Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Kings 5:14-17 | 2 Timothy 2:8-13 | Luke 17:11-19
May your grace, oh Lord, we pray, at all times go before us and follow after us and make us always determined to carry out good works through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.
I don't know if you realized this, but every time I pray in the liturgy, the prayer is always addressed to God, and then at the end of the prayer, we say, “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever and ever, amen.” We pray to God through Jesus, the God/man. The God/man is the promise that we have the same experience that Jesus had, not to the extent that he had it, but the same experience of knowing and believing that God is with us, God is in us. He’s the source of all good within us, and I don't know if you’re like me, but in my early years, as I was a young man and as a young priest, middle-aged priest — I’m an old priest. It’s only recently than I began to realize how important the relationship I have with God the Father — it is to me what every true spiritual life will lead us to, an intimate, loving relationship with God the Father, the big one, the boss.
It seems easier to fall in love with Jesus or the Holy Spirit. It’s more ethereal, and sometimes we lean tremendously on saints and the intercessory powers or angels. So there may really be some kind of inner resistance to going to the main one, the God who made everything, and believe that he is deeply in love with us and intimately engaged in our life. It’s hard for us to believe that. At least it was for me and still is in a sense. So I want to look at these readings today, because I think they say something really important that is not the usual way I would have approached this set of readings. Normally this is the perfect time to give a talk on gratitude, how thankful we should be for everything we receive. I think there’s something more challenging in these readings, more profound. It has to do with both our willingness to turn to a power greater than ourselves when we’re in need — that’s sometimes something that’s hard for us — but also the struggle that we sometimes have with believing in the heart of this incredible Christianity that we all believe in, what it’s really promising. And the promise is always connected to a gift. Salvation is a gift won for us by God in Christ, a gift. So when we fall into the trap of are we earning it, are we good enough to get it, if things go back, is that because we haven’t done enough to get the grace of God that we need, is it a conditional relationship with this God — humanity is filled with conditional relationships. I think all of them are in a sense, but this one’s different. So let’s look at the readings.
The first reading is about Naaman. He is not a believing Jew. He is actually a commander of the troops in Syria, a very successful man, and he’s always attributed his work to some divine power, whatever God he believed in. But he developed leprosy, and the servant of his wife knew of Elisha the prophet and said, “If you go to Elisha the prophet, the prophet from Israel, he can heal you.” And so Naaman decides to send a letter, and the letter goes to the king of the Israelites, and he says, “I’m going to Elisha to ask him to heal me.” And the king goes crazy, thinking, “Oh, no. This is a set-up. Now if I can’t heal him, he’s going to start a war with me.” Times never change. But Elisha hears about the king being really upset and said, “What are you upset about? Come. I’ll take care of him.” So Naaman goes to Elisha the prophet, and he brings all these gifts and gold and garments that he’s going to pay for this great gift. And he goes there, and he expects Elisha to come out and do some kind of magic ceremony and lay hands on him, and poof, it’ll be gone. Elisha doesn’t even come out, doesn’t even greet him. He sends a messenger that says, “Go wash in the river, the Jordan River, seven times.” And Naaman’s furious. It’s an insult. “I’m this great guy. I’ve come, and he won’t even come out and talk to me?” And again a servant comes into the story and says, “Well, Naaman, if he asked you to do something really extreme, really tough, you’d have done it. So why not go wash seven times in the Jordan?” So Naaman does, and his skin becomes like the skin of a newborn baby, so beautiful and smooth. And he comes back and said, “Oh my gosh, thank you, thank you. Here, take all this silver. Take all these garments. Take all this.” And Naaman [sic] said, “No. No, I’m not taking it. It’s not me. I didn’t do this. I didn’t even come out and see you. No, this is God doing it.” He didn’t say those words, but that’s what his gestures and that’s what his refusal of a gift, payment, was. You don’t pay for God to do something for you. Got it? So right away we see a prophet working for God, doing extraordinary things and not expecting anything to come back to him. He gives all the credit to God and implies that God is not asking for anything other than believe in him. Believe in him. Trust him. He’s real. That’s exactly what Naaman does. There’s a thing about gods living in territories, and they didn’t move from one territory to another. So he needed the soil from there to take back to where he was from, and he would stand on that soil and worship the God of Israel, the God who gives healing to those outside of the community and refuses to accept any kind of payment.
Now Paul, in the second reading, gives us an image, one of the really powerful images of Christ’s message, when he’s saying, “We have to put up with a lot of stuff when we’re doing this work, and it’s not always easy. But,” he said, “For everybody, everybody, there’s a thing going on. We have to die with God, die with Christ, persevere in our belief with him, and trust that he’s always faithful, always going to be faithful.” Even though he gets upset and tries to deny us, he can’t, because he’s faithful, can’t deny himself. So what does it mean to die and to persevere? Dying is always misunderstood as kind of a suffering, painful death, but no, what it really means is day after day, week after week, year after year, God is working in our life so that we die to those lower forms of consciousness that keep us separated from one another, from God, and we change. We change, and something falls away, some level of selfishness, and it’s dead. It’s gone. So we die with Christ, and then persevere is another word for suffering. You endure suffering, and suffering means you accept. So you’re going through this painful process of dying, and you have to stay with it and trust in it and endure it, because it has such a tremendously effective and powerful work of changing you, moving you ever closer to the God who created you to be something that you’re in a struggle to become, what he made you to be.
