Oct 13, 2019: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – 2 Kings 5:14-17

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.”

Today’s first reading is an episode from the collection of stories about the prophet Elisha.  It is a narrative about healing gratitude, conversion, and worship.

The preceding verses of Chapter 5 provide context for this story.  Naaman was a highly esteemed amry commander of Syria, Israel’s hostile northern neighbor.  He was handicapped at the height of his military career by leprosy. His wife had a servant girl from Israel who said that “the prophet who is in Samaria” (Elisha) would be able to cure him.

When Naaman came seeking Elisha and his cure, Elisha sent a messenger to him with instructions to wash in the Jordan seven times.  At first, Naaman scoffed at the prescription, angry and disappointed at a seemingly ridiculous command, but his servants persuaded him to try it.

Why was Naaman disappointed?  He had expected Elisha to invoke the name of God in an exhibition of power and cure him on the spot.  Instead, Elisha doesn’t even come to greet him and gives baffling instructions for bathing in the notoriously muddy waters of the Jordan.

Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times at the word of the man of God.

Note that Namaan had to “go down” (yārad) to the river: this might have a double meaning.  It describes Naaman’s descent into the waters, but it can also demonstrate the humility required for a man with many people under his command to obey the instructions of a lowly prophet from a nation not his own.

The reason for washing seven times is not given, but the number seven often symbolizes completion and wholesomeness, indicating that this ritual comprises a complete washing.

His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. 

This healing is very unusual.  Although Elisha gave instructions for what to do, the prophet himself had nothing to do with the cure.  In fact, he wasn’t even present when it happened.

He returned with his whole retinue to the man of God.

Naaman was a man of means.  He traveled with a retinue, an entourage that probably included attendants of various kinds.

Suffering from leprosy was a terrible physical affliction and an unbearable social stigma.  When he realized he had been cured, his indebtedness prompted him to return to Elisha.

On his arrival he stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.

A tremendous statement of conversion and a championship of monotheism and universalism. It is not surprising that an Israelite would claim that there is no other God but the Lord, but when a non-Israelite does, it is truly remarkable. Not only was his leprosy gone, the cure had reached his whole person.

In addition to the inherent power demonstrated by this event, the fact that God chose to heal a foreigner demonstrates God’s love and concern for all, Israelite and non-Israelite alike.

Please accept a gift from your servant.”

In his gratitude, Naaman offers Elisha a gift.

“As the LORD lives whom I serve, I will not take it,” Elisha replied; and despite Naaman’s urging, he still refused.

Elisha had committed his entire life to serving God’s call; accepting gifts would introduce temptation toward wealth, power, or prestige and interfere with his prophetic office.  Acceptance might also suggest that it was Elisha’s own powers that had effected the cure.

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.”

The sincerity of Naaman’s conversion is seen in his desire to worship the God of Israel even when he is back in his own land.  Since it was believed that one could only worship a god in the land of that God (for examples, see Genesis 4:16 and 1 Samuel 26:19), Naaman asks permission to take some earth back home with him so that he will be able to worship the Lord while standing on “holy ground.”

Naaman’s newfound monotheistic faith is not yet fully developed: he has not yet realized that God’s power extends over the entire world.  Naaman does not need the land of Israel to ensure the presence of God.

2nd Reading – 2 Timothy 2:8-13

Beloved:
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.

This week’s reading is a continuation of Paul’s appeal to Timothy from last week.  The fact that Paul writes from prison makes his appeal even more poignant.  It begins with what appears to be a form of creedal statement, and it ends with what Paul himself identifies as a trustworthy saying.

Beloved: Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David:

Paul exhorts Timothy to remember what is at the heart of the gospel Paul has preached.  He is speaking here of a manner of remembering that is far more than merely calling to mind, it is a way of witnessing to the authenticity of what is remembered.  In this case, it is a truth that is twofold: Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and he is a descendant of David.

The first component of the testimony is the very basis of Christian faith.  The title “Christ” means “anointed one,” the long-awaited one who would inaugurate the reign of God and bring it to fulfillment.  This was accomplished through his death and resurrection.  The fact that he came from the line of David shows that he fulfilled the expectations and promises associated with that royal family.

such is my gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of chains, like a criminal.

That Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Messiah, was raised from the dead is the gospel to which Paul committed himself and for which he was now suffering imprisonment.

Paul’s attitude toward his confinement is complex.  While he considered it a privilege to suffer the same fate as did his Lord, it was still a great affliction for him.  It prevented him from engaging in the ministry in which he took such pride.  It kept him from the people whose lives he had touched and who had touched his life.

