to any of the books of the Bible but who is among the greatest of the prophets by any assessment: Elisha, the disciple of Elijah.
Amos and Habakkuk both directed their tirades at their own countrymen, urging the people of Israel to return to the Lord and abide by his covenant. Elisha amplifies their message as he goes about his ministry in Samaria and “globalizes” it by healing Naaman the Syrian, thus beginning the announcement of the possibility of salvation to the nations beyond the borders of Israel.
Along the same lines, in the second reading, taken from the Second Letter to Timothy, Saint Paul invokes David as the ancestor of Christ himself (and thus roots the salvation of Christ among the people of Israel) but he also speaks of “those who are chosen,” showing that those outside the house of Israel can be called by the Lord too. That Saint Timothy himself was of mixed Jewish and gentile origin adds poignancy to Paul’s words—Timothy’s mother Eunice was Jewish but his father was a gentile (see 2 Tim 1:5; Acts 16:1-3). The Psalm, too, underscores the universal reach of God’s redemption by reminding us: “The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power” (Ps 98:2).
The Gospel brings all of this to its culmination when we see Jesus healing the ten lepers, only one of whom returns to thank him. The connections between the Gospel and the preceding readings are important to note. First, we see that Jesus is traveling through Samaria when he encounters the lepers: this is precisely where Elisha conducted much of his prophetic and healing ministry. Jesus is taking a substantial risk in doing so, since, although the Samaritans essentially formed a sect within the Judaism of their day, they had a long history of deeply hostile relations with most Jews, and Jews who could do so avoided traveling through Samaritan territory.
Jesus takes this risk (as we see him doing at other times, as in the powerful account of the Samaritan woman in John 4) and meets the group of lepers who seek the very same healing from him that Naaman the Syrian received from Elisha in the first reading: “Naaman, the army commander of the king of Aram…was a leper” (2 Kings 5:1). After Jesus sends them on their way to show themselves to the priests (who examined and verified cures from ailments such as leprosy) the men realize they have been healed, but only one, a Samaritan, goes back to thank the Lord. Jesus observes that only the Samaritan—a hated “foreigner”—showed gratitude. To drive home this point he asks his disciples: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” (Luke 17:17-18).
Through his ministry of healing Jesus is bringing to fulfillment the hopes the people of Israel held for centuries. He is also showing, following in the footsteps of his prophetic forbearers such as Elisha, that God’s healing and salvation are not limited to Israel, but indeed embrace the whole of humanity, even those regarded in their day as outsiders. May the Lord grant that we, who, as Christians, are “aliens and sojourners” (1 Pet 2:11) in this world, might welcome Jesus’ free gift of new life and share it with all we encounter, both friend and “foreigner” alike.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.