CHRIST’S ENCOUNTER WITH THE TEN LEPERS offers several points on which we can reflect. We see that Christ heals, that He heals foreigners as well as Israelites, and that the only one who glorifies God is that foreigner, a Samaritan. Christ’s response to the Samaritan, however, is a bit more complicated and merits our attention.
According to St Luke, when the Samaritan returns glorifying God, Christ responds, “Arise, go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19 New King James Version). Is Christ referring to the original healing in which all ten lepers were cleansed or does the Samaritan receive something else because he came back glorifying God?
Some popular English versions offer interesting alternative translations which suggest an answer. “Thy faith hath made thee whole” says the original King James Version. The New American Bible and the Jerusalem Bible translate this phrase “Your faith has saved you.”
The Greek verb in this sentence is sesoken, a form of the word soson which we regularly translate in our prayers as “save.” It may be translated as “heal,” “make whole” or “save” depending on the context. In such a case it is wise to consult the Tradition for the best interpretation. Early Church commentators on this passage suggest that the Samaritan received more that the physical healing of his disease: he found salvation. As St Athanasius wrote, “This one was given much more than the rest. Besides being healed of his leprosy, he was told by the Lord, ‘Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you’” (Festal Letter 6).
In his Explanation of the Gospel of St. Luke Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria writes that “This miracle also signifies the common salvation that came to the whole human race. For the ten lepers represent all of human nature – it was leprous with wickedness, carrying about with it the ugliness of sin, passing its life outside the heavenly city on account of its uncleanness, and standing afar off from God.” The complete healing of mankind is, in fact, what we refer to as “salvation.”
It is not uncommon for people to be asked by some Christians (usually Evangelicals or Pentecostals), “Are you saved?” By this they generally mean something like, “Have you personally appropriated the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ?” Their point is similar to that made by Blessed Theophylact. The ten lepers all were cleansed but only one personally appropriated what Christ had done by returning and glorifying God.
What Does It Mean to Be Saved?
When Western Christians talk about salvation they often think of it as described in the fourth-fifth centuries by St Augustine and in the eleventh century by Anselm of Canterbury. In their view all mankind was unrighteous and unclean through the original sin of Adam. It was necessary that mankind make atonement through a well-pleasing sacrifice. That sacrifice was made on the cross, by which Christ offered Himself for the sins of Adam and of the entire human race.
As this view was developed, the West focused increasingly on the cross. Christ’s death was the sacrifice offered to atone for sin and ransom mankind. Some saw the cross as an instrument of the Father’s wrath originally meant for us, now taken out on His Son! Others thought of Christ’s death as a ransom paid to the devil in whose power mankind had fallen. These views took Western Christians further and further from the thinking of the early Church.
The Eastern Fathers had a different view of sin and salvation. Instead of atonement and sacrifice they stressed the loss and restoration of relationship with God as the heart of the question of sin and redemption. The original sin, the sin of Adam, was a break in relationship with God. Adam declines to heed God’s warning and eats of the tree, determining for himself what is good rather than heeding God. Going it alone, Adam no longer “walked with God” but hid from Him (Genesis 2).
In Christ, God enters the world to become one with mankind once more and, through this complete and eternal union with Him, to deliver it from eternal death. The Son of God becomes like us in all things except sin and in Him God and man are perfectly united. Once again God is fully in communion with a Man, the Lord Jesus, and through Him with all mankind Since being human means to endure suffering and death, Christ shared in those things as well. What was unique about Christ is that He did not remain in death but, once He had experienced it, He triumphed over it.
And so Christ’s death on the cross is not emphasized in the Christian East as a sacrifice to atone for original sin; rather it is as the inevitable consequence of His desire to become one of us. Christ’s death on the cross is an unavoidable result of His being fully human because all humans die.
The Lepers: an Icon of Salvation
As Blessed Theophilact observed, the lepers represent all humanity, scarred by their common affliction but still dear to Christ. “He healed the whole leprous nature of man, when, for every man’s sake, He took flesh and tasted of death.”
Without a doubt all ten welcomed their cleansing from leprosy; they accepted the gift but ignored the Giver. Only one retuned to Christ, glorifying God. He not only received the blessing of health, he also enjoyed a relationship with the Healer. He welcomed, not only the cleansing from leprosy, but also the presence of the One who brings wholeness and salvation to all who accept Him in their lives. His physical healing is the prelude to his communion with Christ, in which is his – and our –salvation.
To Whom Was the “Ransom” Paid?
St Gregory the Theologian asks this question to demolish what he felt were false ideas about our salvation.
“To whom and why is this blood poured out for us and shed – the great and most previous blood of God, the High Priest and Victim? We were in the power of the Evil One, sold to sin, and had brought this harm on themselves by sensuality. … If the price of ransom is given to none other than him in whose power we are held, then I ask, to whom and for what reason is such a price paid?
“If it is to the Evil One, then how insulting is this! The thief received the price of ransom; he not only receives it from God, but even receives God Himself. He receives so large a price for his tyranny that it was only right to have mercy on us.
“If to the Father, then, first, in what way? Were we in captivity under Him?… And secondly, for what reason? For what reason was the blood of the Only Begotten pleasing to the Father, who did not accept even Isaac, when offered by his father, but exchanged the offering, giving a lamb instead of the reasonable victim?
45th Oration on Holy Pascha