More than this, Paul was a freeborn Roman citizen.  It must have been a great humiliation for him to have been treated like a common malefactor, slave, or conquered captive.  He even calls himself a criminal, a term generally used to designate burglars, murderers, traitors, or other serious offenders.  Still, the greater his humiliation and torment, the more he rejoices in participating in the sufferings of Christ.

But the word of God is not chained.

Paul knows that he is not the only evangelist, and besides, he has been able to share the gospel even as a prisoner.

“But now God has made us such that nothing can subdue us. Our hands are bound but not our tongue, since nothing can bind the tongue but cowardice and unbelief. Where these are not, though you fasten chains upon us, the preaching of the gospel is not bound.” [Saint John Chrysostom (between A.D. 393-397), Homilies on the Second Epistle to Timothy 4]

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 agony and indignity Paul bears are seen by him as a share in the birth-pangs of the Messiah, that necessary suffering that would precede the reign of God.  The idea that there was a predetermined amount of suffering that had to be endured before this glorious reign could come seems to lie behind Paul’s thinking here.  He believed that the more suffering he could contribute, the less the rest of the Church would have to undergo and the sooner the reign would appear.  He seems to have been assured of his own salvation, and in this way he sought to assure the salvation of others as well — not that he could earn it but that he could actively participate in its dawning.

This saying is trustworthy:

The structure of Paul’s trustworthy saying that follows suggests a liturgical hymn.  It consists of four conditional clauses that describe an action of the believer, with consequent clauses that state a corresponding action of Christ.

If we have died with him we shall also live with him;

The first saying reflects the fundamental belief in the fruits of the resurrection in the lives of believers.  Joined to Christ in his death, we will be joined to him in his resurrection.  This is baptismal language.

“The Savior, too, first granted you this very thing – that you should fall. You were a Gentile. Let the Gentile in you fall. You loved prostitutes. Let the lover of prostitutes in you perish first. You were a sinner. Let the sinner in you fall. Then you can rise again and say, ‘If we have died with Him, we shall also live with Him,’ and, ‘If we have been made like Him in death, we shall also be like Him in resurrection.” [Origen (after A.D. 233), Homilies on Luke 17,3]

if we persevere we shall also reign with him. 

The second saying attests to the need to remain faithful in order to share in Christ’s reign.  This particular saying may have been the primary reason for Paul’s instruction of Timothy.

But if we deny him he will deny us.

The first two sayings were positive, the second two are negative.  Here, Paul describes the alternative to fidelity. Infidelity to Christ would translate to Christ’s refusal to recognize us at the judgment as one of his followers. This presupposes that Jesus has authority over others before God at judgment time (see Matthew 10:32-33).

If we are unfaithful he remains faithful,

The last saying addresses again the question of faithfulness, but it does not follow the pattern of the previous three.  This is probably because there was no thought that God could be faithless.  In fact, the opposite is true.  That is the paradox of divine love.  Human faithlessness only highlights divine faithfulness.

for he cannot deny himself.

Christ, by his divine nature, is unchangeable.

Gospel – Luke 17:11-19

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.”

Our gospel reading echoes the story recounted in the first reading.  It is the story of a foreigner who suffered the pain and indignity of leprosy.  He was cured by the power of God and returned to give thanks.  While similar lessons are taught in both narratives, each contains its own meaning.

As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,

Luke reminds us that Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem, where his passion and death await.

he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.

The mention of Samaria is made because one of the lepers is a Samaritan.

The abhorrent nature of leprosy can be seen in the fact that the ethnic and religious rivalry that existed between the Jews and the Samaritans was superseded by the disease.  In a sense, the disease took complete control of them: they had no identity except as a leper.  They could claim no ethnic or political privileges, and they were barred from religious practice.  According to the law, which insisted upon cleanliness for the people whom God had set apart as his own, anything unclean was to be avoided, including lepers.  Those with leprosy were to be isolated outside the cities and villages, segregated from all the normal activities of life (see Leviticus 13:46, Numbers 5:2-3), crying out “Unclean!” should anyone approach them (Leviticus 13:45).

They stood at a distance from him and raised their voice, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” 

These outcasts recognized Jesus, for standing at a distance, they cried out to him by name.  They also address him as Master (epistátēs), a term only the disciples used for Jesus.  They did not ask for alms, as was customary for destitute people who sat outside the villages begging, but for mercy, for compassion.

Knowing who Jesus was, this probably meant they were seeking a cure.

And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.”

Jesus neither touched them nor spoke words of healing over them. He merely sent them away with directions.  He put their faith to the test by having them go to the priests presuming they would be healed.

The priests, as cultic functionaries, were responsible for protecting purity and guarding against impurity (see Leviticus 14:2).  As representatives of both medicine and religion (which for a long time in human history were intertwined in attempts to cure the whole person), they would be the ones to evaluate the efficacy of the cure and declare them eligible to return to society.

