Gospel for the Twenty Eighth Sunday (9 October 2016)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)
On the way to Jerusalem: In 9:51 Luke has told us that “Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem”. This journey will end with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem: “When he had said this he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (19:27).
“The theological significance of Jerusalem in the OT is based on the divine presence symbolized in the ark of the covenant and the Temple. The holiness of the Temple and of Jerusalem rests on the presence of the ark; David’s transfer of the ark inaugurated the cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem. By laying the foundation for the Temple, David made Jerusalem “the cornerstone of the religious and cultic unification of Israel” (Talmon 1974: 195). The prophets, especially Isaiah, apply the name Zion to signify Jerusalem as the “City of Yahweh” (de Vaux 1969: 286). The uniqueness of Jerusalem can be summarized under the heading “Zion tradition,” which comprises the following motifs: Yahweh, the great king, chooses Jerusalem as a permanent abode; Zion (not Sinai) as Yahweh’s chosen mountain, located at the center of the world; the Gihon spring (Isa 41:17–18) as the miraculous stream flowing from the cosmic mountain; the pilgrimages of other nations to Jerusalem to acknowledge the sovereignty of Yahweh; and the inviolability of Jerusalem (Roberts 1973: 329). Jerusalem’s deliverance from the siege of Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. created the impression of the city’s inviolability under all circumstances, thus reinforcing the Zion tradition.” (P J King, “Jerusalem” (Place), D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 3), Doubleday, 1992, 764.)
Jerusalem assumes a more significant place in Luke than in the other Synoptic Gospels: “Among the Synoptic Gospels, Luke gives far more prominence to Jerusalem than Matthew or Mark. The fact that geography plays an important role in Luke’s theology may account for the gospel’s preoccupation with Jerusalem (Fitzmyer, Luke 1–9 AB, 163–69). Jerusalem is ‘the city of destiny for Jesus and the pivot for the salvation of mankind’ (Fitzmyer, Luke 1–9 AB, 164). Jesus has a special relationship to Jerusalem, which is the goal toward which he moves throughout the gospel. Luke’s gospel begins (1:9) and ends in the Temple of Jerusalem (24:53). Between these two Temple events, according to Luke, Jesus makes but one journey to Jerusalem, described in the so-called travel account (9:51–19:27). Within this account, there are several references to Jerusalem as the objective of the journey (9:51–53; 13:22; 17:11; 19:11). In the course of the journey, Jesus addresses an apostrophe to Jerusalem (Luke 13:34–35 = Matt 23:37–39), the place of the prophets’ martyrdom, and where he, too, must suffer and die (Luke 13:33; Matt 16:21). Mark, too, describes only one journey to Jerusalem, whereas John mentions three. In Luke, the journey to Jerusalem assumes great importance by serving as the geographical framework for much of the material found only in this gospel; Luke alone, for example, recounts the story of the Good Samaritan (10:29–37). Appearing after the travel account, Jesus’ prophecy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem (19:43–44), couched in the language of the prophets (Isa 29:3; Jer 6:6; Ezek 4:2), is exclusive to Luke. The Jerusalem Temple, too, is prominent in Luke. Jesus is presented in the Temple (2:22–23), he makes his first pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Temple at the age of twelve (2:41–50); Jesus cleanses the Temple (19:45–46), an event reported in the four Gospels (= Matt 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–17; John 2:14–16), whose purpose may have been to emphasize that the Temple was principally a place of prayer, and not a financial or economic institution (Wilkinson 1978: 117).” (Ibid.)
The region between Samaria and Galilee: Jesus meets this group – all outcasts because of their leprosy (see Numbers 5:2-3) – on the border between Samaria and Galilee, the dividing line between two people who despise each other. Like all dividing lines and borders, this is a liminal space in more ways than one. It is geographical, religious, cultural and political. Ironically, what unites this little group is their leprosy. Ironically again, it is what disunites them from the communities.
There will therefore be a tragic irony in the cure – it will bring disunity to the group. All of which might suggest that the roots of disunity are much deeper than any cultural, political, geographical or religious factors. There is a source of division and disunity in human beings as such, a source that is manifested in, but not limited by, culture, politics, geography, or religion or any other human inventions. These are, if you like, the innocent instruments of the human condition that is radically flawed. That radical “source of division” – our need for redemption – can unite us human beings before God.
