Context, Context, Context

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.
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10 years 6 months ago
Fr. Tom, Good point about context in this Sunday's Gospel reading: that gratitude and praise are essentials elements of faith.
10 years 6 months ago
It is always interesting to consider the week's Gospel in a larger context by reading before and after the verses given. In this case, I think Jesus was also modeling the behavior He spoke about in last week's Gospel. Certainly, He must have known that the nine would no come back to offer praise and gratitude. Yet, He healed them anyway. and when they confirmed what He already knew, that they would not return to offer Him thanks, He did not reverse the healing. Jesus' comments to the Sammaritan do not demonstrate that He needs gratitude and praise. We are the ones who need it. He alleviated their suffering. He was being God.
10 years 6 months ago
Another way to read this gospel is through the eyes and ears of Middle Eastern readers and listeners. As elucidated by John Pilch in a series entitled A Window into the Biblical World published by The Bible Today, "In the Middle East and Mediterranean world, the proper response to benefits received, the proper expression of gratitude, is to broadcast the virtues and generosity of one's donor or patron." This the 9 lepers could do in the Temple. The Samaritan would have been barred from the Temple, and hence, after praising God from whom his healing came, returned to say "Thank you," which in that culture ended his blessed but brief relationship with Jesus. (Pilch, John, "No Thank You!", The Bible Today, p.49-52, January/February 2002). Jesus says nothing about gratitude or lack of it. Is it about inclusiveness and the call to the outsider?


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