It’s so frustrating when the lectionary leaves out half the story!
Here’s what was going on in today’s first reading: Naaman is a king from Syria, who has come to Israel after his Hebrew slavegirl (looted in war) suggests to him that the God of Israel could heal his leprosy. He goes to Elisha (after having no luck with the king of Israel), who won’t even come out to see him, but tells him to go bathe seven times in the river Jordan and he will be clean and healed.
Well. The king is offended. He expected the prophet to come out and pray over his sores to heal them. On top of that, the Jordan is a muddy river, whereas Syrian Damascus was famous for its clear mountain springs: if bathing was required, surely the Syrian springs would be better than this second-rate foreign river! He goes off in a huff, intending to do no such thing.
But his servants, who have of course been dragged with Naaman along on this entire adventure, offer some common sense: if the prophet had told you to do something exotic and complicated, you would have done it without question. So why not go bathe in the Jordan – what can it hurt?
This is where the lectionary reading begins: Naaman heeds the wisdom of his servants, goes to bathe in the Jordan seven times, and lo! he is healed, just as the prophet said.
He goes back to Elisha, confesses his faith that the God of Israel is the only true god, offers valuable gifts in thanksgiving which Elisha refuses, and then he does something fascinating: he asks to bring home 2 mule-loads of earth.
I love this detail, because it is so revealing of the common worldview at the time that gods were geographically localized; and this shows up elsewhere in the book of Kings, as well. Naaman wants to bring home dirt from Israel and build an altar on it, so that when he offers sacrifices on it, the sacrifices will go to the god of Israel, not to the local Syrian (Canaanite) god Baal-Rimmon.
Christians today no longer believe in such localized gods, but Catholics can recognize something in Naaman’s action nonetheless: our sacramental worldview affirms that the divine is hidden within, and revealed through, the earthly; and that “holiness” in some sense can inhere within matter. This is why we keep and venerate relics of the saints. More generally, how many Christians have a little bottle of water from the Jordan river, or a bit of dirt from the Holy Land, or a cross or rosary carved from olive wood in the Holy Land? This is not so different from what Naaman was doing.
Today’s psalm is clearly a response to this reading,a nd foreshadowing of the gospel: All the ends of the earth have seen the power of God! The power of the God of Israel is not restricted to God’s chosen people or to God’s adopted sons and daughters: even the foreigners acknowledge and receive some share in the blessings of our great God.
The gospel reading about the ten lepers is one that the Medical Mission Sisters set to music back in the 60s, so it always brings that song to mind and makes me smile. But today I noticed a detail that isn’t in the song, and that I never noticed before: the leper who returned was a Samaritan. A foreigner.
Cast in today’s terms, if we read the Jewish people as Catholics, the Samaritan is a Protestant: worships the same God, believes basically the same things about that God, but has a different set of religious rules for where and how to worship that God. They had their own temple on their own mountain, and their bible differed in certain key texts from the bible used by the Jewish people.
Well, that makes a huge difference in how to interpret the story! This isn’t a story about how 90% of people can’t be bothered to give thanks for God’s good gifts. Like the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is also only in Luke, this is a story about how the outsider — and not just any outsider, but the apostate outsider — shows up the insiders in righteousness.
I’ve never heard a homily that emphasizes this point, but given the lectionary pairing with the story of Naaman, it seems clear that this is the point that the Church is making. Thus, the lesson we should take from the readings today is not “Don’t neglect your duty to give God thanks,” but “Don’t think you’re better than everybody else by virtue of your religious affiliation.”
The Samaritan returned to Jesus, glorifying God in a loud voice, fell on his knees, and thanked Jesus; in response, Jesus tells him “Your faith has saved you.”
Who are our “Samaritans”, our apostate outsiders?
Christians of other denominations, who have different scriptural interpretations, religious doctrines, and practices.
Atheists, who have different understandings about how and where to find truth.
Muslims, who have different understandings about how and where to worship God.
May God grant us the humility to notice and acknowledge the times when these sisters and brothers outdo us in righteousness, and to be inspired by their example. Amen.
(It’s a fun song, but I warn you, it’s a bit of an earworm! Which I’m pretty sure was an intentional device to teach scripture to Catholics in the 60s. 🙂 )