TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
2 Kgs 5:14-17 2 Tim 228-13 Lk 17:11-19 — Gratitude and Praise
Humility in Faith; The Silliness of God; The Saving Power of God; God’s Healing; On Being an Outcast.
Occasionally, babies are born with a congenital illness of insensitivity to pain. Fortunately rare, the disease is called the Biemond Syndrome, or Analgia. In one family, where two children were born with it, the two-year-old boy, Paul, had already suffered third-degree burns, broken his arm, and sustained contusions and concussions — to all of which he responded with indifference.
When his sister Victoria was born, he was jealous of her because people were making a fuss over her. When no one was looking, he would slug her in the face, or punch her in the stomach, or bite her on the arm, or throw her out of her crib and jump on her. Because she, too, had Analgia, she didn’t even wince. She just looked up at him and smiled. Their father had to quit his job, because someone had to stay with them all the time, especially the My. Chat born without pain sensors rarely live to an old age; they often die of self-inﬂicted injuries.
But what is pain? Some see three views of it in the annals of Western culture — the classical idea that pain is ennobling, the romantic idea that it is the source of art and truth, and the modern, mechanistic, idea that it is nothing but an electrochemical disturbance in some neurological pathway. Because pain is often a crucially useful diagnostic tool for physicians, they are often not inclined to blunt it completely. If they do, they may lose a great source of day-today information on which to base their treatment. In today’s readings we see that pain and suffering, while not necessarily good, can be.
Our First Reading is from a collection of short stories about the prophet Elisha (ninth century B.C.). In today’s story Naaman, the army general of Syria, Israel’s hostile northern neighbour, was handicapped at the height of his military career by a skin disease which at that time was called leprosy, but was apparently not bad enough to exempt him from his commission in the Syrian army.
Having tried every possible remedy without success, Naaman was sent by his king to seek a cure that was reported to be available from the Jewish prophet Elisha. Naaman came — with all his magnificent retinue w» with a letter from his king to the king of Israel. He took along all kinds of expensive gifts — ten silver talents (each roughly a pound of silver), six thousand gold pieces, and ten festal garments. Naaman’s approach scared the king of Israel out of his wits. He thought that the king of Syria was trying to say, “Cure my general Naaman or else!” Elisha heard about his king’s plight and asked that Naaman be sent to him. The king was glad to oblige.
Humiliating though it was for the army commander of a great power to seek help in a vassal state from what appeared to be a religious eccentric, Naaman had high expectations. But he was disappointed. Accustomed as Naaman was to discipline and protocol, the prophet Elisha didn’t even come out to meet him, and then made what appeared to be a silly recommendation — that he bathe in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman knew that the muddy waters of the Jordan were no hygienic match for the crystal-clear mountain spring waters of his native Damascus, and he refused. God’s requests to all of us seem equally silly at times — to put up with disagreeable relatives, to mortify ourselves, to have patience with people with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye.
Eventually Naaman, conforming to the pleas, of his servants, performed the commanded ritual bath in the Jordan (v. 14). That’s the point at which today’s reading begins, telling us that thereupon Naaman’s skin became as clear as that of a little child. And his cure was more than physical. It had reached his whole person. So he immediately did two things. First, he acknowledged that the God of Israel is the only God. Second, full of praise and gratitude, he felt compelled to offer the prophet a ﬁtting reward. When Elisha ﬁrmly declined Naaman’s generosity, Naaman asked for some Israelite earth to carry home, on which “holy ground” he could stand before an altar for continual praise of Israel’s God.
St Luke’s Gospel story clearly echoes the Naaman story. Jesus was on his resolute journey to die in his city of destiny, Jerusalem (v. 11). He displayed extraordinary concern toward ten lepers, one of whom was doubly an outcast — not only a leper, but a Samaritan, considered by Jews a second-class heretical dog a step below the rest of Gentiles. He was brought to Jesus by his great need in the face of a disease that didn’t yield some of its mysteries until only a little more than a century before our time, with the research of the Norwegian scientist G.A. Hansen. The leprosy of Jesus’ time didn’t necessarily mean Hansen’s disease as we know it. What they called “leprosy” included skin blemishes like psoriasis and acne.
