October 9, 2016
XXVIII Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Chapter XIV of the Book of Leviticus tells in great detail the entire ritual, which a leper has to undergo for his recovery to be recognized. No less than 31 verses describe what the priest had to do to cleanse the lepers: a long and solemn rite, a series of motions, sprinkling, immersing, anointing, and ultimately getting to the heart of the event, that of the sacrifice of a lamb.
After this ritual is completed, the leper is considered clean again (because leprosy made those affected, impure) and could therefore, return to the camp, and find his place back in society.
The significance of the sacrifices in the Old Testament is profound and complex; but to keep things simple, we could say that the basis of sacrifice, beyond the idea of purification and expiation, is always the idea of “giving”; of giving something to God in gratitude, of offering as a sign of a restored alliance.
What we read in today’s Gospel takes us back to the passage from the Book of Leviticus: “Ten lepers meet Jesus who prayed at a distance from him, because according to the law, lepers could not approach healthy people. Jesus invites them to show themselves to the priests in Jerusalem, where they were to undergo the rite prescribed in Leviticus. All set out on a journey, all were cleansed. But one of them, a foreigner, turned back “realizing he had been healed” (v.14). He did not continue with the others. He did not see the need to go to the priests as required by the old law, but realized that it was not to them that he would go to give thanks to God. He comes back praising God in a loud voice, throwing himself at the feet of Jesus and thanking him.
Jesus acknowledges his faith, as in other episodes of the Gospel, Jesus commends the faith of the foreigner, saying his faith has saved him.
This faith which the leper-foreigner understands, that when God works in this way, which is directly in the lives of men through Jesus, no further sacrifice is necessary.
At the time that the Kingdom of God is here among us (Jesus said shortly after, in verse 21), it is no longer necessary to go to the priests of the temple, nor go through all the requirements of the Law.
The leper does not go to the temple, he no longer needs to make sacrifices, to give or bring something to God, because God himself came to him and saved him.
By turning to Jesus, he does another kind of sacrifice, that of Praise (v. 15) and Thanksgiving (v. 16). He makes the sacrifice of those who like himself were healed, he recognizes the work of God in his life and gives glory to God. This is the sacrifice. Not giving something to God, but to thank him for what He gives us.
This sacrifice is all possible: the word “foreigner” used by Jesus was engraved on the banister of the Temple in Jerusalem, indicating the boundary between the courtyard of the Gentiles and the section of the Temple accessible only to the Jews. The ancient sacrifice was available only to a few and many were excluded.
The new sacrifice, however, is for everyone, for those who recognize that salvation comes from God and for those who return to Him in thanksgiving.
Access to purification no longer passes from an external ritual, but by faith: “your faith has saved you” (v. 19).
And this does not take a great faith – the faith of sacrifices, the observance of precepts – but a faith the size of a mustard seed, as we have seen last Sunday (v 6): a faith that knows how to marvel, and to give thanks.
Although – we know – this faith is the most difficult, as Naaman the Syrian bears witness in the first reading. In one part of the story we heard today, this stranger is convinced that to be healed, he will have to make some kind of action or some undertaking or pay a large amount of money. He is offended when Elisha asks him to go wash in the Jordan River. Yet, this is the case, just to get wet in the Jordan, and only to believe.
But he as well, having recognized this little faith, will come back, to simply thank the prophet Elisha, who does not require from him any favors, that he will strongly reject…
Therefore, sacrifices do not save, but faith, Yes: faith in the salvation that comes from the sacrifice of Christ.
Another particularly beautiful passage in this Gospel is that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem: the evangelist Luke reminds us in v. 11.
Then we could say that the leper is no longer forced to go up to Jerusalem, because Jesus himself is going.
The real ascent to the holy city to perform a sacrifice, which He made, taking with Him all the wounded humanity, the lost and scattered He encounters along the way, bringing them all back home.
And upon arrival in Jerusalem, his sacrifice will be of one who gives his life for the sake of all those whom he met along the way, in perfect communion with the loving will of the Father.
Faith in this love “purifies” and saves us, says this intense verse from the Letter to the Hebrews: “By this “will,” we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all.” (Heb 10:10).
A final thought: in the Gospels, we find another story in which the “path to sacrifice” is interrupted: “When you come to offer your gift at the altar, and there recall that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5: 23-24). Here again, as in today’s Gospel, the real gratitude to God; the new offering that no longer requires sacrifice and observance of the law, but with a grateful and humble heart capable of becoming merciful.