The animosity among the various peoples of Asia Minor is not only legendary, hostilities continue to this day. The Parthians, Medes, and Elimites, the Canaanites, Samaritans, and Jews of yesteryear are the Iranians, Iraqis and Saudis, the Lebanese, Palestinians, and Jews of today. Middle Eastern ill-will is the stuff of today’s headlines. In light of this ancient enmity among the Semitic tribes, some commentators have pointed out the highly unusual alliance of the nine Jewish lepers and the one Samaritan leper in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage. “Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans,” St. John writes in his Gospel. And the same St. John thinks nothing of calling down fire upon the Samaritan town that did not welcome Jesus because his destination was Jerusalem, the Jewish capital city. Jesus himself employed this well-known acrimony between these neighboring peoples when he made a Samaritan wayfarer the hero of one of his most celebrated parables. The smugness of a priest and a Levite stands in great contrast to the care and concern of the sympathetic Samaritan.
Perhaps the inter-tribal alliance of the Samaritan leper with his nine Jewish fellow sufferers was simply a question of misery loving company. Lepers did tend to live in groups as reported in the Old Testament Book of Kings when four lepers discovered that a siege of their capital city had been lifted and brought the news to the rest of their tribe. While lepers strictly avoided contact with non-lepers, they stayed near populated areas in order to beg alms. In this instance, their nearness to a city enabled Jesus to send the ten to a priest as a condition for their healing.
The ten lepers approached Jesus and humbly but eagerly begged, “Jesus Master, have pity on us!” It is unfortunate that the New American Bible which will be read at all Masses this Sunday has chosen to translate the Greek word “eleison” into English as “pity.” This Greek word is the same word used at Mass in the penitential rite: “Kyrie eleison,” which in the liturgy is correctly translated as “Lord, have mercy!” There is a vast difference between pity and mercy. Pity is merely an honest sentiment of sympathy and commiseration. Pity does not go beyond the emotional response. Pity is affective, not effective. Pity is what people feel when they drive by panhandlers at Kennedy Plaza. Pity is elicited by pictures of flooded homes, suicide bombings and abandoned children. The ten lepers wanted more than pity. They clearly asked Jesus for mercy: “Jesus Master, have mercy on us!”
And note also that the ten lepers do not ask Jesus simply for a healing. They do not pled, “Jesus Master, heal us!” but instead, “Jesus Master, have mercy on us!” True mercy considers both body and soul. Certainly the lepers wanted to be healed of their sores, scabs, and lesions. But they also knew that they needed an inner healing, a conversion, a redemption. Accordingly Jesus gives them not only the gift of health but also the grace of repentance. Jesus heals them but he also pardons them. He restores their body but he likewise refreshes their soul. This inner renewal impelled the grateful Samaritan to return to Jesus in gratitude.
The return of the Samaritan leper alone to thank Jesus is no doubt a Biblical poke in the ribs toward Jesus’ own Jewish community. This foreigner outshines Jesus’ own kind. He becomes a lesson to Jesus’ people to wake up and acknowledge the day of salvation. But the return of the Samaritan has a lesson which is wider than gratitude. The Samaritan’s return is a sign that spiritual healing is beginning to take effect. Repentance is transforming the Samaritan’s soul. Faith is beginning to seize the day. Jesus reassures the grateful man that his journey to spiritual wholeness is going to be a success: “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you!” The man’s conversion is just as real as his cure; the man’s inner repentance is just as effective as the outward remedy. “Stand up and go!” He is well on his way to salvation! But note even more, that it is faith in Jesus that has saved him. Openness toward Jesus, recognizing Jesus as Messiah and Lord, allowing Jesus into one’s life as Savior and Deliverer, making Jesus one’s hope and one’s refuge — these are still the acts that lead mankind to healing and salvation.