by Father Mike Stubbs
I used to think that all the coughs and sniffles that I heard during September resulted from hay fever. After all, it’s ragweed season. But evidently there’s more involved in it that just that. I recently read that the number of cold virus cases spikes in September.
Students returning to school bring with them a variety of viruses, to share with each other in the close quarters of their classrooms.
People have known for centuries that the sick are often contagious. They may not have understood the process of how germs can infect the body, but they recognized the importance of isolating the sick. That’s the idea behind quarantine.
It’s a notion we even find in the Old Testament, especially as regards leprosy: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp” (Lv 13: 45-46).
The law of Moses imposed isolation upon lepers. By requiring them to dwell apart, the law sought to protect the healthy population.
We see this demand of the law being followed in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 17:11-19. Jesus meets 10 lepers outside a village. The lepers are outside the village because they must dwell apart.
The lepers encounter Jesus, but it is not a close encounter:
“They stood at a distance from him.” They dare not approach Jesus, because they might contaminate him.
One of the lepers is a Samaritan. As such, he was already an outcast, even before he contracted leprosy. The other nine lepers, presumably Israelites, only tolerated his presence because they had become outcasts themselves through their disease. Leprosy had made them all equally repugnant to Jewish society.
On the other hand, once the nine were cured, they would be restored to full participation in Jewish society. But the Samaritan would not similarly be welcomed. He would remain an outcast.
That is why his return to Jesus after his cure is so significant. He did not keep his distance from Jesus, as he did previously, but instead “fell at the feet of Jesus.”
His contact with Jesus has enabled him to overcome social isolation — both that caused by his disease and that caused by religious strictures. No wonder that the Samaritan is over-joyed. He “returned, glorifying God in a loud voice.”
In his joy, the Samaritan disregards the social convention that would have kept him from contact with Jews, such as Jesus. He spontaneously reaches out to Jesus.
And what did Jesus think? Was he at first startled by this unexpected show of gratitude? Did Jesus recognize this as a moment of grace where God was at work? Did that insight inspire Jesus to move beyond the conflict between Jews and Samaritans, to a new vision of the world where all human beings would treat each other as brothers and sisters, children of the one God?
Or, had Jesus already begun to enunciate that vision? Had Jesus acquired a reputation for tolerance, which emboldened the Samaritan to seek him out? Was Jesus known, not just for physical healings, but also for reconciling hostile groups?
Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.