Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Read Luke 17:11–19
Imagine you are shopping for a swimsuit. It’s January. Your skin hasn’t seen much sun. You’ve enjoyed all sorts of warm breads and festive treats throughout the Christmas season. It’s been delightful. You get into the dressing room with the most unforgiving lights and try the first suit on. The reflection staring back at you is shocking. Is this what I really look like? Suit after suit—nothing is right. No miracle suit fixes the flaws you are now uber-aware of. Self-loathing kicks in.
How many women, if they are honest, hate the way they look? How many of us secretly despise our bodies, the bodies that allow us to give hugs when needed, grasp a hand of someone lonely, run so we can be of help, lift our arms in praise?
This is what I think of when I read this Sunday’s gospel, because it highlights ten men that dealt with body image issues at a level I can’t even imagine.
Each one of them received a medical diagnosis that meant, from that moment on, they could never be touched. In addition, they had to immediately leave their homes and move to a place where they’d live with other victims of this disease for the rest of their lives. Wherever they’d go, they’d have to ring a bell as they walked, crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Every day, they’d watch their bodies decompose before their very eyes. This was the life of a leper during biblical times.
As Jesus traveled along the border between Galilee and Samaria, He encountered a group of ten lepers. Honoring the rules of their isolation, they called from a distance, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us” (Luke 17:13). Jesus couldn’t resist this appeal to His heart. Their isolation wrecked Him; He knew they were created for community. So He healed them as they went on their way. One by one, they saw their disfiguration disappear and healthy flesh return. But amazingly, only one returned to say thank you. He fell at Jesus’ feet in gratitude. Looking around, Jesus wondered where the other nine were. Hadn’t they been healed, too? But turning back to the one, He said, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you” (Luke 17:19).
As I wrestle with this gospel reading, I hold two things in my hands, two things that seem very hard to reconcile…
I spent yesterday morning clothes shopping, and nothing looked good. I have gained weight, and I used to always be able to control this area of life without difficulty. But I am sizing up, and I hate what my body looks like in the dressing room. My body has carried and delivered seven children and is the conduit for the love I continue to give, but I am not looking at it with gratitude. So I return home and make my kids wait on a promised trip to the aquarium because I am online looking at packaged diet meal plans. These plans are expensive; people are starving; this is all messed up.
So I turn to the leper who returned to see if he’s got something to say to me. And the first thing that I notice is that he calls Jesus, “Master.” This is different from the Pharisees, the religious leaders of that time. They refuse to call Jesus, “Master.” Why would they? They are healthy, strong, and self-sufficient. But the lepers? They are utterly helpless.
Could it be that wise people see helplessness as a virtue? As I look at the lives of the saints, it appears that this is so. In the words of Father John Bartunek, LC, “Those who think they can make something truly worthy of their lives depending only on their own resources shut out the authentically transforming grace of God.” The saints knew beyond a doubt that everything depends on the power of God’s lavish, supernatural gift of grace.
This means that if I depend only on my own resources, I am going to bypass this life-altering gift of grace—the only thing that can really change me. To be clear: God isn’t promising to get me swimsuit season ready. That’s not the kind of transformation that He cares about. He is offering to help me experience a metamorphosis in my interior life, which is what matters most.
The interior should always take precedence over the exterior. We prefer to be transformed in the exterior (and often prioritize this above all else) because that makes us feel like we are in control. But those aren’t the things that we can take into eternity. It is the interior life of the soul that remains.
The second thing I notice about the leper is his return—how he throws himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks Him. He thanks Him for his body. Can I do the same? How can I do it with true gratitude and amazement?
Author and philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj says that it must begin with a sense of unworthiness. I know that this flies in the face of self-care, the self-esteem movement, and a million other things. But give Fabrice a chance. This is what he says, and it was a mic drop for me: “The problem is that instead of cultivating this feeling of unworthiness that disposes us to be grateful for the smallest things, we drape ourselves in worthiness in regard to the best things, which never seem good enough for us.” He suggests that the best thing is to consider oneself deserving of hell, because then all calamities will seem to be a reduced sentence.
Marketers tell us that we deserve all the good things. They want us to remain in a continual state of aspiration, of always wanting just a little bit more. Jesus invites us to fall at His feet in contentment because of what we already have.
Food for thought or journaling…
Dear Lord, I thank You for my body in these three specific ways:
Master, help me rely on You more than my own resources.
 Father John Bartunek LC, The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer (Hamden, CT: Circle Press, 2007), 707.