Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.


New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of the author’s community

The world at the time of the text

Geography of the text

Questions for the teacher

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today/challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

The world of the author’s community

Scholars generally agree that the Gospel according to Luke was written in elegant Greek some 50 years after the death of Jesus, probably in the 80s. The Gospel is the first of two works by the author, its companion volume being the Acts of Apostles. Tradition has given the name of Luke to the author, but there is no certainty that Luke was the author’s name. Luke may have been a Syrian from Antioch. More details about the Gospel according to Luke can be found HERE.

Most scholars conclude from elements in the Gospel that the author was a Gentile writing from and for a community predominantly made up of Gentile Christians. Each Gospel is a testimony of faith that reflects the concerns and issues of its community. In common with much of Luke’s Gospel this passage assigns faith and salvation to a person who is not a Jew, reinforcing the message that the promise of salvation is for all peoples.

The evangelist indicates that he is not an eyewitness to the events he sets out (Lk1:1-4). Therefore, the world of the author’s community is in a different cultural setting to that of Palestine and is over 50 years after the time in which the passage is set.

This passage is only found in Luke. This means that it comes from an oral or written source to which Luke had access but that the other evangelists presumably did not. There also is an earlier healing of an individual ‘leper’ in Luke 5:12-16, a cure that is common to all three Synoptic Gospels.

The world at the time of the text

Leprosy
‘Leprosy’ referred to skin diseases of various kinds, none of which are considered to be the same as modern leprosy (Hansen’s disease). Those afflicted were classified as ritually unclean as was anyone who touched them. According to the Book of Leviticus (which was accepted by both Jews and Samaritans) anyone diagnosed as a ‘leper’ had to live outside the village or town and warn anyone approaching of their ailment. Their isolation continued for as long as the disfigurement was visible (Leviticus 13:2-6). If their condition improved, they were readmitted to community after priests had declared them ritually clean and offered sacrifice in the Temple. If it did not improve, they were ostracised permanently and depended on charity for survival, often congregating in groups for human companionship and support. (Adapted from John McKinnon)

Samaritans
There was deep hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Samaritans were outsiders. Jews considered that the faith of the Samaritans had been corrupted by the mixture of their Jewish ancestry with foreigners centuries earlier. Samaritans acknowledged the Torah but not the Prophets (some of whom denounce the wickedness of Samaria). Samaritans rejected the Jerusalem Temple and priesthood. The antagonism is evident in other Gospel passages: the Samaritan woman was surprised that a Jew would even speak to her. (Jn 4:4-9). Earlier in Luke, the disciples James and John express hostility towards Samaritans (Lk 9: 52-56). A Samaritan ‘leper’ could not be declared cleansed because such a person would not be admitted beyond the outer court of the Temple, and as a Samaritan would be permanently ritually unclean anyway.

Geography

Samaria was located between Judea and Galilee, south of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee” (v. 11). However, they share a border so there really no region “between” them. The writer may have meant that Jesus and his disciples were travelling along the northern border of Samaria, skirting the hostile region of Samaria. On the other hand, Luke, a Gentile from outside Palestine may have been unfamiliar with the precise geography, as appears to be the case in Lk4:31/Lk 4:44 where he confuses Galilee and Judea. A third and most likely explanation is that the evangelist was not interested in geographical accuracy. The writer’s theological design needed conveniently to situate the incident involving Jesus and a Samaritan.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Scholars note that Matthew’s Gospel is broken into 5 discourses, or books, mirroring the structure of the Torah. This text is in the third section, or book, the section concerned with parables of the kingdom and the disciples coming to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.

Chapter 13 has introduced several parables of the kingdom, many showing its growth and development, so that like the seeds, it becomes a ‘hundredfold’ of what it was. This passage now goes on to show this in practical terms: how might this growth occur?  

The literary form of Matthew 14:13-21 is a miracle story.

A miracle story is a type of narrative with a beginning, middle (and complication) and resolution. Miracle accounts are defined as those in which actions which deviate from what is expected, occur: miracles can be either the healing of someone which occurs miraculously, or a nature miracles where the natural events of life are disturbed or interrupted by divine intervention.

The text begins with news of the death of John the Baptist at the beginning of chapter 14. When Jesus heard this news ‘he withdrew … to a deserted place…’

Matthew doesn’t explain any more than that. Was Jesus wanting to gain some respite from the hostility, or to mourn the loss of John? Or is Matthew’s placing of this passage to show, again, that John’s role was that of precursor. That role completed, Jesus can now become the bread and wine, the miracle of growth?

