October 11, 2013

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThe Second Book of Kings furnishes this weekend with its first scriptural reading at Mass. Once the two books of Kings were a single volume, but time passed and editors divided the volume into two parts.

They are among the Old Testament’s historical writings. While they are interested in the careers of the early kings of Israel, as the name implies, none of the Old Testament is primarily about history in and of itself.

Instead, the Old Testament books all are concerned with religion, and more precisely with the relationship between God and the Hebrew people. In the view of the ancients, the most important question in life was how to live in faithfulness to God. Nothing else mattered.

So while the kings are prominent in these books, religious figures also are much in evidence.

This weekend’s reading is an example. The central personality is not a king, but rather it is Naaman. Two strikes are against Naaman. He is a Gentile, and he is a leper. It was much more than a coincidence of birth, religious choice or bad luck when it came to health. Each circumstance smacked of estrangement from God. Leprosy was seen, for instance, as punishment for sin.

Naaman was cured by bathing in the Jordan River. The Jordan formed an important border between the Promised Land, overflowing with life, and the foreign world, filled with treachery and death and people who were unbelievers. Crossing the Jordan symbolized, and indeed was, entry into the land of God’s Chosen People.

After being cured, Naaman went to thank God, represented by the prophet Elisha. It is a story, then, of divine mercy and of recognizing God.

St. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy is the next reading. In it, Paul reassures and challenges his disciple Timothy, an early convert to Christianity and later a bishop. Anyone who truly dies with Christ by dying to sin receives everlasting life with God.

St. Luke’s Gospel provides the last reading. “Leprosy” occurs throughout the Scriptures. What was it in today’s clinical sense? Obviously chronic, progressive, and then without any known cure, modern medical historians do not know with certainty. This is clear, however. It was a fearful fate.

Unaware of the workings of disease, ancient Jews saw a curse from God in leprosy. Somehow, somewhere, the leper had disobeyed God.

Fearing contagion, communities forced lepers to live apart. Lepers could have no communication whatsoever with those “clean” of leprosy. Isolated, lepers were forced to live lives of want to the point of starvation.

This reading also has an ethnic component. Jews scorned Samaritans. Samaritans long ago had tolerated pagan invaders, and they had intermarried with the pagans, producing offspring not purely Hebrew, thereby blurring the identity of the Chosen People. Jews thought that Samaritans were the worst of the worst, incapable of anything good.

Amid all this, Jesus heals and forgives. His actions were works of God. He was God.

Reflection

Nine of the lepers cured in this story from St. Luke’s Gospel were presumably Jews, and so likely saw themselves as being entitled to God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The 10th leper was different. He was a Samaritan. The Jews would have thought that his ancestors forfeited this claim to divine mercy. Moreover, Samaritan sight was limited, and Samaritan resolve was weak. Nevertheless, the 10th leper realized that God’s mercy had come to him. He gave thanks to Jesus, whom the leper understood to be the bearer of divine mercy.

By sinning, we all have deserted God. We all are lepers, and Samaritans, in the biblical context. With unending love, God cures us of the weakening effects of our sin, restores us to life and welcomes us into the fold of those loyal to him.

The key is our own humility and our will to seek God. †

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