Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The 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.
These writings are among the Old Testament’s “historical books.” 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 secular history in and of itself.
Instead, the Old Testament books all are concerned with religion, and more precisely with the relationship between God and all the Hebrew people. In the view of the ancients, the most important question in life was how to be faithful to God. Nothing else mattered.
Therefore, while the kings are prominent in these books, religious figures very much are in evidence.
This weekend’s reading is an example. The central personality is not a king, but rather Naaman. Two strikes are against Naaman. He is a Gentile, and he is a leper. It was much more than a coincidence of birth, nationality, religious choice or bad health. Each circumstance represented 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 Elisha, the prophet. It is a story, then, of divine mercy and of recognizing God.
The Second Epistle to Timothy is the next reading. The epistle reassures and challenges Timothy, an early convert to Christianity, disciple of Paul and eventually a bishop. Paul assures Timothy that 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, but modern scholars do not know precisely what the disease was. Even so, the ancient problem obviously was chronic, progressive and a fearful fate.
Unaware of the scientific workings of disease, ancient Jews saw a curse from God in leprosy. They assumed that, somehow, somewhere, the leper had disobeyed God.
Fearing contagion, communities forced lepers to live apart. Lepers were not allowed any communication whatsoever with those “clean” of leprosy. Lepers lived in total isolation, rejection and want, to the point of starvation.
This reading also has an ethnic component. Jews scorned Samaritans. Samaritans long ago had tolerated pagan invaders. 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 reaches out to lepers, heals and forgives. His actions were works of God.
Presumably nine of the lepers cured in this story from St. Luke’s Gospel, as Jews, saw themselves as being entitled to God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The 10th leper, a Samaritan, was different. The Jews, at least, would have thought that his ancestors forfeited this claim to divine mercy. He had to live amid this perception. He was hopeless.
Nevertheless, the 10th leper believed in God, seeing that God’s mercy had come to him. He gave thanks to Jesus, whom he saw as 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 God.
We can repair our relationship with God. God always forgives.
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