So we go to this wonderful story of Jesus and the lepers, and the same theme is here: God healing, because he wants to, in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the new temple. He is the way God chooses now to dwell with his people, not in a building, not in an institution but in a person, and then in all of us. And so when he sees these men — and he’s healed many lepers in his life, but usually when he would do it, he would say to them, “Be cleansed. Be freed of your disease.” He doesn’t say that to these men. They cry out, as they would have cried out to most people, “Have mercy on me. Help me. Help me.” They were beggars, and Jesus hears something that he knows is in the heart of everybody that is suffering. “Please take me out of this. Please help me to grow through this. Help me to become what this is asking me to be,” whatever. But he just says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests. Go to the temple, where you believe God resides, even though I’m here to tell you that God resides in me and will soon reside in you. But go there, and ask them to do what they do.” Well, the job of the temple priests was to look at someone and to see that they were being healed of leprosy, and so they would go through a pretty — well, an interesting ceremony. You had to go find two birds, and one was killed, and the blood of that one was put into some water, and that was sprinkled on the other bird that then flew away. Really interesting to — that’s worth another homily, someone dying so that someone can be free. So they were told to go and do what you were supposed to do to get the gift from God that the temple could give you, and it says, in a very interesting way, on the way to the temple, they were being healed. So there was something happening to them as they walked, maybe a building up of, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be great. I am going to be healed. I’m going to pass this test, and I’m going to do this ceremony. I’ll be back with my family.” But one of them realized, “Wait a minute,” and he was a Samaritan. And in one sense, he may not have been so excited about going to the temple, because Samaritans were considered to be half-breeds. They were part Jew, part Samaritan, and they had a different temple. They worshipped God, but it was a different temple location. And as you know what I’ve already said, something about a god living in a particular territory was important. So they didn’t worship the God of Israel but their own god, and so he’s thinking about this, thinking, “Wait a minute. Do I go to the temple to thank the temple, to pay the temple, or did I just experience something through a man that was God, and I’m healed?”
Now, I want to amplify the story a little bit, fill it in to what I think it might be — it helps you understand what I see in it, and I that is I think the others would have gone to the temple and would have done the sacrifice and would have talked about their healing. And they would have said, “There was this man, and then the temple healed us, or at least the temple had a major part in healing us, so we should —” And they paid for that. So there they are doing what they are required to do in order to get from the temple, who the people there are in charge of God’s grace, and they doled it out as they see they should, according to the rules and the laws. And Jesus came to blow all those rules and laws to pieces. Only Jews are saved. Only Jews get to the temple. Only men can go in so far. Only special men can go into the very core place of it, all of that. Jesus blew all that to pieces. In fact, when he died on the cross, there’s a beautiful passage in scripture where — there was a veil that separated the Holy of Holies, the holiest part where only the Levites, the priests could go in there, and it ripped open. Everybody can come in. Everybody is welcome into the heart of God and God into their heart. It’s beautiful.
So I’m seeing in this, then, that this man that came back to Jesus recognized something that Jesus was, who he was and what he was teaching and the exciting thing he was saying, and so it’s interesting. When he goes back, the thing he said, “Stand up, and go. Now you’ve got faith. You’ve done it. You’ve got it.” Faith in God, faith in a human, not simply just in Jesus, and there it was, so mysteriously one that there’s no separation. We’re not ever going to become that, but it’s almost like he’s saying to the Samaritan, “You understand that I’m trying to free people from the rigorous rules and laws connected to this religion and this temple.” That was not the intention, and people needed some kind of concrete image of God’s presence. And so that was in that institution, and yet still probably today, I know people whose faith is completely destroyed, because the institution fails, or they’re completely destroyed, because a priest is a failure, is a sinner. Like, “Oh my God, it’s all been phony or fake.” No, no, no. The priests or the church are not what saves you. These are conduits. We’re a conduit to putting you in touch with the God who lives inside of you, which is the source of everything you need, the healing, the grace to endure, the grace to die, grace to grow. That’s your inheritance. You don’t have to earn it or find it somewhere else. No, the institution is designed beautifully to be an effective conduit, creating a community of people where it flows so freely between each other, this presence of God, this belief in God, and the Eucharist is the most powerful way in which we celebrate it. But the question is: do people really believe, when they receive the Eucharist, they’re receiving God? Yes, it’s Jesus, but it’s more than Jesus. It’s his teaching. It’s his longing. It’s his core, and the core is the relationship with his Father.
Father, you’ve challenged each of us to bring your presence into the world in a way that reaches the heart, the soul of those around us. It’s an awesome responsibility, at the same time an incredible gift. So bless us with this mysterious partnership we have with you. Help us to stay balanced. It means a great deal when we do it well and with believe, and yet at the same time, we’re never the source of what it is that we see affecting people, changing people, bringing them new life. So bless us with humility and faith, and we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.