Matthew mostly follows the order and structure of Mark from whom he gets this passage.

Matthew follows Mark to say that Jesus feels compassion for the crowd; Matthew adds that Jesus heals them.

Matthew records the disciples wanting to send the crowd away to buy food but he presents the disciples in a better light than in Mark (6:30-44), removing reference to their irritation at seemingly being asked to spend 200 denarii, (denarius – a day’s wage) on purchase of bread themselves.

Both writers record Jesus’s action similarly, on receipt of the bread.

Characters & setting

Jesus, the disciples and crowds of people – presumably, men, women and children.

They are on the shore of Lake Galilee: a ‘deserted’ place – most likely to remind the readers of their time of hunger in the desert in the Exodus journey. When the Israelites needed food, God provided it. Now, in need, Jesus will provide.

Matthew will forget the notion of desert when he tells the crowd to sit ‘on the grass’!

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Bread

Bread was, and is, a staple of life, baked every day, and a significant portion of the food eaten each day. Bread came in two forms: barley and wheat. Ordinarily it would have been baked with yeast.

Fish

Fish and fishing were the life-blood of life near Lake Galilee. Fish were caught on the Lake and dried and sold in the villages around the lake. Magdala was well known for its preparation of fish for sale. Jesus called his first disciples from the Lake (Matt 4:19), he taught on the shores of it and use the imagery of fishing often in his teaching. The Greek word for fish, ichthus, was used as an acrostic poem by the early church: ‘Jesus(I) Christ(ch) of God(th) Son(u) Saviour(s). (Michael Fallon, Gospel of Matthew, online PDF, p. 213).

Blessed

Matthew tells us that Jesus ‘looked up to heaven’, ‘blessed’ and ‘broke’ the loaves, and ‘gave them to the disciples’ to give them to the crowds. The words describing Jesus’ actions are typical of all Jewish meals with the giving of thanks, the blessing and the breaking and finally the sharing. These actions will appear again in the account of the Last Supper (Mt 26: 17-29) so this passage alludes to what is to come.  

In this miracle story, Jesus is the one who can satisfy deep hunger.The fact that it is in all four gospels, points to the importance of this tradition in the early Christian community, and that the message was applicable to all regions of early Christianity.

Questions for the teacher:

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Meaning for today/challenges

Where am I in this story? Am I with the nine, doing all the socially and religiously correct things but without recognising God’s power and mercy in my life? Or am I like the Samaritan, realising the presence of a saving God in my life? Do I take my health, freedom and opportunity for granted? Am I grateful to God for the good things in my life?

Who are the ‘Samaritans’ in Australia today? Our First Peoples? Refugees? Does it depend from where and how they come – by sea but not by plane? Muslims? Jews? Am I open to the potential of people on the margin? Do I stereotype ‘outsiders’? Do I act as a restorer and healer, making people whole again?

Church interpretation & usage

The text traditionally has been the one used most in catechesis and preaching to focus on gratitude and the necessity of saying thanks. Other aspects that have been stressed are God’s mercy and the importance of faith for salvation. Emphases on the miracle as a sign of the Kingdom and on Jesus’ preference for the marginalised are more recent and reflect the influence of biblical studies and Catholic social teaching.

The text is the Gospel for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C. The First Reading that day is 2 Kgs 5: 14-17 (the healing of Naaman, the Gentile leper). The Responsorial Psalm (Ps 97: 1-4) sings of God’s salvation to all nations. The text also is the Gospel of the Mass on Thanksgiving Day in the USA and Canada.

In 2015 Pope Francis presented a vision of a merciful Church to a group of new cardinals in a homily based on Jesus’ healing of a leper. He was not using this text but Mark’s account of the healing of an individual leper, but his point remains the same. He emphasised how Jesus reinstates the marginalised and said that the Church’s way must the way of mercy and reinstatement. The Church must leave her four walls behind and go out in search for those who are distant. He urges the cardinals to see the Lord present in every excluded person even in those who have lost their faith or who say they are atheists. The Gospel of the marginalised is where our credibility is at stake. These ideas are central to his pontificate. He declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy (2015-16) for “Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, 1) and “mercy … is the name of God”.

In another homily, for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C) in 2016, Pope Francis stated:

Significantly, Naaman and the Samaritans were two foreigners. How many foreigners, including persons of other religions, give us an example of values that we sometimes forget or set aside! Those living beside us, who may be scorned and sidelined because they are foreigners, can instead teach us how to walk on the path that the Lord wishes.