According to their Law (esp. Lev l3:45f.; Nu-m 5:2), which insisted upon cleanliness for the people whom God had set apart as His own, anything unclean was to be avoided, including lepers. Whereas Naaman’s freely moving about indicated that he wasn’t afﬂicted by the isolation—demanding type of leprosy, the ten lepers in Jesus’ case were. Jesus told these ten marginalized people to show themselves to the priests (v. 14), because it was the priests who certiﬁed people as “clean”. They were the representatives of both medicine and religion, both of which for a long time in human history were intertwined in attempts to cure the whole person.
We are only now beginning to return to that point of view. A growing number of physicians today question whether medicine should remain frozen in Cartesian and Newtonian worldviews — worldviews that envision the body as mere matter severed from spirit. These views negate the role of mind and emotions —some would say God — in ‘healing. Growing numbers of health care professionals are acknowledging that good spiritual health and medical attention are an unbeatable combination.
Through prayer, which in this application is a new way of listening, the relationship between patient and physician can heal the physician as well. Physicians’ egos have to be prepared to have the patient’s eyes turned to God. And those engaged in alternative medicine should draw on their healing traditions, such as the laying on of hands.
At any rate, Jesus’ command that the ten show themselves to the priests at this early stage appeared at least as silly as Naaman’s being told to bathe seven times in the muddy Jordan. Nevertheless, they took Jesus at his word. Thereupon all ten were cured. And one of the signs of being cured of leprosy is the restored ability to feel physical pain.
But to only one was a complete cure of his whole person announced by Jesus’ telling observation that the man’s faith had saved him. That was the despised foreigner whom the Jews would have thought least likely to give thanks; the one who had no claim to the cure, especially from the hands of a Jew; the one whose cure involved an expansion of vision. This one, the Samaritan, returned to thank God the Father and to praise Jesus (vv. 15f). Loud though his voice was, his gesture of throwing himself down before Jesus was louder. The man underwent the process of conversion necessary for all of us — realizing that we are nothing, acknowledging God and His gifts, being aware that we need God, and desiring to turn to Him and serve Him with all our heart.
The Samaritan’s being healed, like Naaman’s, was more than skin deep. There are other similarities between the Samaritan and Naaman — both were foreigners away from their home base; both were asked to do something that went against their grain; both knew enough to be full of praise and gratitude for their cure; and for both the cure involved an expansion of understanding.
The second letter to Timothy, which may come from the hand of a disciple writing in the spirit of St Paul, provides another good example of whole—person cure — Paul. Paul, the old veteran now being treated as a common criminal (v. 9) and facing death in prison, bids an affectionate farewell to Timothy. In the ﬁrst part of today’s section he says that Jesus was divinely raised from the dead, an event that results in not just the inspiration of a memory, but the power of a presence — the presence of God. Paul’s sufferings, like ours, aren’t pointless — Paul’s were helpful in spreading the Good News. For such sufferings, we are grateful.
Somehow we often ﬁnd it difﬁcult to praise either God or other people. Praise presupposes two elements — the recognition of good in whatever form it comes, and the due acknowledgement of that good through some gesture or action. And we should realize that gratitude isn’t only the greatest of attributes, but the parent of them all, and that if we aren’t grateful to God we can’t taste the joy of ﬁnding Him in His creation. Like Naaman, the Samaritan, and Paul, we should also acknowledge and praise the goodness and tireless efforts on our behalf of other people who are instruments of God, especially our family. And like them, we should recognize that even pain and suffering can be cause for praise and gratitude, because they can bring blessing and redemption.
Too often we are like the doting grandmother who was walking with her young grandson along the shore in Miami Beach when a huge wave appeared out of nowhere, sweeping the child out to sea. The horriﬁed woman fell to her knees, raised her eyes to heaven, and begged the Lord to return her beloved grandson. And, 10, another wave reared up and deposited the stunned child on the sand right in front of her. The grandmother looked the boy over carefully. He was ﬁne. But then she stared up angrily toward the heavens. “When we came,” she snapped indignantly, “he had a hat!” Personal obstacles can be advantageous. If we didn’t feel pain, that might be dangerous.