"Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?" (LK. 17:17)
The cleansing of the ten lepers (LK. 17:11-19) is clearly a remarkable story that reveals the exousia, or authority, of Christ over sickness. Yet, in addition, it is a healing story that is just as much about the need to offer thanksgiving to God whenever we are a recipient of His abundant mercy.
As the story opens, we first hear the plaintive and pathetic cry from these lepers: "And as he entered the village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, 'Jesus, Master, have pity on us'." (v.12-13) Did these lepers truly believe that Jesus could do something for them that no one else could possibly do?
In response to whatever level of faith they may have had, Jesus cleansed the ten lepers simply by His word: "When he saw them he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to priests." And as they went they were cleansed." (v. 14).
Lepers, of course, were not allowed to be near the other members of their community, for they were declared to be unclean and therefore, ritually impure (LEV. 13:45-46; NUM. 5:2-3). Their cleansing not only freed them from a debilitating illness that left its victims visibly disfigured; but it also restored them to fellowship in their community. Their ostracism was now over.
According to the Law, the priests that Jesus sent them to would declare their healing and make that restoration to society a possibility. Yet, considering the enormous generosity of Christ in being the source of both their cleansing and restoration, we read with great surprise that only one of them returned to Jesus in order to thank Him:
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell at his feet, giving him thanks. (v. 15-16)
What adds to our surprise is that this newly-cleansed leper "was a Samaritan." (v. 16) We know that Jews and Samaritans were hostile to each other and that "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans." (JN. 4:9) In the light of that reality, it is all the more significant that there was a Samaritan among the ten lepers. Perhaps, as lepers, they were forced to keep company; but could it be possible that in their misery they understood that they shared a common humanity that transcended their ethnic/cultural/religious barriers? So, perhaps in their collective misery, these lepers overcame their mutual hostility as they remained together on the outskirts of the village.
Be that as it may, Jesus wanted to point out the incongruity of a Samaritan returning to offer thanks to God, while His fellow Jews failed to do so. And then Jesus asks what is a very convicting question that goes to the very heart of the matter: "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner"?" (v. 17-18) Even Jesus calls the Samaritan a "foreigner!" (It is of note that it was a foreigner - Naaman - who returned to Elisha after being healed of leprosy (II KINGS 5:15, LK. 4:27). But the question "cuts deep," we can say.
Christ does not "need" to be thanked. Jesus is not petulant; and He is not offended by the cleansed lepers who failed to return as did the Samaritan. It was the lepers who needed to offer thanksgiving or praise to God for what had been done for them. That was the point that Christ drew attention to through His publicly-stated question. Significantly, Jesus tells the Samaritan: "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well." (v. 17) Did the cleansed and thankful leper receive more than the others had done?
St. Athanasius the Great implies this in his comments on this passage:
"They thought more highly of their cure from leprosy than of him who who had healed them.... Actually, this one was given much more than the rest. Besides being healed of his leprosy, he was told by the Lord, "Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you." You see, those who give thanks and those who glorify have the same kind of feelings. They bless their helper for the benefits they have received. That is why Paul urged everybody to 'glorify God with your body.' Isaiah also commanded, 'Give glory to God'." — Festal Letter 6
The leprosy that was treated with fear and great caution in the Scriptures can serve as a vivid metaphor for human sin. In the Orthodox Tradition, we treat sin more as a sickness than as the breaking of a commandment. Sin is more of a "condition" than a "crime." It is, actually, the "human condition" into which we are born when we enter this world. Thus, "Since all are sinners and fall short of the glory of God" (ROM. 3:23), we all need to be healed by God. And we all have been: through the redemptive death of Christ on the Cross and His Resurrection from the dead. And then through our personal death to sin and resurrection to life with Christ through the mystery of Baptism. (ROM. 6:3-11)
For this we give thanks to God from a hear overflowing with gratitude, thanksgiving and love because we are overwhelmed by what God has done for us in and through our Savior Jesus Christ. We may have been healed through Baptism, but without the response of thanksgiving, this healing remains incomplete, and it will not bear much fruit.
On the Lord's Day we come to the Eucharistic service of the Church - the Liturgy - which is the Service of Thanksgiving, we could say. Our presence signifies our own "return" to the Lord in response to His healing presence in our lives. (For the baptized who do not return to thus give thanks, we find a resemblance to the healed lepers who failed to return in order to praise God). And it is then that we offer thanksgiving to God as we offer ourselves up to God through the sacrifice of Christ actualized in the Liturgy. And then we receive the Eucharist - the "thanksgiving food" - to nourish us in this movement of growing love toward the most Holy Trinity:
"Eucharistisomen to Kirio!" - "Let us give thanks unto the Lord!"