Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 10, 2004
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on 2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19)
[Before I begin to break open the word I want to tell you of an experience that always comes back to mind whenever I hear today's Gospel.
When I was in the seminary in St. Louis in the 50's we were under tight wraps. There was to be no going out from the seminary for public events.
But rules exist in order to be bent if not broken, so naturally some of the seminarians would find ways to paint outside the lines. So one Sunday a group of 9-10 fellows slipped out the back door to go to see a St. Louis Browns baseball game. (Just in case you aren't up on the sports of that day, you had to be really desperate for sports to go see the Browns play...)
The fellows didn't have much walking-around money -- there was no walking-around -- so the best they could pay for was seats in the bleachers. But since there were so few in attendance, our men wound up in the front row, with only an 8-foot wall separating them from the left-fielder.
At one point in the game one of the opponents hit a line drive that was headed right for the bleachers, but at the last minute the fielder leaped up and made a fantastic catch right in front of them. It was a memorable experience.
The only hitch was that a photographer managed to get a great shot just as the ball was being caught.
You might be able to guess where this is going. The result was that on Monday's sports page there were the truants caught in the headlight looking for all the world like suspects in a police line-up.
The custom in religious house of that time was that people who broke the rules would be compelled to make a public act of penance in the diningroom. So the next night there was the ringleader down on his knees confessing the wrong-doing and asking pardon from the community.
After dinner one of the community wags said, "Were not 10 involved? Where were the other nine?"]
Now that I have forever ruined your hearing of the story, what is the Lord telling us today?
It would be easy to read the story of the healing of a leper in the Book of Kings and the companion story in Luke and see them as moralizing stories. They are intended to give us examples of right behavior: when the Lord does some marvelous work, the appropriate thing is to give thanks.
And certainly the world would be a little bit better if we all worked at giving thanks, it's a neglected virtue.
But if we let it go at that and just each make a mental note to be more grateful, we would miss a much more central point.
We need to ask ourselves who is cured in each instance: Who is Naaman? Who is the Samaritan in the Gospel?
In both cases they are outsiders to the people of Israel. They are not people included in the Covenant, they are aliens. 'Pagans', because that was the original meaning of 'pagans': those on the outskirts of the city, those who weren't insiders.
First, Naaman. It turns out that he was a military commander of the Arameans or Syrians. The Israelites had been captured and led off into slavery in Babylon and Naaman was one of their conquerors, an oppressors of the Lord's people.
How did this fellow wind up going to the prophet Elisha? Let's go back to the story that precedes the brief account we read of his healing. It's a great dramatic narrative.
Naaman had tried everything to be cured of his condition. And then a young Jewish handmaid --- one of the people under oppression --- told her lady that she had the answer. He'd be cured if he went and did what the prophet told him to do. Naaman resisted but finally what else could he do?
So he goes on a journey to Elisha. And when he gets there the prophet doesn't even welcome him! He send his servant out of the tent to give him -- this VIP -- instructions to go wash seven times in the Jordan.
Naaman is really ticked off. He comes all this way, to be treated like this? He's given these foolish instructions. The Jordan? Why, there are cleaner waters back in his homeland. And go in and out seven times? It's pure superstition, foolishness. It can make us recall Jesus' words: "I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to the little ones."
Naaman is ready to quit and go home. Only his servants' street smarts save him: You cam this far, why not do this last little thing even if it seems so foolish?
And then there is the grateful leper in Luke's story.
We've heard the story of the 'good Samaritan' so often, we need to remind ourselves of the way the Jewish people thought of the Samaritans. They were the dregs. They were apostates and heretics, scorned by any self-respecting Jew. And the man was a leper besides: you went way out of your way not to come into contact with this foul being ringing his bell to alert you to his situation.
Someone has made an interesting side observation on the story. There was one Samaritan among the ten -- so the others must have been Israelites. The story takes place 'on the border of Samaria and Galilee.' Among lepers and outcasts apparently Jews and Samaritans had no difficulty hanging out together. When you're at the bottom of the barrel, the lowest of the low in society, all the phony class distinctions fall away.
And Jesus makes no distinction with his gifts. In fact he singles out for praise precisely the one who would be scorned by the upright.
To get the full meaning of what is going on here we need to recall a third passage, not in today's liturgy. It contains a reference to our man Naaman.
It was that dramatic day when Jesus first entered the synagogue in Capernaum and declared his mission. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring sight to the blind and liberation to the captive. The poor will have the good news proclaimed to them."
We've been struck so often at the grandeur of his vision that we might forget what happened when he declared it.
The hearers in the synagogue asked him to perform for them the miracles he was performing elsewhere. And Jesus reminded them that in the time of Elijah there were many widows in Israel he might have cared for but instead he cared for a pagan widow from Sidon; and in the time of Elisha there were many lepers in Israel -- but Elisha cured the pagan Naaman.
And what happened? The people were so enraged at what Jesus was saying that they drove him out of the synagogue and threatened to kill him. He was reminding them that God's gift of liberation is offered to the outsiders. And they couldn't deal with that. God bestows gifts freely, according to God's mercy. They don't want to hear that. They believed that they earned justification by doing all the right things: keeping the Law and being ritually pure -- we might say "going to Mass".
So it turns out that the readings are indeed about giving thanks -- but much more importantly, they are dealing with a deeper reality: who we are and who God is.
I asked earlier: who is Naaman? Who is the Samaritan? Who is the leper?
And the real answer is that we are Naaman. You and I are the Samaritan. The lepers. The outsiders , the aliens, on whom the Lord has bestowed the gift of faith and healing without any merit on our part. Paul tells us "You were once aliens, you were once in darkness, and God has brought you into marvelous light." Not because of any good thing we had done. John tells us it isn't because we first loved God. No, God first loved us. At one time we were 'no people' and God chose in God's mercy to make us 'My people.'
It is by God's grace that we are what we are.
We have died with Christ in Baptism and we continue to die with him each time we put aside our ego and live for our neighbor. And Paul reminds Timothy of a hymn that was already circulating in the community of those first Christians. If we have died with him we shall surely also live with him.
The word of the Lord is not chained. When it goes forth it does not return until it has accomplished what it was sent to accomplish.
Even for those the world considers foolish. And those whom 'good Christians' might be inclined to see as unclean.