As they were going they were cleansed.

They did as Jesus instructed, and on the way, they were healed.

This story of healing the ten lepers is intended to draw attention to the identity of Jesus:

  • Recall that when Jesus began his public ministry, he read a scroll from the prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives… (Luke 4:18a)
  • After reading the scroll Jesus says, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21b). Jesus is telling the people that they are living in the time when God is fulfilling God’s promises and that those promises are being fulfilled through him.
  • Jesus then goes on to tell his townspeople that no prophet is accepted in his native place, and he reminds them of times when non-Israelites have been the ones to benefit from a prophet’s gift of healing (Luke 4:23-30).  In fact, our first reading is an example of that reality.
  • Later John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Luke 7:19b).  Jesus responds by holding up the mighty signs he has performed as evidence of his identity: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed…” (Luke 7:22b).  Jesus’ curing of lepers is held up to John’s disciples as a sign that Jesus is “the one who is to come,” the fulfillment of God’s promises.

In today’s story, all that Jesus has said is coming to fulfillment: Jesus cures ten lepers, and among them is a non-Israelite.

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. 

Only one man returned to thank Jesus. He is described with bold strokes: he glorifies God, he prostrates himself before Jesus, he is a Samaritan.

He is not surprised that Jesus healed him.  He, along with his companions, had recognized Jesus earlier and had hoped for a cure.  Nor is he the only one who had faith: they all believed Jesus had the power to heal them, and they all went off to show themselves to the priests.  What makes this man unique is his gratitude.

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?”

Furthermore, it is a Samaritan, one who is despised by the Jews, who shows gratitude to the Jewish wonder-worker — a point Jesus clearly makes.

There are several similarities between the Samaritan and Naaman, from our first reading:

  • Both were foreigners away from their home,
  • Both were asked to do something apparently oversimplistic to effect a cure,
  • Both knew enough to be full of praise and gratitude for their cure,
  • For both of them, their whole person was cured, and as a result, their understanding was expanded.

Then he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”

Jesus commends the man for his faith.  Once again the last (a Samaritan) will be first (held up as an example).

Connections and Themes

The readings for today suggest a journey.  They trace the stages of Christian conversion from sin through healing to gratitude and finally to the privilege of living lives in the eschatological age.

Sin: Separation from God.  The journey begins with the stories of Naaman and the ten men who had leprosy.  Their leprosy, which was the principal alienating disease of that day, serves as a metaphor for our sinfulness, the condition that makes us unfit for the presence of God and despicable in the eyes of others. Separated from God and alienated from society, we are truly in a deplorable state, a state out of which we are unable to extricate ourselves.

Salvation: Healing. Into these seemingly hopeless conditions step the prophet Elisha and Jesus.  Each in his own way brings the healing power of God, the saving grace of God. Paul is such a mediator as well.  He brings the gospel to those who are in need of salvation. When people are open to his preaching, they are transformed and made ready to receive eternal glory.  It’s interesting that in both narratives the agent of God’s healing did not belong to the social group of the one healed.  In other words, God’s grace does not move along ethnic or racial or gender or class or generational lines. God’s healing grace is sometimes available to us through unfamiliar means. Had Naaman not crossed ethnic boundaries, he would not have been healed by waters that were foreign to him. Had the Samaritan man not been in the company of other leprous men or had he not approached the Jewish Jesus, he would not have been healed.  God’s grace comes to us from unexpected quarters and in unexpected ways.

Thanks and praise.  The next step in our journey of conversion is the response of gratitude and praise.  Both Naaman and the lone Samaritan are so filled with gratitude they return to the one responsible for their healing. They are not so preoccupied with their good fortune as to forget that it came to them as a gift.  They must have known unbelievable joy in their cure, but the narratives depict them as overwhelmed with gratitude.  Their response is the kind of thanks and praise proclaimed at each Sunday Eucharist: We have been saved from our alienation from God and one another.  Let us give thanks to the Lord!

New life.  Those who know they have been healed, who realize this was a gift freely given to them, and who return to give thanks have, by these acts of devotion, stepped over a threshold into a new way of living.  Their thanks and praise usher them into the new age of eschatological promise: if we have died with him, we will live with him. This new life is completely dependent upon faith.  For Naaman, it was faith in the words of the prophet; for the leprous man, it was faith in the words of Jesus; for the people to whom Paul wrote, it was faith in the words of his teaching.  We see this Sunday what we have seen on earlier Sundays, that is, the importance of faith and the role played by the community in bringing the promises of God to fulfillment.

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