In the Gospel Reading , Jesus cleanses ten lepers, but only one of them turns back to thank Jesus. That one is a Samaritan.
Samaritans aren’t really part of God’s people. They were separated from God’s people earlier in their history.
In a different Gospel Reading (Mt 15:24; see also Mk 7:27), Jesus tells a Greek woman in Sidon, who persists in her requests for him to heal her daughter, that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Greeks are not part of God’s people either; they are even more outsiders than Samaritans are.
But here is an odd thing to notice: Jesus does after all heal the daughter of the Greek woman. He cured the Samaritan leper too.
Your faith has saved you, Jesus says to the Samaritan when he returns to Jesus.So was Jesus confused when he said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel? Or, if his job really is to minister only to his own people, then why did he give such powerful gifts of healing, such tender care, to the Samaritan leper and the Greek woman? After all, they aren’t part of his people. And he said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
The solution to this puzzle lies in the First Reading. Namaan, the leper who comes to Elisha, the Israelite prophet, to be healed, is a Syrian. Not only are Syrians not part of God’s people; they are in fact among the enemies of God’s people. They worship an alien God. But Elisha heals Namaan anyway.
And then look what happens. Namaan asks if Elisha will give him some dirt to build an altar to Elisha’s God. When Elisha healed him, Namaan became committed to the true God. He wants dirt from Israel for an altar so that he can worship the God of Israel when he goes home to Syria. So Namaan comes to Elisha as a Syrian, but he leaves Elisha as a worshiper of the Lord.
A similar point holds of the Samaritan leper, and even of the woman in Sidon. They become one of Jesus’ own, because of Jesus’ care for them. Your faith has saved you, Jesus says to the Samaritan when he returns to Jesus. To the Greek woman in Sidon who won’t leave him, Jesus says, “Great is your faith!” (Mt 15:28)
In doing a miracle for the Greek woman in Sidon, then, Jesus was in fact caring only for the lost sheep of Israel. By loving the Samaritan leper and the Greek woman, the Lord found his own people everywhere.
The lesson for us is clear, isn’t it? Treat him with gentleness and care, and the person in front of you, hostile to all you hold dear, may in the end turn out to be one of the Lord’s own people.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University