By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: 2 Kings 5:14-17; Response: Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4; Second Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
The healing of lepers is the theme that brings together our first reading and the gospel of the day. Some background to the first reading. The King of Syria had an army commander named Naaman who had the misfortune of being a leper. Syria (alternate name Aram) and the Kingdom of Israel were often at war with each other. In one of those wars, the Syrians captured a young Israelite girl who became a slave in the household of Naaman. She suggested to Mrs. Naaman that there was a prophet in Israel named Elisha who might be able to help her husband. Naaman spoke to his king and got permission to go to Samaria, the capital city of Israel, with his king’s letter of introduction to the King of Israel. He took along impressive gifts of silver, gold, and precious cloth. When Naaman presented his letter to Israel’s king, the latter thought the Syrian king was picking a fight with him. That the commander of the Syrian army was in town got around and made the evening news. The prophet Elisha also became aware of the news. He sent word to the King of Israel, “Send him to me, that he may know there is a prophet is Israel.”
The Syrians mount their chariots, and off they go to Elisha’ habitation. The prophet did not meet the commander personally, but sent a message. “Go and wash in the Jordan River seven times … and you will be healed.” Naaman considers Elisha’s message an insult, noting that the Syrians had bigger rivers than Israel’s Jordan. He angrily refuses to follow Elisha’s directions. He undoubtedly expected some kind of personal contact with Elisha, plus incantations and ritual actions. His attendants begged him to try the prophet’s directions. It worked. His flesh “became like that of a little child, cured of leprosy.” Naaman experienced instant conversion to the Lord God. He wanted to bestow rich gifts on Elisha, but Elisha refused. Naaman had a strange request. Could he take two muleloads of ground from Israel back to Syria? It was commonly accepted that a god can be worshipped only in his own geographical area. He could not return to Israel every time he wanted to offer sacrifices to the Lord. Israel’s two loads of dirt transferred to Syria would solve the problem. Elisha grants the transfer. Here, our reading ends; but who would want to miss the sequel? Elisha’s servant Gehazi had seen the gifts Naaman wanted to bestow on Elisha, which the prophet refused. Gehazi ran after the Syrians, informing Naaman that Elisha would accept two talents of silver. Naaman gladly gave the silver to Gehazi. He hid them in his dwelling and returned to Elisha. Elisha knew. He confronted him with this curse, “Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and your descendants forever.” Unfair? Of course, Corporate punishment is like that – just like original sin.
A few of the selected verses of Psalm 98 respond to the first reading. “The Lord has done wondrous deeds. He has made his salvation known in the sight of the nations (Gentiles).” The response of the people sums it up, “The Lord has revealed to the nations (Gentiles) his saving power.”
The second reading continues the Lectionary’s series from 2 Timothy. In past weeks, we have heard Paul giving advice to his young protégé. Today’s reading is different. It begins with a short creed professing Jesus’ royalty – “descended from David” and “raised from the dead.” Paul writes from prison “in chains like a criminal, suffering for the gospel.” He closes with a hymn of unknown origin. Puzzling assertions: “If we deny him, he will deny us. If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” Possible meaning: even if he has to judge us for our unfaithfulness, his mercy and forgiveness will never quit because, as God, he is mercy and forgiveness. In the gospel, Jesus is traveling from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south of the Holy Land. The usual route is to cross the Jordan up north, travel down the east bank of the river, re-cross the Jordan opposite Jericho, then up to Jerusalem. This time, Jesus takes the direct route through Samaria, which lies between Galilee and Judea. Samaritans and Jews were hostile to each other in a land where grudges are not forgotten. The origin of the hostility goes back to the Assyrian conquest of Samaria in 721 B.C. The Assyrians deported much of the Israelite population and imported other peoples from the east. The new settlers brought with them the worship of their gods, which was gradually mingled with the worship of the Lord among the Israelites not deported. The Judeans Therefore, regarded the Samaritans as idolators. A more recent cause of hostility dated from 128 B.C., when the Jewish high priest took an army to Samaria and destroyed the Samaritan temple. The age-old hostility continued into Jesus’ time. However, misery can pull together those whom society sees as enemies, as in this mixed group of afflicted Jews and Samaritans.
Heading south, Jesus approached a town. He encountered 10 lepers. They stood at a distance as prescribed in Leviticus 13:46. Jesus also observed the quarantine, healing by remote. He merely said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” This was prescribed in the laws and the rituals to be put into action for purification of lepers in Leviticus 14:2-32. Why the priests? They served as delegates of the community to determine if the leprosy had disappeared as claimed. The rituals connected with this inspection were complicated. If the leprosy had disappeared, the former lepers were readmitted to normal life in society (note the similarity to our Sacrament of Reconciliation). The 10 lepers were cleansed on their way to the priests. Only one returned to thank Jesus. He was a Samaritan – a foreigner to Jews, as Jesus points out. Why is this story important to Luke’s catechesis? The key is in the words of Jesus to the cured Samaritan leper, “Your faith has saved you.” Faith? In an outsider? A shocker! It was not only an outcast matter. It was a racial matter, aimed at the conservative Christians of Jewish origin in the early Church who found it difficult to overcome the animosity in which they were nurtured. The story of the grateful leper praised by Jesus also served to legitimize the Christian mission to other ethnics, a universal mission.