This week we see Jesus making his final journey, to Jerusalem, where he will receive his cross. The ten chapters Luke dedicates to this journey make up over one third of his gospel. This part of Jesus’ life grabs Luke’s imagination; it contains some of the evangelist’s most vivid writing, and includes the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, and the Prodigal Son. It also contains a number of short sayings only very loosely tied together, like the ones we have this Sunday.
In these passages, Luke gives the impression that Jesus and his disciples are having a conversation that meanders from one topic to another while they travel along the road. Each turn reveals a different side to what Pope Francis calls “the proclamation of salvation,” the bedrock gospel principle that God is working hard to save every human being.
Can an incorrigible sinner be saved? The first part of this week’s gospel comes right after Jesus’ command to forgive a sinner every time he or she repents. The disciples’ plea for faith here is plea to believe in such a person’s conversion. Every one of us likely knows people whose habits, addictions, personality quirks, or life choices cause pain to others. They might ask our forgiveness again and again, but they make little effort to change. Jesus tells us if we had even the tiniest bit of real faith, we would know God was working hard for their salvation. The conversion of such a sinner will be every bit as dramatic as a tree pulling itself up and walking from a forested hillside to the open ocean. Even when no evidence tells us this is possible, Jesus reveals that such salvation is God’s plan.
What of our own salvation? The conversation turns to the difference between obligations and gifts. If we forget that we are saved as well, then our relationship with God becomes one of mutual obligations, like those between masters and slaves. Instead of feeling relief and gratitude at our deliverance, our baptismal call to serve will be only a dispiriting list of obligations to fulfill. God’s grace, meanwhile, will seem nothing more than a grudging subsistence paid by a stingy boss.
Luke follows this passage with the healing of the ten lepers. Only one returned to thank Christ for his deliverance. He was the one who realized God saved him not out of obligation, but out of love. The gratitude the healed leper expressed was his own love, given in return. Jesus’ words this week challenge us to ask ourselves: Do we believe in God’s ability to save? Do we remember God saves us out of love?
—Fr. Michael Simone, S.J. is beginning his ministry as instructor in Old Testament Studies at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry