The first thing that strikes us in today’s gospel is the observance of the Mosaic Law. The ten lepers show themselves law-abiding when they stand at a distance from Jesus. The book of Leviticus (13:46) stated that a leper should dwell apart, separated from others. We cannot blame that rule: in a time, when medicine was still primitive, it was the only way to guard the rest of the community against the spread of infection. Jesus also urges the observance of the Law, when he tells the lepers to go show themselves to the priests. The same book of Leviticus (14:2-9) entrusted the priests with the task of checking if a leper was really healed. Even in this case it was a kind of guarantee before readmitting the leper to the community.
What is surprising is that Jesus orders the lepers to go to the priests before they are healed; and, nevertheless, these obey him. They evidently are sure of their healing: they believe that Jesus is able to heal them. And yet Jesus complains that nine of them do not come back to thank him after their healing. Why to complain? He has told them to go to the priests; and they have gone. If any, it is precisely the Samaritan the only one who does not comply with his order. And yet Jesus praises him. How come? He first urges the observance of the Law; and then he approves one who breaks it. Yes, he does it because the Samaritan is the only one who grasps the newness of what happened. He understands that there is no need any more to go to the priests: by now, the only thing to do is to go back to Jesus and thank him for healing. The Old Covenant is replaced by the New Covenant; the Law has to give place to Jesus.
This replacement shows itself in the different attitude of the lepers. On one hand, we have the nine lepers who sincerely pray to Jesus for their healing and obey his command to go to the priests. They believe in Jesus; they trust him. But they do not feel the need to go back to thank him. It is as if that healing were a duty; as if they deserved to be healed. That is quite typical of the Jewish mentality: I observe the Law; so I deserve to be rewarded by God. On the other hand, the Samaritan, who is considered a heretic and is well aware that he deserves nothing, when he sees himself healed, cannot but express his gratitude to the one who has healed him.
This lets us understand that faith, by itself, is not enough. Even the other nine lepers believed that Jesus was able to heal them; so they were healed, but they were not saved. Only the Samaritan, besides being healed, was saved as well. Because he believed that Jesus not only had the power to heal him, but also the will to do it. Jesus had no duty to perform miracles; it just depended on his free will. He healed the lepers only because he wanted to; he did it just to show them his mercy towards them. And that is why they should show him their gratitude. But only one, a foreigner, was able to do it; because he demanded nothing; he considered himself unworthy of anything; he welcomed everything as a gift. He took nothing for granted; he was full of amazement for God’s wonders. And so he felt the need to thank the Lord for his undeserved kindness. Faith is not enough; it has to be accompanied by gratitude; it should be, so to speak, a “grateful faith” (fides grata).
Gratitude is one of the most important virtues for a Christian. It distinguishes the New from the Old Covenant. It shows our real condition before God: we are nothing; all we have and all we are depends on him. Before God, we cannot claim anything; aware of our unworthiness, we can just ask and wait, hoping in his infinite mercy. We cannot take anything for granted: God is not obliged to hear our prayers. But, if he does it—because he is good, not because we deserve it—we are bound to be thankful to him. Gratitude is our first duty. Only on this condition faith can save us.