Reflection on the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Kings 5:14-17 2 Timothy 2:8-13 Luke 17:11-19
Today’s Gospel builds on the first reading, taking the story 10 steps further. Where one man in the Hebrew story is cured and transformed by the experience, in the Gospel 10 individuals are cleansed and one, at least, is transformed by the encounter with Jesus and with the divine. Both readings are far more than stories of miraculous cures. Each outlines the most basic path of salvation, as Jesus points out when he tells the one, “Your faith has saved you.”
The theme of gratitude, of thankfulness in the readings today intrigues me. On the surface it seems like a message about good manners. But Jesus, with his whole life at stake as he made his way to Jerusalem, wouldn’t spend part of it giving lessons in etiquette. I think Jesus had a much more important, deeper, and more life-giving message: that faith enables gratitude, and gratitude cleanses the heart of the leprosy of shame.
I’m drawing on some thoughts that came to me during our retreat this past week, in part based on what Joanne said about the heart-opening effect of gratitude; and in part drawn from talks about vulnerability and shame by Brené Brown whom Joanne recommended. Brown’s TED talks suggest that all 10 lepers of the Gospel were disabled by shame.
Imagine being thrown out of the community, ordered to go away and stay away. Imagine having to call out warnings wherever you went that you were unclean. Imagine that at least some of the lepers had so internalized the stigma of disfigurement and had been so damaged by the isolation, that the wounds of self-disgust were far deeper than the ravages of leprosy itself.
Shame is a terrible disease. Brown describes it as an intensely painful feeling caused by the belief that our flaws make us unworthy of love and belonging. Shame eats at the flesh of our hearts, burns holes in our souls. Shame was an unavoidable part of the pain of leprosy. It could easily have driven all 10 lepers away, perhaps prevented them from showing themselves to anybody, even Jesus. When they realized their leprosy had been cured, would the shame that they had learned to feel about themselves have as quickly left them?
Shame is neither quickly nor easily healed. It requires re-establishing connection and regaining trust in unconditional love. I’ve experienced what effort it takes to dig out of shame; perhaps you have, too.
Perhaps the nine lepers, discovering that their bodies were cleansed, nevertheless continued on to show themselves to the priests in the hope that the clerical affirmation of their cleanliness might ease their shame. But one returned in joyful gratitude to Jesus. What act of faith freed the one leper from shame and spurred intense gratitude? It could only have been a whole-hearted surrender of brokenness into a healing presence, a trusting reach beyond self-revulsion to the outstretched hand of love. By such a faith response, out of pain into connection and love, the one leper moved from shame to gratitude, which took him back to the side of Jesus.