Today in our 1st reading and our Gospel, we hear 2 very similar accounts of healing of lepers. In our Gospel, there are 10 lepers who are healed by Jesus; and in our 1st reading we hear part of the powerful story of the healing of Naaman from his leprosy. What I want to do today is try to relate the characters in these readings to people today, perhaps ourselves; I think that relating the characters to people today will help us apply them to our lives; because these readings are not just about people being healed, as they are about our journey of faith, our journey to discipleship.
But before I relate the characters to people today, let me set the context of the readings to have a better understanding.
In our Gospel, on his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus travels through Samaria and Galilee. Samaria is where many Gentiles, or non-Jews live, whereas Galilee houses Jews. In a village in the outskirts of these regions, Jesus encounters 10 lepers. Leprosy was a terrible skin disease that was highly contagious in which there was no cure, in fact it was believed only God could heal leprosy. So those people who had leprosy, the lepers, were quarantined and not to have any interaction with anyone ever again but were to stay outside the city where they would eventually die. While keeping their distance, 10 lepers approached Jesus thinking he might be a man of God and hoping He could heal them. Jesus told them to “Go show yourselves to the priests”. This is what the law of Moses in Leviticus told that lepers should do, for it was the priest who determined if they had leprosy or not and if it was healed and they could come back into the community.
In order to set the context of our 1st reading, let me explain the whole story and the other important characters. 2 Kings 5 tells us that Naaman was the army commander for the king of Aram. And although he had won many battles for Aram and was highly respected, Naaman was also a leper. Can you imagine being an army commander but not able to touch anyone? In one of the battles, they captured a little girl from Israel who became the servant of Naaman’s wife. In other words, this little girl from Israel was a Jew who believed in God. This girl told Naaman’s wife that Naaman should present himself to Elisha the prophet of God in order to be healed. Naaman went with his horses, chariots, and servants to see Elisha. When Elisha saw Naaman, knowing that he came to be healed of leprosy, he simply instructed him to go wash 7 times in the Jordan river, and he will be healed. However, Naaman left Elisha angry saying, “I thought that he would surely come out and stand there to invoke the Lord his God, and would move his hand over the spot, and thus cure the leprosy. Besides, are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?” He left in anger thinking Elisha was a fool and planning not to do what he was told to do. However, Naaman’s servants reasoned with him by saying, “If the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you have done it? All the more now, since he told you to ‘wash and be clean’ should you do as he said. And as our 1st reading continues, Naaman did wash 7 times in the Jordan and was healed of his leprosy.
Now let me relate these stories and especially the characters we just heard about to people today, and as I do, I ask you to think about if you might be like one of these characters, and what God might be calling you to do.
The Early Church Fathers saw that Naaman washing 7 times in the Jordan river was like the Sacrament of Baptism. Remember leprosy was considered a disease that only God could heal and that if not cleansed would lead to death; so also Baptism is a cleansing that only God can do, that through baptism our souls are cleansed of all sin and the effects of sin, which is death; and that through being cleansed we are brought back into communion with God and others. Similarly, Jesus saying ‘go show yourself to the priests’ alludes to the Sacrament of Confession, in which through the priest, a person is forgiven of all the sins and are reconciled and united to God and others once again.
However, some people think that baptism or confession is just an empty ritual that is too simple to be effective, that is a nice symbolic gesture, but that the effects are too good to be true; the same way that Naaman thought just washing wasn’t extraordinary enough. Some people think that to receive such a great and important blessing as being cleansed from sin would be more difficult and not as simple as being baptized. Although the actions of the sacrament are essential, they are really actions of faith. As Jesus says to the one leper who came back, ‘your faith has saved you’. What do you think, do you think your baptisms were effective, do you think confession is fruitful- or are they just empty rituals without the power of God? Are you living as if your baptism is powerful and effective?
In our Gospel, Jesus heals 10 lepers, but only one returns to give thanks. These people are like the thousands of people who were baptized, but who are living as if it was ineffective. They came to Jesus once and were healed, but feel no need to come back to give thanks to God; they have received all that they wanted at the time but have no need for Jesus now.
Each of the Sacraments, particularly of Baptism and Confession, establishes or re-establishes a relationship. It isn’t about using God for what we want and then we go on with our lives, but it is about coming back to a relationship with a loving and healing God and then living our lives in the freedom which the sacraments give. We should like Naaman come back and declare, “now I know that there is no other God in all the earth”, and want to give back in thanksgiving. Jesus gives us life through the sacraments, we should give thanks to God by giving our lives to him in return. We are to give thanks to God by coming to the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. Our coming to Mass is our thanksgiving for the new life God has given us, as well as a renewal and a strengthening in that new life.
Before we continue with the Eucharist and give thanks and renew the life He gives us, I ask you to think about people in your life with whom it has been a while since they have come to the sacrament and are not fully living the new life in God. How might you be like the little girl to share with them the good news that there is a God who wants to heal? How might you be like the servants of Naaman who explains the power and purpose of the sacraments, and encourages them to receive for themselves.
A final point about Naaman though, 2 Kings 5 says that although he did as our Gospel says, he intended to worship no other God in privacy by himself, but whenever the king, his master, worshiped the false gods, out of fear he too would worship the false God. Naaman wanted to keep his faith private and wasn’t quite ready to share the truth of the one true God to others, are you?