Micah Challenge – Where Then Have The Other Nine Gone?


Jacques Blandenier – Les Pauvres avec Nous, extract – Micah Challenge Collection N°1 – Ed. SU – 2006

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Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee . As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no-one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17.11-19)

The scene takes place on the borders of Samaria and Galilee – an unstable region, peppered with ethnic/religious incidents between two communities separated by age-old animosities.

A little way from of a small town, two groups of people meet. They are similar, yet very different: One consists of a dozen men, and seems to have an overriding objective. They are heading for Jerusalem , where their leader is soon to be arrested and executed. Behind their apparent frailty, this group is the bearer of unprecedented hope. Their hope is like a seed – within it is the promise of a radically new world, where there will be no war or ethnic clashes, no crying out nor distress, nor exclusion, impurity or epidemics. But a seed is like a grain of wheat that can be trampled underfoot in the dust of the path. Trampled is precisely what the members of the other group are feeling – about ten men also. They are not going anywhere, and certainly not to the village that they keep their distance from. Their disease (which is resented like it were a first-century kind of AIDS) condemns them to wander and beg. They are, in the strongest sense of the word, the poor. They feel they can do only one thing: call for help. They shout, because they are not allowed to approach those whose alms they hope for in order to survive.

And so, from the face to face encounter between these two groups of men, rises a tragic cry, that echoes the distress of millions of impoverished and marginalised people: Jesus! Have pity! The cry, often unheard, yet so universal, so burning, goes up from all the hungry, the victims of conflict, the exploited children, the sick no-one cares for, those who are pushed aside from social life, those whose lives have been ruined.

As so often, nearly always, Jesus’ response is disconcerting. No soothing words, no fiery discourse against the injustice of this world. Not even a sermon on the Kingdom of God , or a call to repentance (how could they be in a state to hear that?). Nor is there a ritual, an incantation, or psychological conditioning. But an instruction drawn from the Old Testament (Leviticus 14), implicitly charged with an incredible promise: go and show yourselves to the priest, because he can give you permission, after confirming your healing, to get back into social, economic and religious life.

And they go. What do they have to lose? What do they know of this man, except perhaps for his name. Maybe they have vaguely heard that he had the power to heal diseases? In its laconic style, the text says nothing about this. Just as it says almost nothing about how the miracle happens: “As they were on their way, it happened that….., they were cleansed…” Such sobriety should inspire sobriety in us. As for the miracle, no explanation, no learned analysis, no publicity, no manipulation. Just silence, removing one’s shoes as if on holy ground, and worship. Fear at a power that exceeds our human references, jubilation at the intervention that restores and brings freedom. The power of God, because it is that of a seed, does not crush: it lifts up and conveys life and dignity.

What did these men say, when they looked at each other, then looked at their own sores, and saw the miracle that was turning their lives upside down? Nothing! Or rather, they continued on their way, obeying the instruction given by Jesus. Only one dared to disobey it. As a Samaritan, he felt less tied than the others by the requirements of the law and less inclined to go and meet a Jewish priest. But this explanation falls short, and by far.

Indeed this man was doubly marginalised – as a leper and as a Samaritan – and was therefore overwhelmed by the liberation from a two-fold exclusion. He, better than the others, took account of the extent of what was happening to him, engendering gratefulness. Usually, commentaries on this text underline the fact that it highlights the importance of thankfulness. Once more Jesus can give, as an example to pious orthodox Jews, the attitude of this heathen man, this doubly despised foreigner. We shall return to this.

But I find the nine others troubling and fascinating. Not so much because of what they did – but because, precisely, they did nothing but conform to the prescriptions of a Testament that, for them, was not yet Old! They draw our attention because of what Jesus did to them. They were the object of unconditional and boundless mercy. But they did not perceive that it opened to them the way to a new relationship with God, that could transform their life both present and eternal. Their call for help was answered. They benefited from it, they used it. Conforming to religious precepts (presenting oneself to the priest) seemed correct and sufficient to them – as if their legal (should we say legalistic?) compliance had anaesthetised within them the joy of deliverance, the wonder at grace, the capacity for adoration and thankfulness.

This is not only a demonstration of what not to do, a counter-model, that of ungratefulness. This account unveils for us an important aspect of the work that God accomplishes within this world. Jesus knows what is in man’s heart (John 2.24-25). He no doubt knew, even before carrying out this act of power and compassion, what the reaction of the nine lepers would be – their non-reaction. Yet he still did it. Then he asked a question about them, within which we feel a tinge of sadness: “Where are the other nine?” He did not condemn them by denouncing their ungratefulness, even less did he withdraw the healing from them – and this last point deserves to be strongly highlighted.

The circumstances described in this text should speak to all those who, in the name of Christ, work to alleviate the suffering of others. Let us think in particular about those who give all of their being to a dispensary way out in the bush; or a home for young people in difficulty in a “sensitive suburb”, or in any other type of support to those who have been wounded by life – the “poor”, according to biblical terminology. Think also of an occasional act of solidarity towards, for example, a neighbour in pain (we are all the neighbour of at least one “poor”!) The legitimate hope anchored deep into the heart of these brothers, these sisters, and each one of us, is that such compassion would bear witness to the love of God, and that a call to respond to this would make its way into the conscience of those who benefit from it. But social workers know it well: gratitude is rare, rarer still are conversions!

