Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 14, 2001

St. Martin de Porres

(Based on 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19)

These recent weeks have been very heavy. So before I begin my actual homily I want to offer you something lighter. It's the story of an experience in my past, and I can never hear today's Gospel without recalling it. When I finish the story, I think you will understand why.

It happened when I was in the seminary in St. Louis. (That was shortly before Noah built the ark.) In those days seminarians led a fairly restricted existence. In particular, we were not allowed to attend public events around the city.

One afternoon there was a good baseball game to take place at the Cardinals' field. A group of seven or eight of the seminarians decided they would stretch the boundaries a bit so they slipped out the back door and went to the game. They didn't have much money so the best thing they could do was to get seats in the left-field bleachers. But they were there early so they got the seats right in the first row. Of course they felt great beating the system and escaping classes.

In the middle of the game one of the batters hit a screaming line drive up against the left-field wall. The outfielder timed his jump perfectly and made a leaping catch within a few feet of the guys. An exciting thing to be part of. They were in their glory.

What they didn't realize was that a good sports photographer couldn't miss a play like that so he got a fine shot of the catch... I think you can smell what's coming next. That's right, in the morning paper on the sports page there was this wonderful photo of the catch -- and there as clear as day were the faces of my buddies, as clear as if they were in a suspect's line-up in the police station...

The superiors didn't take kindly to this flaunting of the rules, so they got the ring-leader and he had to perform a public penance at the evening community meal. (That was a common practice in those days: at the start of the meal an offender would kneel in the middle of the refectory and confess publicly what he had done.) So the leader made his public penance.

By now you may be able to guess what the story has to do with our Gospel. That's right: after the meal the community wags were quick to come up with the memorable line: "Where were the other nine?"

In the readings for today the church invites us to reflect on two instances in which a leper is cured. We are meant to derive some insight by comparing the two incidents.

I want to highlight three different aspects in the stories: the situation of the leper before the healing; the role of the outsider in each case; and the way each leper responds to his cure.

At the time of the event in the Second Book of Kings the Israelite people have been defeated and taken off into captivity. They have lost their Temple and the holy city of Jerusalem. Naaman was one of the commanders in the king's army. He was a big shot, a powerful man. But he was also a leper.

The outsider comes in the form of a young Jewish girl who had been captured and made the slave of Naaman's wife. She was a true believer so she told her mistress that if her husband would only go to the prophet Elisha he could be cured. Naaman took the suggestion since there was no other cure around. But because of the world he lived in he imagined himself going to meet another power-figure. So he loaded up a large caravan of courtiers and gifts to offer to the prophet.

When he arrived, Elisha told him to go and wash seven times in the waters of the river Jordan. At that Naaman became furious. 'You mean I come all this way and you just tell me to wash in your river? No special rituals or incantations?' He was so mad he was going to return home. But his advisers said 'You've come all this way and taken all this trouble; you might as well try this one simple step.' He did, and he was cured.

So what does Naaman do? He offers a lot of gifts to Elisha. That's the way things are done in his world. We might be tricked into thinking that was just gratitude but Elisha sees through it. Naaman hasn't a clue about what's really going on. For him it's a business transaction: you give me something and I return the favor. He has no idea of the free offering of God's grace.

So we turn to the story in Luke's Gospel.

We tend to focus all our attention on the fact that this one man is the only one to come back and give thanks to Jesus. But did you ever ask yourself what the man's situation was before Jesus came along that road?

The first thing we need to note is that the man was a Samaritan. We've heard the other story of 'the good Samaritan' so often that we might not advert to the social situation here. For the Israelites a Samaritan was the lowest of the low, a person to be scorned and avoided at all cost. No law-abiding Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, much less touch him. (It's interesting how Jesus broke the norm. Remember the Samaritan woman he sat with by the well?).

And this man was also a leper. Unclean. Someone shameful who must have done something horrible to be afflicted with such a plague. To be avoided at all costs. Remember that a leper had to ring a bell when anyone came close, to alert them to the possibility of ritual contamination.

Let's stop a minute ans ask ourselves who might be the Samaritan leper in our times. In the 30's in Germany it would have been the Jews. In 1941 in our country it was Japanese-Americans, citizens our government put in isolation camps, keeping it a secret from the American people. In our days the Samaritan leper might be someone with AIDS. Or some immigrant who doesn't speak our language. Or gays and lesbians. Or perhaps closer to today it might be someone who just looks like an 'Arab' or someone who practices the Muslim religion.

But there's more to this leper's situation. Did you ever advert to the fact that he was with a bunch of other lepers -- who weren't Samaritans but Jews! I had never thought about that until I read a commentary this week in which the author made the observation that misery loves company. When you're at the bottom of the barrel, social distinctions aren't all that important. You hang out with people who accept you, because you're all on the margins of society.

So Jesus comes along and the lepers cry out for pity. What does he do? There is no abracadabra, not even a symbolic gesture. He simply tells them to go and join the holy community. That's really what was implied in his instructions to go and show themselves to the priests.

And what is the Samaritan's response? (Remember, he's the outsider.) He glorifies God in a loud voice.

It's too bad we don't have a good word to translate the original Greek expression here. The Greek word for what he did is eucharistein. He "Eucharisted". By contrast to Naaman he knows what has happened. He doesn't try to give a gift to Jesus (what gift could you offer?), he simply thanks him for the free gift of grace he has received.

You and I have all been received by the Lord many times when we were isolated and ashamed and cut off from God's holy people by our failure to love. Are we able simply to receive the Lord's grace as a free gift? Can we be that child-like?

We have only to acknowledge our isolation and shame, and call out "Lord, have pity on me" -- and God's grace is already there.

Instead of the response of Eucharisting, how often to we try to bargain with God, to make a deal? Our 'Lenten resolutions' are often like that; you know, 'God, I'll give up this behavior for Lent if you will . . ." We're always trying to earn salvation. On our terms.

What we do here in the Eucharist of God's people is not an act of bargaining. It is simply an act of thanksgiving for the favor God freely gives us. When we come to the liturgy all we have to do is to acknowledge our need and ask for the Lord's pity. We take our place at the side of the road with the rest of the outcasts; give up the pretense that we are better or above anyone else, experience our common sinfulness, and call out. If we do, the Lord's free gift is there. As Paul says to Timothy in the second reading: "If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful for he cannot deny himself."

We will know we have received God's healing on God's terms when we acknowledge our poverty, and accept the fact that we have nothing to give back, when we join the holy community and make Eucharist one more time.