When Jesus heals ten lepers, only one, a foreigner, returns to give thanks in a loud voice, falling at Jesus’ feet. Jesus says to him, “arise, go your way, your faith has made you well.”
A long time ago, someone explained to me that this meant that while all were healed of the disease of leprosy, only the one who returned to give thanks was restored completely. That is, the body of the one who returned to give thanks was completely restored so that the scars of the disease were also erased. I have not thought much about this interpretation, until today.
Two things bother me about this interpretation. First it bothers me that this interpretation of Jesus’ actions suggests that Jesus grants partial physical healing to the nine only to give complete physical healing to the one who “does the right thing.” It seems a rather shamanistic interpretation, as if physical healing were an evidence of right behaviour, of God’s blessing in exchange for correct worship. Such an interpretation does not seem to mesh with the teachings of Jesus who says that the God whose behaviour we should imitate is the God who causes the sun to shine on the good and on the evil, and causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. I suggest that when Jesus says that the former leper’s faith has made him “well” or “whole,” Jesus is not referring to a more complete state of physical healing, which leads me to the second thing that bothers me.
The phrase, “your faith has made you well,” I think, is not a reference to some correct internal act of believing that then results in an outward manifestation of physical blessing. I think the physical healings and blessings in the Gospels were a matter of Jesus’ manifesting His divinity and were manifested in all who drew near, or were brought near. Often the Gospels say of the crowds that Jesus healed them all. Often Jesus heals without reference to faith, or without reference to the faith of the person healed.
What then is the “wellness” that comes to the one who has faith? As faith always has to do with what is not seen, at least according to St. Paul (where is the faith if you already see?), I suggest that the wellness that comes with faith also has to do with that which is unseen. The wellness of faith has to do with the healing of or return to the normal, noetically discerned spiritual life of the person. That is, the one who has faith has already begun to be healed so that he or she can perceive the reality that is not perceptible to the senses.
In the story of the ten lepers, the physical healing reveals the divinity of Christ which somehow awakens the faith of the one (now former leper) so that he discerns (in his heart, or nous) that the appropriate response to God for His blessings (freely bestowed on the thankful and the unthankful) is to fall down at the feet of Jesus, glorifying God and giving Jesus thanks. And in this action of falling down at the feet of Jesus and glorifying God, the former leper returns to the normal healthy condition of a human being: a creature in the image of God worshiping God.
We don’t worship God for what we can get out of it: God freely bestows His blessings on all. Worship is the natural response to awakened faith.
That is the first time I have heard this interpretation. It would bother me too if we are expected to take it literally. But if we look at it instead as a kind of fairy tale, then the physical becomes a potent symbol for the spiritual– and the real healing is exactly what you said in the rest of your post.
I often find there are such elements in hagiography. I think it is difficult for us sometimes with our post-modern sensibilities to get over the problem of whether the events described are literally true.
Dear Mat. Donna,
I have no problem with the historicity of the event, so I don't think fairy tale is a helpful expression; however, I think I know what you mean. You are right in saying that we have trouble interpreting God's acts. It seems that the many layers of interpretation that were common in the early church have been lost to many of us.
Dear Fr. Michael,
I wonder if another possibility is that Jesus response "Your faith made you well" may simply have been an expression of personal humility and not at all a spiritual commentary about "the potential achievements of faith." If Jesus is trying to say that faith was somehow essential for this leper's healing, on what basis were the other 9 lepers cleansed? Jesus, God incarnate, healed whomever He wished. As you point out he often healed multitudes, many of whom probably had little if any faith. I wonder if Jesus, in His humility, is deflecting the "credit" for the miracle away from Himself by instead "crediting" the leper. In another situation in which Jesus was worshiped (Matthew 26:6-13) The Orthodox Study Bible has an interesting footnote quoting John Chrysostom about what he believes Jesus view of that situation was.
If any of the above is even remotely true it causes me to pause for a moment from my typical way of thinking that God somehow wants my worship, or believes it is fitting, either for me or for Him. Sometimes I think He just thinks it is "good for me" and "appropriate" to Him. Without denying that either of these things is true, perhaps He doesn't "want" it at all. Perhaps it is simply the natural response of a grateful creature for the faintest inkling of the magnitude of His love for me. Perhaps He is simply grateful that finally I am understanding how much He really does love me.
Am I going too far off the deep end?
No, I don't think you are going too far, so long as you do not let your insight become a criterion by which you evaluate other truths. In our knowing God, no concept is safe. God stretches every box we have for Him. However, insight can corrupt into heresy if we hold up our insight as the criterion by which all others are evaluated. in our relationship with God we often find ourselves holding unreconcilable realities in each hand. Paradox: we need a bigger box. We are, after all, talking about God here.