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Homily for the Sunday of the Ten Lepers, Pentecost XXXII (Luke 12),
and the Feast of St Antony the Great, 17 January 2021

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Now past the Feast of the Theophany, we begin the series of Sundays, all named after the episode or parable told in the Gospel: this Sunday the Ten Lepers, and then the Blind Man, Zacchaeus, the parable of the Talents, the story of the Canaanite Woman, before we get to the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, on which day we open the Triodion, the Lenten service book, for the first time. Together these Sundays—sometimes fewer, sometimes more—form a kind of remote preparation for Lent. All these episodes and parables are very familiar, like this one. Jesus is travelling through Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. He arrives at a village to find ten lepers shouting at him from a long way off (leprosy required something like the same kind of social distancing as the current coronavirus), crying out for his mercy. Jesus replies, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests!’ And as they set off, they realize that they are being cured—cleansed of their leprosy. One of them, seeing that he has been healed, turns back, praising God with a loud voice, and falls down on his face at Jesus’ feet. We are told that he was a Samaritan, and we hear Jesus’ reaction: ‘Were not ten cleansed, where are the nine? Were not any found to give glory to God, save this foreigner?’ And he tells him to get up and go: your faith has saved you! 

The main point of the episode is the thanksgiving of the Samaritan: his coming back to Jesus to thank him and give glory to God. We are being reminded by hearing this Gospel at this point in the Church’s Year of the importance of thanksgiving. Having seen so much over the last two months, from the birth of the Christ child to the Baptism of the Lord, we are reminded to give thanks. But pause a moment. Jesus’ immediate reaction is: ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?’ Where indeed? We might speculate. The nine have gone off in haste to the Temple in Jerusalem—to the priests—where they will be inspected by the priests and make a thanksgiving offering to God; they will be registered as pure from their leprosy and join normal society again. That was what Jesus told them to do. Nonetheless, when they discover that the leprosy has left them, they do not pause—maybe, even, they hasten so as to be registered as pure, lest the effect wears off. The Samaritan, on the other hand, turns back to give thanks, as soon as he realizes that he has been cured. He could, as the others, have made his way to the temple—the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim; it may even have been nearer (Jesus and his disciples were going through Samaria and Galilee), but he wants to thank Jesus himself straightaway. What about the others? I don’t think we should suppose that they had forgotten about what Jesus had done for them. They probably intended to come back and find Jesus, after doing what he had told them to do—to go to the priests at the Temple. But having got there—well, they had made their thanks to God—and there were other things to do, other people to share their good news with, and their intention—to go back and thank Jesus in person, as the Samaritan had done—got weaker and weaker, seemed less and less urgent, and then finally they forgot it altogether. You know: several days later it seemed that the moment had passed; their intention to give thanks—well, the moment had passed. You know—yes, don’t we all? We might call this ‘infirmity of intention’: all those things we intend to do, or intended to do, but we got waylaid, and in no time at all the moment for fulfilling the intention had passed—it would be embarrassing to turn up so late to fulfil it—often enough it is to say thank you, but it might be to remember someone’s birthday, or to go and visit someone, to remember to write to someone, or get in touch in some way—the moment has passed; and other things to do, errands to run, even duties to perform, come along, and our old intentions get pushed further and further back in one’s memory and finally find themselves in that black-hole, filled with everything we have forgotten, a black-hole of forgetting, itself receding further and further into oblivion. Perhaps it doesn’t matter very much, we tell ourselves; we can’t remember everything… 

Infirmity of intention. Does it matter all that much? Of one thing we can be sure: that, except for those amazing people who remember every birthday and anniversary, and never forget to send a card or think up some suitable present—except for them—there are lots of people like ourselves, infirm of intention like ourselves! And thus we excuse ourselves. Does it really matter? The Lord may have been surprised to see the Samaritan coming back, full of joy and thanksgiving, but what he said was, ‘Were there not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?’ Where are the nine? And are not we often among this 90%? What is wrong with this infirmity of intention, or infirmity of purpose? At bottom, it is a failure of attention; it is a failure to be present—present to ourselves, present to other people. A kind of absent- mindedness, a spiritual absent-mindedness. We aren’t there; the intention we had formed was, as it were, formed somewhere where I wasn’t, somewhere in myself from which I am absent. You know how infuriating absentmindedness is—or perhaps you don’t, but when you are as old as me, you probably will! Where did I put my glasses? Where are my shoes? Where are the car keys? Where is that book I was reading yesterday that seems to have wandered off? It is infuriating, because I know that absent-mindedness is just that, down to my being absent—not where I am, not attentive to what I am doing, because I allow myself to be distracted, with my mind drifting from one thing to another and never settling anywhere—like a butterfly, as we say, with scant regard for those beautiful creatures. Just being where you are; being with the people you are with (instead of receding into some little cosy corner of yourself); listening to other people (instead of half-listening to a conversation for the moment for you to make your own, oh-so-valuable contribution). We tend to take all that for granted, but attention is not easy; it is much easier only half to attend, or even less. The Greek word for attention is prosochê (προσοχή), very similar to the Greek word for prayer, proseuchê (προσευχή). Some of the Greek Fathers, and writers on prayer, make a lot of this close similarity—prosochê/proseuchê—regarding them as closely related: if you are good at one, you are likely to be good at the other; if you can attend, you can pray—if you are used to praying, you will find it easier to attend, to others, to what you are doing. One form of attention is listening, not just hearing, but hearing with attention, which is what listening is.

Πρόσχωμεν! Вонмем! Să luăm aminte! Let us attend!—throughout the services of the Church, especially the Divine Liturgy, this is the frequent cry of the deacon: Let us attend!—before the readings, before the Creed, before the anaphora, before the breaking of the consecrated Lamb… Let us attend. Not just at these points in the Divine Liturgy, but let us attend throughout our lives. Let us be present, let us be there, not absent-minded, but present to each other, and to ourselves, and to God! Let us not slip into an infirmity of intention, half-remembering and forgetting. Let us remember the Samaritan leper, who came back and fell at Jesus’ feet, and gave thanks for the grace of healing that he had received. Amen!