OCTOBER 9TH, 2016: TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times
at the word of Elisha, the man of God.
His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child,
and he was clean of his leprosy.
Naaman returned with his whole retinue to the man of God.
On his arrival he stood before Elisha and said,
“Now I know that there is no God in all the earth,
except in Israel.
Please accept a gift from your servant.”
Elisha replied, “As the LORD lives whom I serve, I will not take it;”
and despite Naaman's urging, he still refused.
Naaman said: “If you will not accept,
please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth,
for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice
to any other god except to the LORD.”
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David:
such is my gospel, for which I am suffering,
even to the point of chains, like a criminal.
But 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.
This saying is trustworthy:
If we have died with him
we shall also live with him;
if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.
But if we deny him
he will deny us.
If we are unfaithful
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny himself.
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
“Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said,
“Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.”
Today’s II Kings reading is one of Scripture’s most significant passages. It not only shows us how Jewish faith changed through the centuries, it also challenges us to live up to the unchanging ideals of that faith. Three points.
First, this particular sacred author - along with all other biblical authors - insists Yahweh’s actions are never limited to just one group of individuals, even if they’re God’s Chosen People. Naaman is a Gentile, a Syrian army officer, a frequent enemy of the Jews. He only comes to Elisha seeking a cure of his leprosy because his Jewish slave girl told him about the healing powers of this 9th century BCE prophet and encouraged him to make the politically delicate trip. Nine hundred years later, Jesus would get into trouble with some in his Nazareth synagogue audience when he reminded them that Yahweh ignored many Jewish lepers to take care of this non-Jew.
Second, though it flies in the face of our Catholic tradition of clergy receiving stipends and stole fees, the II Kings author is adamant about Elisha’s refusal to accept any sort of gift from Naaman. “As Yahweh lives whom I serve,” the prophet insists, “I will not take it.” The reason is simple and irrefutable: if we’re rewarded for channeling God’s actions, it would appear they’re our actions and not God’s. I don’t remember that law ever being changed in Scripture.
Third, there’s a theology in the Naaman story that we’ve gone beyond: the belief that Yahweh’s a territorial God. He/she is obligated only to take care of people who reside in Canaan. Take one step across the border and you’re in the domain of another god or goddess. That’s why Naaman asks to take “two mule-loads of earth” back with him to Damascus. We presume he’s going to spread that dirt over his property, creating an extra-territorial piece of Canaan, obligating Yahweh to take care of anyone who lives (and worships) on that soil. He says as much: “I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to Yahweh.” The sixth century BCE Babylonian Exile would put an end to that restrictive theology. Jews forced to live hundreds of miles from the Promised Land eventually began to experience Yahweh’s presence and power in a country that technically “belonged” to other gods. No longer was Yahweh limited to just one piece of geography.
Luke’s Jesus mirrors some of the Naaman/Elisha story. Though the leprous Samaritan isn’t a Gentile, he’s regarded as being outside “acceptable Judaism.” His heresy excludes him under pain of death from even going into the sacred confines of the Jerusalem temple. Obviously the God whom Jesus channels and has become can work beyond the restrictions with which people limit him/her. Not only that, but the heretic alone returns to thank Jesus for the cure. The other nine orthodox recipients of God’s favor seem to have forgotten their manners.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the unknown author of II Timothy zeroes in on our obligation to die with Jesus. He’s convinced that only those who have died with him will live with him. It doesn’t make any difference who we are or where we are, the one essential, never changing aspect of our faith is a willingness to die with Jesus by giving ourselves to others. No future theology will ever contradict that. No matter who we are or where we are, we’re expected to always pull that off. What an insight!
Yet, I suspect you, like me, rarely thank the historical Jesus for sharing that insight with us. We just take it for granted and walk away from the person who died for us.