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OCTOBER 14, 2007: Twenty-Eighth Sunday of the Year


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

Today's three readings remind us that some tenets of biblical faith can and have changed through the centuries, others haven't, and some can't.

Naaman's request to "have two mule-loads of earth" comes from a period in which people thought Yahweh was only the territorial God of Israel. Take one step over the border and Yahweh's no longer responsible for you, nor in control of what happens to you. Other gods and goddesses tae over once you leave the Promised Land.

Naaman now believes in Yahweh, but is returning to Damascus. How will he "offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to Yahweh?" He'll take two mule-loads of Israelite dirt back with him, and spread it around his property, creating a small annex of Israel in Syria, permitting Yahweh to hear and answer the former leper's prayers.

A few centuries after this event, Deutero-Isaiah, exiled in Babylon, hundreds of miles from Israel, begins to understand and proclaim Yahweh's presence beyond the Promised Land's confines; a tremendous shift in Jewish and biblical theology.

On the other hand, another theological aspect in this II Kings passage hasn't (or shouldn't have) changed. Elisha refuses Naaman's grateful and gracious post-cure gift. "As Yahweh lives whom I serve," the prophet asserts, "I will not take it." Elisha's adamant refusal springs from the biblical conviction that accepting a "stipend" for performing a holy action is tantamount to saying the human agent, not God, accomplished the sacred act. One way to know God actually performed the action was for the person through whom God worked to refuse any payment for his or her part in the event.

Though this no-pay-for-sacred actions belief has never changed, we Christians have created all sorts of theological loopholes permitting us to "end run" around it. (e.g. "I can't accept anything for doing it, but you could give me something on the occasion of my doing it.") Elisha warns us that any linkage between money and the sacred is always forbidden. (Read on a few more verses to find out what later happens to Gehazi, Elisha's servant, after he finagles two talents of silver and two festal garments from Naaman.)

Luke reminds his readers of another dimension of faith which never changes: gratitude. Only the heretical Samaritan returns to thank Jesus for curing his leprosy. The other nine disappear down the road.

But it's left to the author of II Timothy to state a specific belief about Jesus that always remains the same for Christians. Quoting an early Christian hymn, the writer states, "If we die with him we shall 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."

Dying and rising with Jesus is at the heart of our faith. That's why the earliest crucifixes never depicted Jesus' mangled body. During the Church's first centuries Jesus' followers employed only a "crux gemmata:" a cross adorned with jewels instead of Jesus' crucified body; the perfect Christian symbol. The cross represents death; the jewels, life. One object portrays the basic tension of our faith: simultaneous dying and rising.

As the line added to the original hymn reminds us, "He cannot deny himself." Those who imitate Jesus' dying and rising actually become one with Jesus. No wonder Jesus' followers were called "other Christs."

Though certain aspects of our faith can't be changed, they can be forgotten, or relegated to the perimeter of our religious practices. Fortunately they can never completely be blotted out. We have God's promise on that. Our II Timothy authors states clearly, "The word of God is not chained."

Perhaps all students of Scripture should invest in some bolt cutters.