TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR C
2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
The cure of leprosy drew together this Sunday’s first reading and the gospel reading. Let’s begin like a story should begin. Once upon a time there was a successful commander of the army of the King of Syria. His name was Naaman. He was a leper. The Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Syria to the north of Israel were often at war with each other — though not at the time of this story. On a previous raid of Israel by Syria they had captured a young Israelite girl. She became a slave to Naaman’s wife, to whom she suggested that a prophet, Elisha, could cure the leprosy. He got permission of his king to go to Samaria, capital city of Israel, with the king’s letter of introduction to the King of Israel. Naaman took along a fortune of silver, gold and rich cloth. He presented his king’s letter of introduction to Israel’s king. This king thought the Syrian king was picking a fight with him. Word got around to Elisha, who said to his king, “Send him to me, so that he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman and his attendants drive to Elisha’s house. The prophet does not meet him but sends him a text, “Go and wash in the Jordan River seven times . . . and you shall be clean.” Naaman considers Elisha’s medical advice an insult, since the Syrians had better rivers than Israel’s Jordan. He angrily refuses. He had expected some impressive audiovisual method of cure. But his attendants begged him to try Elisha’s method. He complied, and his flesh “became like that of a little child.” Naaman experienced an instant conversion to the real God. He wanted to reward the prophet with rich gifts, but Elisha refused. Then a strange request from Naaman — two mule-loads of ground from Israel. There was a common belief among ancients that a god could be worshipped only on his own ground. Since the Lord was the God of Israel, Naaman could worship him all the time by taking some of the Lord’s ground to Syria. Elisha okays the transfer of Israel’s dirt. There is a sequel to the story. Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, did not accept the prophet’s refusal of a fee from Naaman, and took action to remedy the prophet’s failure. See 2 Kings 5:19b to 27 for the rest of the story, entertaining and perhaps even inspiring a pious thought or two.
The Responsorial Psalm (98) by its use in the liturgy following the above story, celebrates how God reveals himself not just to Israel but to all nations. “The Lord has made his salvation known, in the sight of the nations (Gentiles) he has revealed his justice. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” Thus the Psalm gives a theological foundation to the story of the cure of a Syrian general, a former enemy of Israel, now a worshipper of the true God.
The second reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-13. This part of the letter is not so much advice to Paul’s young colleague, but more about Paul himself. The reading begins with a short creed professing Jesus as the Christ, as risen from the dead, and as king (descendant of David). This, Paul claims, is his gospel for which he is in prison in chains (like a criminal). The Roman authorities who imprisoned him did not know that the Christian proclamation of King Jesus would within three centuries defeat the Roman Empire as it was constituted under Caesar in the first century. Paul claims to suffer vicariously (for others), “that they may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus and eternal glory.” The author closes with a hymn of unknown origin, with puzzling assertions. “If we deny him, he will deny us. If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny him-self.” 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.
The gospel narrates Jesus’ encounter with 10 lepers. As the journey to Jerusalem continues, he passes through Samaria directly south of Galilee, his homeland. This in itself is unusual because of the antagonism between Samaritans and Jews, especially Jews en route to Jerusalem for Passover. The usual route was safer, traveling south along the east bank of the Jordan River. For Luke it is important that Jesus touch upon Samaria because the Samaritans were despised as “heretics” by the Jews. Jesus is therefore the healer not only of the lepers but of Samaria itself, preparing it for the future Christian mission. The lepers stand at a distance as required by the Torah in Leviticus 13:45-46. Responding to their cry for compassion, he commands them to “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” This too is prescribed by the Torah in Leviticus 14:2-32. The priests served as delegates of the community to ascertain if the leprosy has disappeared and to oversee the involved rituals of purification before permitting a now cured leper to reenter community life. While on the way to obey Jesus’ command, they were cured of their disease. Catechetically speaking, their obedience to Jesus is a lesson in faith, and their cure demonstrates Jesus’ power over disease.
Only one returned to thank Jesus. The important statement is this, “And he was a Samaritan.”
As Jesus notes, “Were not 10 cleansed? Where are the other nine? Only this foreigner returned to thank God.” What’s going on here, Luke? Luke’s Acts of the Apostles narrates the ongoing struggle between the earlier Christians, who were all Jews, to overcome their age old prejudices against any outsiders such as Gentiles and Samaritans. The latter worshipped the same God as the Jews and were also of Semitic stock, but they had become of mixed race and even mixed worship when the Assyrian conquerors exiled the northern Israelites and imported other peoples from the east. By Jesus’ time this mixed worship was probably no more. It is in Luke’s interest to display for the Jewish Christians that Jesus himself accepted Samaritans when he said, “Your faith has saved you!” Faith in Jesus by a Samaritan? “Yes,” says Luke, “You better believe it!”