Just as real estate agents insist on the importance of "location, location, location," so exegetes pay close attention to the context in which biblical passages are set. The gospel reading for Sunday (28th OT)--Luke’s account of Jesus healing ten lepers, one of whom returns to give thanks (17:11-19)--is a good example. While the story is straightforward enough, Luke’s placement adds rich texture to its interpretation. To illustrate this, it is necessary to recall last Sunday’s reading (17:5-10), which in the third gospel is the immediately preceding context. Recall from last week that the apostles approached Jesus with the request to increase their faith. Now Luke tells a story that concludes with Jesus praising the faith of the healed leper who returned to him in gratitude. Luke adds that this man of faith was a foreigner, a Samaritan at that. Observe the irony: those ostensibly closest to Jesus struggle to attain faith while a despised foreigner exhibits great faith. As is often the case, Luke turns our expectations upside down. What matters most in the realm of faith is how we respond to Jesus, rather than race, pedigree, possessions, or physical attributes. But lest we be tempted to reduce faith to the realm of the spectacular--albeit the story of the healed leper encourages us to open ourselves to the power of God--last Sunday’s reading reminds us that the arena in which faith is lived is the quotidian realities of our lives. That would seem to be the point of Jesus’ use of the example of one who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Another insight gleaned by paying careful attention to the juxtaposition of passages pertains to thanksgiving. Recall that last week Jesus challenges us--who so often thrive on receiving recognition for what we do--to be content with doing "what we were obliged to do." That is, we are not to seek to receive gratitude merely for doing what God has called and empowered us to do. This Sunday’s reading makes clear, however, that we are to be concerned with expressions of gratitude, namely the gratitude we owe to God. Indeed, Jesus’ final comment to the healed leper indicates that gratitude and praise are essential elements of authentic faith. Moreover, his question "Where are the other nine?" is a haunting warning against the tendency many of us have to put God in the background during times of health and prosperity. Was taking God’s blessings for granted behind the struggle of the apostles to attain faith? Behind our own struggles? These are a few simple examples of the importance of literary context for the interpretation of Scripture. The best source to ascertain what a passage means is always the biblical author himself as revealed in the larger context of the writing in question. Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.
Context, Context, Context