The ten lepers: sermon on the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Last week, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we had a summary of sacred history; that is, of God’s dealings with mankind. We saw how the wounded man represents the human race, fallen in Adam, and how neither human religions nor even the Law of Moses can provide a cure for the wounds of mankind, but only Christ, the good Samaritan, and the sacraments which He brings to us. This Sunday, the Sunday of the Ten Lepers, the Mass gives us another view of sacred history, but here the focus is not so much on fallen man as on God’s desire to unite mankind under His Son as its head. God is one, as St Paul says in the epistle, and so it is fitting that there be only one mediator between Him and mankind.

This mystery, of Christ as the head of mankind and the one mediator was revealed already to our first parents after the Fall. When almighty God says to the serpent, “I will put enmities between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed”, He is already speaking of Christ, as the seed who will come and crush the power of the devil. And God used a similar expression when speaking to Abraham: “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” He was announcing the coming of Christ, who is both a physical descendant of Abraham, and the One who merited grace for all mankind. From heaven, our Lord does indeed pour out His blessings on the nations of the earth.

Notice that we and Abraham therefore have the same faith; he believed in Christ who was to come, and we believe in Christ now that He has come. This is why in the canon of the Mass, the priest refers to Abraham as patriarchae nostri — “our great ancestor”. Not many Catholics are physically descended from Abraham, but we have all inherited his faith. 

But as we saw last week, God prepared the world slowly and in stages for the coming of His Son. So, as St Paul says, four hundred and thirty years after making a promise to Abraham, He did something quite new. He separated out the Jews by means of the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. St Paul says that this was done “on account of transgressions”. What does this mean? There are at least two ways of understanding it. One is “on account of the transgressions which the Jews would otherwise have committed”. The idea here is that the Jews would be so busy keeping all the religious parts of the law, going to Jerusalem three times a year, offering sacrifices in the temple, washing away ritual uncleanness and so on, that they would not have time to get involved in the idolatry going on in other countries. In this way, there would always be at least one nation on earth, Israel, where the knowledge of the true God was preserved. The other meaning of the Law having being given “on account of transgressions” is that, thanks to the Law, the Jews would understand their sins more clearly, and so would look with greater longing for the Redeemer whom God had promised. And since both meanings of the phrase are true, we can assume that the Holy Spirit intended them both when He inspired St Paul to use it.

There was a danger in all this, though, which as we know many of the Jews fell into, namely that they would come to think of the Law of Moses as an end in itself, and they would want to stay forever separate from all the other nations. It is this attitude that our Lord comes up against throughout His public ministry. Many of His parables allude to it. In the parable of the prodigal son, for example, the elder brother, the one who stays with his father, represents the Jews, while the younger brother represents the Gentiles. The elder brother is angry at the idea that the younger brother could be forgiven so easily, just as many of the Jews were jealous at the idea that the Gentiles, after all their centuries of idolatry, could become equal to them, and children of God. The Jews wanted to cling to the Law of Moses which kept them separate, not understanding that everything in it pointed to Christ, who was coming to be head of Jews and Gentiles alike.

The regulations about leprosy are a good example of how everything in the Old Law pointed to Christ. Jesus tells the ten lepers to go to the priests; it was the job of the Old Testament priests to judge if someone had been cured of leprosy. If he was cured, the priest would take two sparrows, and one sparrow would be sacrificed over running water, and the other would be bound to some wood and dipped in the blood of the first and then let to go free (Lev 14). It is a simple, humble image of the Redemption. The first sparrow symbolises Christ, who is compared to a sparrow in the psalms; and by His blood and the wood and the flowing water, the other bird is set free, symbolising His brethren, saved by His blood shed on the Cross and the waters of baptism. The whole of the Law of Moses is full of mysterious figures of this kind.

The nine Jewish lepers in the gospel seem to have succumbed to the danger of being content with the Law. They can recognise our Lord as a holy man, or a teacher, and they are no doubt very happy to get a miracle from Him, but they do not look for anything more. They are content with their Old Testament religion, not knowing that it is just a shadow of what was to come. Imagine trying to give someone a present, and finding that they were not interested in the present, but only in the shadow which the present made on the ground! It is the one Samaritan, not the nine Jews, who shows himself the true child of Abraham, by believing in Christ. 

Last week the Samaritan represented our Lord; today he represents us. He is a model of prayer: he asks for mercy, he adores, he gives thanks. He is even a model for our participation in holy Mass. What do we do at Mass, if not ask for mercy, adore and give thanks? We say — Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, just like the Samaritan lifting up his voice, saying “Jesus, master, have mercy on me”. We give thanks, especially in the preface of the Mass, when we say it is right and just always and everywhere to give God thanks. And in the silence of the canon, we adore Christ really present on the altar, like the Samaritan lying flat on his face before Him. 

There is a lot of talk these days about solidarity and fraternity between nations. But fraternity without Christ is only a disguised tyranny. He is the One whom the Father has sent into the world to unite all peoples, and no one goes to the Father but through Him. Let us pray that the Jews and the Gentiles may be united by faith in Him.