Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the 28th Sunday after Pentecost & St John of Damascus & the Great Martyr Barbara

Luke 17:12-19

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear father, brothers and sisters:

In today’s Sunday Resurrectional Gospel reading we continue on into St Luke’s Gospel and hear of the miraculous healing of 10 people, 10 lepers. Although today’s Gospel is unusually a group healing, it centers on the interaction between our Lord and just one of those healed lepers. Our Gospel today is a salutary reminder of the importance of thanksgiving and being thankful. It is very appropriate that we should reflect on this Gospel today in the midst of the Divine Liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist. For the very word Eucharista, in Greek means ‘thanksgiving’. Yet, so often do we forget this and despite the mercy that God shows us, despite all the good gifts and talents he has provided us with, how little do we offer up any word of thanks to Him at all. Rather, as soon as one healing is granted or prayer answered, how quickly, brothers and sisters, do we simply make a further request or further demand of Him. Asking and demanding, like impetuous and ungrateful children and never remembering to give thanks. To help us reflect on today’s Gospel, let us turn to our father amongst the saints, St Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonika who composed a brief homily on this reading.

In the first verse of today’s reading we hear that as our Saviour –

went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.

Jesus was thus to the south of the Sea of Galilee heading further south towards Jerusalem. As the Gospel speaks of Him walking through the midst of Samaria and Galilee, biblical scholars identify that this encounter with the 10 lepers would have occurred on the road to the village of Dothan, an ancient trackway which navigated the boundary between Samaria and Galilee.

In his homily, St Gregory Palamas, focuses first on the ineffable mercy of God. That whilst our Lord’s primary purpose in condescending to be incarnate and take on himself human nature was spiritual, for the salvation of souls, He still did not hesitate to heal the sick and afflicted wherever they presented themselves to Him.

When He graciously willed to bow the heavens and come down from on high to our lowest state, in order to cleanse us from our sins, He granted in addition that the lame should be put back on their feet, the blind, see and the lepers be cleansed, and simply healed all our bodily sicknesses and diseases, as He is rich in mercy.

There is nothing gnostic – or body hating about our Merciful Incarnate Saviour, rather, as our Physician he seeks to heal both our bodies and our souls.

And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off:

This short verse betrays much sadness. For, as St Gregory points out, the reason why the Lord encountered the lepers whilst entering the village rather than within the midst of it, was because the lepers would have been strictly excluded from living with the rest of the healthy populace and having any contact with it. That is also why we hear that these lepers ‘stood afar off’ as they were not allowed to draw close with the rest of the people. And thus, as we hear next in the Gospel, they had to lift up their voices, to shout, in other words, in order to be heard due as St Gregory says, to the ‘intervening distance’.     

And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.

‘See our suffering’, St Gregory has the lepers voice, ‘see our shame, see the ugly, disgusting and unnatural surface of our skin, for such is leprosy, see the perversion of nature, men’s revulsion, our inconsolable isolation, and in having mercy grant us healing. ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’.

Think of the desperation of this group of lepers, but also behold their faith. How easy it might be to despair of their helpless state and to descend into a nihilistic spin of anger, rage and resentment. Yet these poor lepers do not do this. They dare to have hope and to believe that this Jesus who walks through Samaria has the power of God to help and to heal them from their painful affliction and just as painful social estrangement.   

And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.

Of course, whilst the lepers felt the need to lift up their voices in order to be seen and heard by our Lord, our Saviour, saw and heard them as well as knowing the inmost needs and thoughts before they even arrived near the village. What is interesting about this Gospel encounter is that, unlike the leper who approached the Lord for healing in chapter 5 of St Luke’s Gospel, who was healed instantly, we see no immediate cleansing. Rather, the healing was more gradually revealed – ‘as they went, they were cleansed’. As St Gregory says, ‘He who upholds all things by the word of His power gave them a command, and as they went to obey, He also granted them cleansing.’ St Gregory also underscores our Lord’s obedience to the Law, that in order to fulfil the requirements of the Law He commands them to go and show themselves to the priests, who was specially assigned to inspect and confirm that the leper had been healed, which would then ensure their proper return and integration into the community.

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.

This next verse shows that the healing occurred whilst the ten lepers began to walk some way along that southern road towards Jerusalem. Yet nine of those now former lepers just continued to walk, no doubt inpatient to be formally released from the social stigma of leprosy now the physical marks had been miraculously healed. We can perhaps imagine, and in our sinfulness, even understand and see how we ourselves would act in their position. Would not we too keep walking along that road and perhaps say to ourselves that we might go and find this Jesus later on, another time, after we had been officially endorsed and healthy. We would obviously want first to go and see our loved ones and families, and then, perhaps, some time after that we can go and thank the one who healed us. Yet what does this Samaritan do? We read that as soon

as he saw that he was healed he immediately turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.

