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OCTOBER 13, 2013: TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

II Kings 5:14-17
II Timothy 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19

As I mentioned last week, biblical faith revolves around faith not in things, but in a person, and the vision that person has for changing this world. This week our readings continue that idea, but they also emphasize pushing the limits which restrict that vision from being realized.

The unknown author of II Timothy sets the theme. "... The word of God is not chained. Therefore I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory."

The disciple of the Apostle to the Gentiles who is responsible for this letter is gifted with his mentor's passion to spread the dream of the risen Jesus beyond Judaism to all people. Paul was convinced that non-Jews are just as called to be other Christs as Jews are. Of course, such a pushing of the envelope caused many problems for Paul, even, according to some scholars, leading to his martyrdom. Yet, both Paul and our writer were convinced that the suffering which came from pushing those limits was an essential part of the dying and rising which followers of Jesus should expect to experience. "If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him."

We especially see limits being pushed in today's II Kings pericope. Not only does the prophet Elisha go beyond "accepted religion" by healing a Gentile leper, Naaman, but once healed, this Syrian army officer pleads with the prophet to permit him to also be a devotee of Yahweh. There's just one problem: Naaman doesn't live in the Holy Land.

According to the theological limits of that day and age, all gods, including Yahweh, were "territorial." They were only gods of a specific piece of geography. Yahweh, for instance, was literally the God only of Israel. Take one step across the border and Yahweh was unable to help you.

Naaman pushes the limits by asking Elisha for "two mule-loads of earth." His plan: to take that Jewish dirt, spread it around his property back in Damascus, and create an "annex" of Israel miles away from Yahweh's territory. He reasons that if he prays to Yahweh on Israelite soil, Yahweh must listen to him, thereby creating a loophole in traditional theology.

It's also important that the sacred author mentions the prophet refuses to take a "stipend or stole fee" for healing Naaman's leprosy. According to biblical beliefs, had he accepted Naaman's gift, Elisha would have been saying, "I did it; not Yahweh." An outward sign God was present and working effectively in our world was that the salvation Yahweh provided came with "no charge." No one was permitted to make a living from channeling God's saving actions. As Elisha's servant Gehazi later tragically discovers, that envelope had no loopholes.

Jesus curing a Samaritan leper in today's gospel passage isn't quite as radical as Elisha's cure of Naaman. The Samaritan was at least a Jew, though a heretic. Luke is more concerned with the actions of the Samaritan after the healing. "Realizing he had been healed, he returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him;" something the other nine "orthodox" Jewish lepers forgot to do. One can never predict what will happen when the envelope is pushed.

Not since the short days of John Paul I and the brief reign of John XXIII have we had a pope who pushes those limits like Francis does today. The "faithful" never know what to expect. Perhaps the uncertainty his actions create is part of our dying with Jesus.