As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us! And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.”
In 1521, Hans Holbein the Younger painted The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, a dramatic piece in which the painter expresses his perplexity about the possibility of Jesus’ resurrection. As you can see, Christ’s hands and face appear to be in the initial stages of putrefaction.
I have a feeling that with this painting Holbein was not only confronting a religious subject. Through this image of Christ decomposing and constricted in the narrow tomb, he gives us an image of the human condition. We all go through those times when we are feeling like we are dying, like something in us is decomposing without any signs of hope. Sometimes our daily circumstances feel like stuffy tombs with no exit in sight.
The biblical image of the leper evokes this kind of existential condition. The leper is slowly dying. The light within is flickering. And when we feel hopeless, when we feel sick, when we feel that our life is falling to pieces, we risk withdrawing, we disassociate and isolate ourselves, even if when we are surrounded by people.
The lepers are excluded because their disease is thought to be contagious. Sometimes we ourselves do the same because we think that others, seeing us in this sick state, cannot love us. Sometimes others exclude us with their imprudent and biting judgments, often without even knowing the story of our sickness.
As such, just like the ten lepers that we read about in today’s Gospel, we continue to wander about without knowing what we are really searching for. There are ten lepers, but they speak with one voice as if there were some kind of solidarity in their sickness. There are ten stories, but they all seek the same thing. At the bottom, sickness is always the same: “We feel like we are dying!”
At this point, Jesus is headed towards Jerusalem. He is going towards the temple, the sacred place, the presence of God. Still, he does not hesitate to stop and pass through Galilee and Samaria. These were considered to be contaminated places, places where the echoes of sacredness were muffled and ambiguous. Perhaps Jesus wanted to show us that we can never make it to Jerusalem without passing through these kind of places. If we want to arrive at the sacred, we must necessarily pass through humanity’s sickness.
Sometimes we have become so used to living as excluded ones, and we continue to keep our distances even when someone comes to embrace us. When Jesus approaches, the ten lepers continue to recite their script and keep their distance. The encounter with Jesus, however, opens a path of healing. His words are a simple invitation to revive relationships: “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Allow yourselves to be recognized, because in that recognition you will be healed. The true sickness is the fear of being seen, even when we desire to be recognized.
The healing has yet to take place, yet these ten lepers begin their journey. They trust. And it is trust that allows us to put down our scripts of sickness (our habits of living like sick and excluded people, whether it be because of our own convictions or those of others) and begin to heal.
The healing, however, will never be complete until we give thanks. It is no coincidence that while the nine Jews go to Jerusalem – thus completing their duty of going to the temple – the only one that returns to Jesus is a Samaritan. For the Samaritans, the holy place was not Jerusalem but Mount Gerizim. Still, with this detour, Luke shows that there is another place to give thanks to God. In reality, there is one true place: Jesus Christ.
The other nine lepers simply did what duty required. Often, our sense of duty becomes routine and we cease to recognize the novelties in our lives. Taking things for granted impedes thanksgiving.
There is no authentic healing without thanksgiving. Our lives will never be fulfilled unless we are thankful for them. Trust is essential for the first stage on the path of healing (we are useless servants that trust in life, like the nine lepers), but true healing transforms life into a celebration of praise, like the 10th leper who went back to give thanks. He was the only one to be truly healed. Thus, trust and thanksgiving are the two attitudes that we need to leave our life as sick people behind.
Questions for Personal Reflection
- In what areas of your life do you feel like you are dying?
- Do trust and thanksgiving have a place in your life?