About Those Nine

From: Good News for Modern Man
The Readings for the 28th Sunday, Tempus Per Annum (c2)

In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

I Thessalonians 5:18 (Alleluia Verse)

ARE THE OTHER NINE Bad or ungrateful? There’s a clue in Jesus’ command, “Go show yourselves to the priests…” Lepers were completely ostracised. They had to enforce their own banishment by announcing that they were unclean in order to scare others away. Yes, Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers is important, but there’s more going on here than just a cure.

Reading in Leviticus 14 you’ll find a long process of returning the banished Leper to full communion in Jewish society. There’s an eight-day waiting period, some sacrifices, a full body examination, the whole body must be shaved, there’s a red cord… it’s quite a deal. The 9 are doing exactly what Jesus told them to do to the letter of the law. There’s a hitch though: the Samaritan rejects the temple priesthood. They are unable to document his status as “clean” or “unclean”. In fact, to their eyes, he’s just unclean, full stop, because he is a Samaritan. And he probably doesn’t feel much different about the priests, himself.

All ten of them found out their status had changed: they were no longer leprosy positive. Nine of them had a long legal process to go through before they could see their families or get back to life in any way. Might as well get that process started: according to their religion, they had to do that eight-day thing even before Jesus could talk to them again.

But not the Samaritan. He is free to come back, indeed he has nowhere else to go. Time for some Geography. To “go to the priest” the lepers would have to go to Jerusalem. Indeed, Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem so he’s (basically) sending the Lepers in front of Him. And, since Jesus has already traveled through Samaria (verse 11) on his way to Jerusalem since the Samaritan had turned back from Jerusalem, he would have to cross paths with Jesus again: that’s how he needs to go to get home. What’s happening in the Gospel Story here is only the logical result of a social divide between Samaritans and Jews and Luke’s knowledge of geography: Jerusalem is one way, Samaria the other.

Again, I want to be clear: the nine religious Jews would need to be certified as clean by the priests before they could interact with anyone. They are following the rules correctly. Additionally, they are doing exactly what Jesus told them to do – go show yourselves to the priest – that is, Jesus told them to obey the Torah.

Jesus’ response is telling: “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” First off, the foreigner is thanking Jesus (v. 16) so the “to God” is made to point at Jesus. (The Greek parallels it as “give Glory to God” and “giving thanks to Jesus“.)

Thus, there is some way in this story in which God and Jesus are the same and where “Giving thanks/glory” to God is more important to Jesus/God than following the Jewish Law.

Giving thanks is a hallmark of Christian piety. Pauls command that we give thanks in all things is just the direct form of the teaching. We give thanks for everything so much so that Prof John Koenig questions if we’re not cited in the Mishna (Berakhot 5:3) “one who recites: We give thanks, we give thanks twice, they silence him” because “we give thanks/we give thanks” is the form of the Eucharistic prayer over bread and wine. This makes it a Christian thing rather than Jewish, which latter tradition forms prayers as blessings rather than thanksgiving. “Blessed are you, Lord our God… for having done this thing.”

The Nine Lepers went off to Jerusalem to recite the prescribed Blessings while the Samaritan came to Jesus giving thanks.

There is something else going on here. Two somethings else, actually.

Thing 1: Thanksgiving implies (I think) a more personal relationship. We send thank you notes to persons – generally not to institutions or agencies. We say thank you to people doing good deeds (even officials doing them) but rarely – or only ironically – do we thank ATMs, Siri, Google, etc. We say “thank you” to someone who has given us something freely, as part of a very intimate (even if momentary) relationship. It’s a sign of communion. While uncommon in the Hebrew liturgy, it’s not entirely absent, of course. “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving” (Psalm 95). But on the personal level, Blessing God is far more common. Even in modern Israeli Hebrew, where many Americans might say “Thank God!” (with no particular deity in mind…) an Israeli speaker will say “Baruch HaShem!” It is often translated as “Thank God” but means “Bless the name!”

A blessing can imply a subordinate relationship (a parent blessing a child, for example) but that’s not what is going on when we bless God. This article is rather interesting since it calls blessings a way to “draw God” into the world.

The Zohar explains that “blessing” G-d is not simply praising G-d as the source of blessings; rather, it is related to the word hamavrich (הַמַּבְרִיךְ) found in the Mishnah,5 which means to “draw down.” In this sense, the word baruch means to draw blessings from their source.

Thus, when we bless G-d, we are asking that He draw down His G-dly revelation into the world. For example, when we say, “Blessed are you, G-d, who heals the sick,” we are requesting that G-d express His revelation by breaking the nature of this physical world and healing the sick. When we say, “Blessed are you, G-d, who blesses the years” in the blessing for livelihood and produce, we request that G-dliness become revealed, causing rain to fall and vegetation to grow.

To draw an unwanted parallel, a blessing of God is a sort of sacrament. So it is like making Eucharist in a real, theological way.

Luke is generally seen as writing to a Gentile Audience – those evangelized by St Paul. Paul had many struggles with folks who really tried to make these Gentiles into Jews first (following the Torah rules). Luke seems to be asking his non-Jewish readers to bypass any Jewish tradition and just do the Gentile Believer thing of thanking Jesus. And he saying that’s ok: you don’t need to go through all those things if you’re making Eucharist (giving thanks) with Jesus. Further, though, the Samaritan giving thanks to Jesus is a way for the author to ask his few Jewish readers to realize that God’s Blessings Have Come into the World in this one Man. The power of God is active and present in a new – and permanent – way.

But Thing 2 is even more interesting: he’s sent the Nine Cleansed Lepers ahead of him to Jerusalem. They are apostles sent to the priests: here’s one last chance to get this right. Here’s the Good News if you’ll hear it. They won’t and don’t care. In fact, they get even more jealous at this point. But, there it is: Jesus has obeyed the law and sent them the cleansed Lepers. Rather than say, “Don’t tell anyone” he literally said, “Go tell the priest”.

They don’t listen.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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