If the statistics of the numbers of conversions were to be their only motivation for social action, they would probably wonder “is it really worth it?” And if the expectation for gratifying thanks is the motive that leads us to action, we will soon give up…

We need to know, then, that our sadness, our disappointment, is that of Jesus. One out of ten! Was it worth it? More than this: the gospels talk about some forty healings and deliverances. There were many more (see John 21.25). Yet, among this multitude of miracle recipients, how many came to stand on his side during his trial? How many accompanied him in the horrifying solitude of Golgotha ? Were all these miracles and deliverances not worthwhile? Or was Jesus under an illusion by carrying out innumerable healings in the hope that at least a few would produce repentance and unconditional support from those who were the recipients of these miracles? Holding to such reasoning would be a perversion of the very meaning of Christ’s acts of love. They are acts of love. Love of the suffering Jesus at the suffering of the person he meets, whoever they may be. Acts of love, not propaganda or attraction. Because it is grace, the compassion of Christ is free and has no need to find justification in effectiveness, supported by statistics of conversions.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said about our Father: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt 5.45) What is the argument? For the good to benefit from the sunshine, does this mean that a part unfortunately needs to be wasted warming up the evil and the ungrateful who have no right to it? Not at all! God acts intentionally, and not because it would be too difficult to make the distinction. Love without exclusion, and without considering the response, is part of his nature. Jesus commands us to become sons and daughters who imitate their Father, by loving not only our friends, but also our enemies (Matt 5.44-45,48). This is how God loves – and this is how he loved us when we were his enemies (Rom 5.8,10). So be like this God whose mercy extends willingly to all. Love… for love’s sake! Do good without thinking what might come out of it, but simply because it is good. Be kind, at the risk of reaping nothing but ungratefulness. Do this as a “spiritual and ethical inheritance”: free mercy is part of the genetic inheritance of the sons of the heavenly Father! “Love is not a feeling: it translates into service. That is why poor and marginalised people should be the priority for our efforts: because it is they who most need our service.”[1] The apostle Paul received this teaching, and conveyed it: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. (…) Do not repay anyone evil for evil. (…) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12.14,17,21).

The healing of the ten lepers is an example of this generosity of God to all, which Jesus refers to in the Sermon on the Mount. And this generosity pervades the entire Bible! Genesis tells us that after the flood, the Lord made a covenant with all of humanity (Gen 8.21-22, 9.8-10, 16). No-one falls outside of this covenant; believers, non-believers, bad believers, sectarians and heretics, followers of other religions, the debauched and other deviants. The specific covenant with , the people of God, came later. So too did the new covenant in Christ. Neither the one nor the other cancel the first, because the Bible says, this will last “as long as the earth endures.”(Gen 8. 22)

The miracle of Jesus in favour of the ten lepers, is a sign of God’s overall compassion, which is rooted in the covenant through Noah with all of humanity.

But some may say, are the miracles of Jesus not more of a sign of the Kingdom of God ? Of course! (cf. Luke 11.20: “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you”. The verses following the account of the healing of the ten lepers confirm this, 17.20-21). The miracles of Jesus are messianic. They herald this new and still hidden world that we were talking about at the start, where there will be no more tears, no more crying out, no more injustice. The experience of the Samaritan leper shows this eloquently: he “came back” – he, in the physical sense of the word, did an about-turn, a conversion (v.15). But he did more than this: he recognised in Jesus the one through whom God saved him, and it was with him, rather than with the religious institution, that he sought to establish a relationship. The goodness of God led him to repentance, “into a radical life-change”, according to new translations (cf. Rom 2.4). This is why he was able to hear the word that transforms more profoundly than purification from leprosy: “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” It was the author of the miracle that he wanted to encounter, and nothing would ever separate him from that, even physical death, which would affect him like it will affect all who have received a miraculous healing from Jesus. Saved…..for ever! The account tells us that, having come back, he praised God in a loud voice, and prostrate at Jesus’ feet, he thanked him. (v.15-16) The link between these two expressions is striking. We find it in the negative at the beginning of the epistle to the Romans, when the apostle Paul describes the very essence of sin: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.” (Rom 1.21).

Glorifying God and giving thanks to him is, without any doubt, the prime indicator of the restoration leading to new life that death will not end.

As for the nine other lepers, they were content with the overall compassion of God without aspiring to an encounter with the compassionate God. Following Jesus’ example, let us commit ourselves to the ten lepers, and not only to the one whose conversion we can expect (and who would have thought that it would be precisely this one – the Samaritan – who would be converted?) But let us not be mistaken. What the Samaritan received is on a different scale to what the others received. Like what happened in this account for the “nine others”, social action alone is not enough to save man from his separation from God. It does not convey eternal life. But Jesus, the Son of the Father who makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, did nevertheless heal them, with no calculation or reticence. And this miracle is the foundation and legitimacy for the commitment of Christians to people who are poor or marginalised, no matter what the nature of their poverty may be. As for us, purified lepers, may our life be redirected like that of the Samaritan, beyond religious precepts, to worship for God and thanksgiving. A life with the glory of God as its axis, driven by thankfulness. A life that bears the hope of the Kingdom of God .

[1] Marc Favez, L accueil du pauvre selon les Ecritures, Dossier Semailles et Moisson n°3, Ed. Je Sème Genève 1994, p. 42