“Stand up and go: your faith has saved you.” Jesus offers this valediction to the leper who returns in today’s gospel (Lk 17:11-19), but through it, he also holds up this healed leper as a sign that indicates the reality of both faith and salvation. Etymologically, the word “salvation” is derived from a root that indicates health and wholeness, especially when one is preserved from some danger. The idea behind this word can be conveyed by the expression “safe and sound.” A lifeguard has the task of “saving” a person from drowning, and some become doctors in order to “save lives.” But what is the sort of “salvation” that Jesus indicates in this gospel?
The reality of the salvation that Jesus offers is revealed, superficially, in the healing of the ten lepers. Jesus hears their cry and has mercy upon them, and they are cleansed. By healing the lepers of their physical ailments, Jesus opens the way for their reintegration into a community that traditionally shunned them out of fear of illness and ritual contamination. If this healing and reconciliation is what faith were all about, then Jesus would simply rejoice at the transformation that occurs when the former lepers go off and begin new lives at the heart of communities transformed by their renewed presence. Instead, Jesus is disappointed when they do not return.
It is only the leper who returns who is a witness to true faith, and therefore, who is open to receiving the salvation that Jesus truly wishes to offer. Faith does not refer so much to a body of teachings as it does to a relationship with the God who reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. Among the ten who were healed, the foreigner who does not even belong to the chosen people (and therefore would be a bit like an unbaptized person, in relation to the Church) is the only one who actually returns and gratefully submits to Jesus’ Lordship. Perhaps the others don’t think they have to do so because they are going to their priests, as Jesus told them to. But our faith is not merely communal, but requires a personal relationship with the one who alone is Lord, and who is the source of all good things. From the personal relationship that is the heart of this faith, one receives the fullness of salvation that Jesus offers: a sharing in his very life. This sharing is what we call grace: through our (Marian) “yes” to God, we give God permission to expand and stretch our lives so that they become a sharing in God’s own life. Yes, salvation involves healing and reconciliation, but if we walk away from Jesus once this has taken place, then we turn our backs on the fullness of salvation that Jesus offers: a genuine sharing in his life and love, through the faith that we have in Him.