Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: 2 Kgs 5:14-17; Ps 98:1-4; 2 Tim 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
The Broad Embrace of God
What is called leprosy in the Bible may have been any skin ailment, from the dreaded disease itself to psoriasis or eczema. Such conditions were not only feared because of the possibility of contagion, but also abhorred because of the nature of their oozing sores. Besides the hygienic reason for the quarantine imposed on all those who were so afflicted, there was a religious stigma attached. Running sores kept people from participating in religious celebrations. They were thereby deemed unclean, unfit to be counted among a people who considered themselves "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Exod 19:6).
The stories we hear today are more about the gratitude of the men cured than of the actual healings themselves. Naaman was not only an outcast because of his illness, but also a non-Israelite. However, he returned to Elisha to thank him for the cure, and in gratitude he transferred his allegiance to the God of Israel. This is revealed in his request for some Israelite ground so that, when he returned to his own country, he would be able to worship the God of Israel on some of the land of Israel. Similar details are found in the gospel healing account. There we are told that only the despised Samaritan returned to Jesus to give thanks for having been cured.
The nationalities of the men who were cured are not insignificant. Both the author of 2 Kings and the evangelist Luke wanted to make an important theological point about outsiders. One would presume that members of the chosen people would be grateful for God's special care of them, but one would not expect the same gratitude from non-believers. However, both Naaman and the Samaritan returned to the person responsible for their cure, eager to show how grateful they were. Furthermore, Naaman shifted his allegiance to the God of Israel and the Samaritan was extolled by Jesus for his faith.
Faith is the theme proclaimed in the reading from 2 Timothy as well. Paul was imprisoned for his faith. Still, this did not deter him from proclaiming the salvation won by Christ Jesus. He taught that this salvation reconciles us with God. This is not unlike the healing from leprosy that reincorporated the formerly afflicted men into their respective communities. Paul further insisted that the claim he made was trustworthy. At issue was whether or not those who heard this claim would accept it.
The same claim is posed to us, and as always, it requires faith. But then it was faith that prompted Naaman to plunge himself into the waters of the Jordan River; and it was in faith that those cured went to present themselves to the priests who alone could authenticate their healing. It seems that faith and healing go hand in hand, as do faith and reconciliation. It is also clear that where there is faith, God is not outdone in generosity.
The stories of the men with leprosy have several other implications for us today. First, they demonstrate the universal love of God for all peoples. Naaman was a dignitary of a nation that often posed a threat to Israel. The Samaritan belonged to another such nation. Both nations were despised as enemies. Yet God reached out and restored these men, and in response they somehow aligned themselves with God. In neither case did the men modify their national loyalties. Israelites may have continued to consider them national adversaries, but they could no longer judge them to be enemies of God.
Second, leprosy was considered one of the most, if not the most, loathsome of diseases. It was seen as the punishment for extraordinary sinfulness, and it rendered one ritually unclean. All righteous people shunned those afflicted with the disease, lest they too would contract the ritual impurity and be prevented from taking part in public worship. These men were healed without any admission of or repentance for sin. Thus were overturned the ritual taboo and religious shame associated with the disease. Clearly God looks beyond human mores and strictures in order to touch the heart as well as the body.
Finally, just as these stories reveal the unconditional, universal love of God, so they show that grateful response to that love is also beyond human boundaries of race, nation, or religion. In other words, salvation unfolds in the lives of people of integrity regardless of their ethnic or religious background. Not only were the men in the accounts not enemies of God, but they were also bound to God by relationships of faith. Their relationships were different than those enjoyed by the Israelites, but they were genuine nonetheless. Once again we stand in awe before the mystery of God's love.
Dianne Bergant, CSA
Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies
This reflection first appeared in America magazine and can now be found in The Word for Every Season: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2010).
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