How differently this man behaved from the rest of his peers. What is also so remarkable is that this man was not even a Jew, but rather was a Samaritan, whose faith up to this point had been a strange mash-up of paganism and Judaism. Yet, in a moment, this doubly stigmatized man comes to a perfect faith and expresses this in a beautiful and demonstrative way both with his lips but also with his body and his soul – ‘giving him thanks’. In this moment we can also say that the Samaritan became eucharistic.

And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?

In his homily, St Gregory draws here a beautiful, though poignant, comparison between this passage, and God searching for Adam in the Garden of Eden after had had partaken of the forbidden fruit.

The Lord felt pity for people and as it were, mourned for them and for us, who came after them and were like them, and just as He asked Adam in paradise, when he fell away from divine glory, “Adam, where art thou’, so later He said to them, ‘Where are the nine?’

So also when we sin against God, when we forget God, after receiving so many mercies, so also does God go looking for us, looking for our repentance, looking for our love for Him, but sadly, and to our shame, not finding us where we should be.

There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.

The reference to “stranger” underlines that the rest of the nine were likely of the House of Israel apart from this one who was a stranger, a gentile, a Samaritan, and yet, it is the gentiles and not the chosen people who show forth their love for God more.

And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.

And in the final line of today’s Gospel, we see that the Lord confirms that the Samaritan has not only found healing of his body, but also healing for his soul. As St Gregory says, ‘It was just, therefore, that the Lord should also bestow the salvation of his soul on the leper who turned back in gratitude, thus foreshadowing the salvation of the Gentiles through faith’.

In the final part of his homily, St Gregory meditates on how in giving thanks back to God for the good things and good gifts He has given us, completes the circle and leads us to spiritual peace which all of us crave. Everyday people receive bodily healing and other acts of mercy, and yet so many still find that they are deprived of spiritual peace as they have failed to stop, like the Samaritan, and reunite themselves in prayer and thanksgiving with the One who is the source of all healing – our Divine Physician.

In closing, I would like to mention an episode in the life of St John of Damascus which gives us an example of completing the circle by giving thanks to God after receiving miraculous healing. St John of Damascus succeeded his father as a senior figure in the court of the Muslim Caliph of Damascus. When the impious ikonoclast emperor Leo III learned that St John had authored a series of strident treatises against iconoclasm, he had a letter forged in St John’s style which deviously portrayed him as a treacherous enemy agent who was encouraging Leo to attack the city of Damascus, and offering to assist and support him in the event of any future invasion. Leo sent this forged letter to the Caliph along with a letter written by his own hand assuring him that he would not take up this invitation by his disloyal servant. When the Caliph received the letters he was furious and in his rage he had St John’s right hand immediately cut off. In great pain, later that day St John meekly asked for his amputated hand to be returned to him that he might bury it. Before doing so, however, St John took the hand and holding it next to his severed right arm he prayed in front of his ikon to the Theotokos, asking that through her prayers, our Lord would grant him healing and rejoin his hand to his arm. He then fell into a sleep and dreamt that the Theotokos spoke to him assuring him that his prayers had been heard. When he awoke St John found that he could feel his hand and saw that it had been miraculously joined back with just a thin red line showing where it had originally been cut off. In thanksgiving St John immediately composed a hymn to the Mother of God, “All of Creation rejoices in thee O thou who art full of grace” which we sing at the Liturgy of St Basil the Great. He then had a silver hand made and placed it on the Ikon of the Theotokos before which he had prayed. Although the Caliph realized St John’s innocence and granted him to come back and serve in his court with greater honour and responsibility, St John decided henceforth to give his life in service to the Church and to enter the Monastery of St Sabbas, to whom he also gave the Wonderworking Ikon of the Theotokos, known as the Ikon of “three hands” through which he had received healing.

My dear father, brothers and sisters: all of us are lepers, spiritual lepers, who have become deformed and mutilated by our sins. Yet, like the lepers in the Gospel, all of us can find healing for this leprosy through drawing near to Christ and asking him, humbly and in repentance, to have mercy upon us. When we receive healing for our sins, and are given in our life so many gifts, so many wonderful consolations and signs of God’s mercy day in day out, let us not be like the nine who forgot God. Let us rather follow the example of St John of Damascus who after receiving healing didn’t just get straight on with his life, and a promotion in the court, but rather, like the Samaritan stopped and immediately gave thanks, and indeed, spent the rest of his life in service and thanksgiving to God, to Whom be the glory now and ever and unto the ages of ages.