God's compassion is reserved for all

  • September 30, 2010
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Oct. 10 (2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19)

What happens when your hated enemy comes asking for help? Naaman the Syrian was a foreigner and non-Israelite as well as the commander of the enemy army — not much to commend himself to Elisha. There was more than enough reason to reject his request for healing of his leprosy.

It must have been difficult for Naaman to swallow his pride and approach Elisha and equally difficult for Elisha to minister to him. In fact, Naaman was at first rather incensed at the simplicity of Elisha’s instructions to go wash in the Jordan seven times and had to be persuaded by his entourage to give it a try. But now Naaman is ecstatic for he has been healed and he is anxious to reward the prophet. Imagine his surprise when the reward is brushed aside and the prophet even refuses to accept any praise or credit. This is God’s show, not his — and any glory rightfully belongs to God. As Naaman departs he insists on carrying a couple of baskets of dirt with him so that he can worship Israel’s God in his own country. This represents an ancient understanding of the divine that ties the god to a specific land and people. But this whole episode is also a new self-revelation of God: God is concerned with those beyond Israel’s borders and He displays His compassion and mercy even to Israel’s enemies.

In chapter 4 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus refers to this incident as an example of God’s compassionate and universal care for humanity — a statement that almost gets Him killed. Naaman returns to his land a changed man. He not only has been touched by God but his own religious understanding has been transformed. If we were to look for an analogy today Naaman could just as well be an al-Qaeda commander. Many people would not be thrilled to see him the recipient of God’s kindness. But the lesson of Scripture would be exactly the same: God’s is not anyone’s possession and God does not recognize borders or labels.

This same theme of God’s universality is echoed in the author of 2 Timothy’s insistence that the Word of God is not chained. God’s compassionate mercy is proven by the gift of forgiveness and redemption in Christ regardless of our origins or worldly status. It is the message for which Paul suffers for the sake of others. But it is also clear that our own lives must pattern that of Jesus in patient endurance and fidelity.

Leprosy was and still is in some part of the world a fearsome disease. Even though it is curable many, either because of poverty or shame, do not seek help until the disease is well advanced. By then bodies and limbs are often ravaged and disfigured. It is difficult to imagine, then, an instance in which people are healed of the disease would not be profoundly grateful. And yet that is what the Gospel story relates. Ten were healed and only one returns — delirious with joy and effusive in his gratitude and thanks. Are the others heartless and selfish? It is difficult to say, but the “punch line” at the end gives us a clue. The grateful one is a Samaritan — a despised outsider — but he has been the one most deeply touched by God.

It is so easy to take God’s graces for granted and to surrender to the subtle but dangerous idea that these graces are merited and that we are only receiving our due. Just as suffering famine and thirst can give us a special appreciation of and gratitude for food and drink, being distant from God can make an encounter with God so much more intense and life-altering. In the Gospel accounts it was often those who were viewed as moral and spiritual lepers who responded with the most openness and enthusiasm to the teaching and the kindness of Jesus. Often it is the marginalized and excluded — and those outside an institution or tradition — who are the most deeply touched by kindness and transformed by being included.

In a world in which healthy forms of religious faith are in danger of being eclipsed by religion’s darker face the practice of kindness and inclusion merits more attention.