There are several stories about Jesus and lepers in the three synoptic Gospels, but it is the Gospel of St. Luke that brings us the story of ten lepers, nine Jewish lepers and one Samaritan leper. The life of lepers in Israel was a life of isolation and exclusion. Lepers were not allowed to have any contact with anyone other than another leper. They were excluded from their families, the synagogues, the Temple, and were forbidden to enter into any commercial enterprise such as buying and selling. If they sat on a bench, the bench was considered unclean.
St. Luke writes of ten lepers encountering Jesus. In order for a Jew to pray, he had to be in a group of at least ten men, a minion. If there were not ten men present, the men could not pray. St. Luke, a Gentile himself, is making a point by telling us that this group of ten lepers has allowed a foreigner in their midst. Though he is a Samaritan, he is included in this minion. When they encounter Jesus, they beg an alms of him. Instead of giving them an alms, he tells them to go to the Temple to show themselves to the priests, to be declared clean, to be allowed to reenter society.
On the way, they are cleansed. Because he is a Samaritan, the tenth man knows that he is no longer included, is no longer welcome among the Jews. Because he cannot go to the Temple with the others, he returns to Jesus. St. Luke tells us that he gives glory to God and that he prostrates himself before Jesus, a gesture of worship. Using a phrase that we have heard frequently in the Gospels, Jesus tells the tenth leper that his faith has saved him. Every good Jew believed that he could be saved by obedience to the Law. The nine who go to the Temple were doing so in obedience to the Law.
They really had no choice in the matter. The Law prescribed that the only way they could reenter society was through the examination of the priests and the offering of a sacrifice. They had met Jesus on the border of Samaria. The journey to the Temple would have taken them days. However, the Samaritan, no longer welcome in the company of the Jewish lepers, makes his way back to Jesus. Here he is not excluded; here he is welcomed.
Many a preacher has expounded on the theme of gratitude when this Gospel passage is read. However, there is much more here than one grateful and nine ungrateful men. There is, however, something much more powerful lying in wait for us at the end of the story. Our faith in Jesus is what sets us apart. We are saved by that faith; for wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is present among us.