This, in turn, points to the heart of the Incarnation: Jesus, in his very being, is to restore a lost unity and integrity to this world. We are united in our need for what is on offer in Jesus Christ. This brings him to Jerusalem. In particular, it is by the victory of the Cross, where he comes face to face with violence and death as the ultimate expressions of disunity, that the restoration of unity – the “at-one-ment” – is made possible.
It is a terrible misrepresentation of the Incarnation if we reduce Jesus simply or mainly to a moral teacher or the source of a belief system. Is there a moral vision in the life death and resurrection of Jesus? Certainly! If the truth be told, it is a moral vision we dare not face. I am reminded of G K Chesterton’s remark: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” (See Chapter V, “The Unfinished Temple” in G K Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World, Start Classics. Kindle Edition. Kindle Locations 360-361.)
Is there a belief system implicit in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Certainly! Again, if the truth be told, the Incarnation opens up a vision of the truth of our being in the world that we have hardly begun to grasp. Perhaps we are afraid to grasp it? But none of this is going to be “Christ-centred” until or unless we are “taken hold of” by the unifying power of Jesus Christ (see Philippians 3:12). St Paul uses a very strong verb – Katalambano (καταλαμβάνω) – to describe his coming alive in Christ. English words like “grasped”, “captured” and “taken hold of” suggest the power in this verb. They also make it clear that this experience is not one of personal conquest but an experience of grace. And so Paul is able to say to the Galatians: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me” (2:19). Christianity-as-moral-system and Christianity-as-belief-system must be expressions of this much deeper experience of Jesus as Lord. If it is not, it will mislead people – its own adherents and others who seek to know what Jesus’ life and teachings mean.
“Go and show yourselves to the priests”: Luke alone tells of this event and it has echoes of his parable of the Good Samaritan. On the face of it, this seems like a simple encouragement by Jesus to do what the law commands. Closer examination reveals it is actually a pronouncement: “Let the priests and other religious authorities know what is happening here! The kingdom is among you!” There is also a subtle and ironic message: The healing takes place as they fulfil the law!
We can imagine the nine, after they are cured, going back to the old life. One however – the Samaritan – goes forward into a new life. He bears witness to the kingdom. What seems to be decisive in this story, is not the miracle of bodily healing but the miracle of seeing a much deeper healing that is happening in and through Jesus – and this occurs for only one of them, the outsider.
Do you remember the 1970 Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi”? It was one of the earliest environmental protest songs and contains the lines: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. Not exactly high class poetry! But it does remind us of the common human tendency to take life – and people – for granted. More importantly it reminds us that gratitude for what we have can protect us from some very destructive tendencies.
Forty five years on from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, Pope Francis has given us Laudato Si. He writes of the need for “ecological conversion”. He quotes the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference: : “We must examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act. We need to experience a conversion, or change of heart”.[ACBC, “A New Earth – The Environmental Challenge” (2002)]
Pope Francis then continues: “This conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness. First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works” (#220).
In today’s Gospel, we have the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus. Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, argues that the story is not so much about the miracle of healing as it is about gratitude. The outsider, despised by the others, is distinguished by his gratitude: “Here, the miracle-story itself has been made subservient to something more (vv. 15–18), to a pronouncement which contrasts gratitude with ingratitude, Jews with a Samaritan, and the sight of faith with the miracle itself. The emphasis does not lie on the narrative elements .... but on the pronouncement of Jesus about the reaction of the Samaritan, who was a ‘stranger’.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, SJ, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1150.)
As listeners to this story, where does our admiration turn? Clearly, the gratitude of the Samaritan attracts us. And if the truth be told, the ingratitude of the other nine actually repels us. We all know, as if by instinct, that gratitude expresses something deeply human and desirable and ingratitude manifests the lack of something essential.
Our English word “gratitude” shares Latin roots with the word “grace”. Gratitude is the disposition that arises from the recognition of grace at work in and around us. It fills us with joy and appreciation. Gratitude is an awareness that life is gift, love is gift, even the ability to be aware and be grateful, is gift. Gratitude does not depend on the expectation of things turning out well nor on the absence of suffering. The disposition of gratitude is there in us all, waiting to be awakened and released by the recognition of grace.
What does gratitude feel like? What is it like to be around someone who is truly grateful?