As the dogs of war are unleashed again in the Middle East, it falls to peace-seekers to turn to action rather than mere words. Jesus said, after all, “blessed are the peace makers.” Today’s readings are not about peace, however, and only initially about faith. But I could not help connecting another theme, one highlighted in the Second Letter to Timothy, our second reading.
“…understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people” [2 Tim 3:1-5].
Sobering advice. As for today’s message, what struck me as relevant on this day back in 2016 is all the more so today…
It might be a little difficult to feel particularly thankful just now, at least if you are still nurturing a glimmer of faith in the current political system, but that doesn’t make gratitude any less relevant. When Jesus tells the Samaritan leper that his faith has made him well, or, more accurately, “your faith has saved you,” he is pointing to the most important of all human responses to God. But another theme is no less important — thankfulness. The connection between faithfulness and thankfulness is central to the gospel, and especially to Jesus. For to be thankful means to express our faith in words and, more importantly, actions.
In a little over a month, Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving Day, a memorial that goes back to the Civil War, when it was declared a day of fasting and prayer. For many of us, expressing gratitude will be difficult, especially for those who have lost friends and loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on the bullet-ridden streets of our great cities, and for so many others who share their loss and heartache. For many more, it will be hard to be thankful for the many blessings we in this country have received when we are all the more conscious of the crushing poverty and suffering that exists in so much of the world — not least of all in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn regions of the planet.
But for most of the world, neither poverty nor war is the most dreaded of human ills, and it was especially so in the ancient world. It was and is disease. The scourge of what was called leprosy features in the story of Naaman and Elisha and also in the gospel. What we call Hansen’s disease today is only one kind of disease of the many that went by that name in the ancient world — all were terrifying and those who contracted them were shunned and usually driven out of the community entirely. Its victims depended on the generosity of family and often strangers for their daily food and survival. To be rich and a leper might be endurable, as in the case of Naaman, the commanding general of the Syrian army, but to be poor and a leper was a disaster. To be poor, a leper, and a Samaritan in Galilee was far worse. For some reason the gospels are silent about women lepers, but surely there were many, and that would have been the worst of all fates.
Naaman’s cure requires him to wash seven times in the Jordan, something he finds humiliating, but he finally does it and is cured. In gratitude, he offers lavish gifts, but Elisha refuses them. God has cured Naaman because he believed. For that Elisha needs no reward.
God’s fidelity is the focal point of this story, as it is in the passage from the Letter to Timothy. God’s graciousness and kindness extend to all. And God will never go back on the promises made in the ancient past, even when our faithfulness wavers and fails.
And so we come to the poor Samaritan leper who like the nine others, turns to Jesus and begs for pity, for mercy. All Jesus asks of them is to do what the law required — to present themselves to the priests in Jerusalem, who alone could declare them cured. Luke notes that Jesus and his disciples were passing between Samaria and Galilee — a long ways from Jerusalem. But the lepers believe him and start off. On the way, they are healed. But only the Samaritan, overcome with gratitude, returns to give thanks to this Jew, his traditional enemy. In Jerusalem he would likely have been stoned and driven away from the Temple, which may have led to his decision to go back, but Jesus takes no notice of that. He simply marvels at this gesture, shocked to find that only this despised outsider had the grace to return and thank him. And when he says to him, “Rise and go your way, your faith has saved you,” there is much more in the statement than a comment on his healing. Perhaps we only truly know gratitude when we find ourselves outcast — without resources, hated, friendless, and desperate. To express it is to recognize the source of our salvation.
Earlier in Luke’s gospel, and only there, Jesus actually refers to the story of Elisha and Naaman the Syrian. That was in his inaugural sermon in his home town, where he got less than a welcome wagon visit after preaching successfully and healing people in the towns around the Sea of Galilee. After all, the townsfolk knew this fellow from his childhood. How did he get so full of himself? Who does he think he is?
Jesus said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his own home town.’” He goes on to point out, ‘there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” [Luke 4:23-30].
Jesus seems to be saying that we may be more likely to find kindness from strangers than from our own people. And our gratitude will be proportionately greater, as it was for Naaman the Syrian enemy and the Samaritan leper, the despised stranger who alone returns to express his thanks.
God forbid that any of us have to go through such a purification to learn the meaning of true gratitude for all the favors God has bestowed on us. The United States is manifestly the most prosperous and successful nation the world has ever seen. The challenge we face as a people is whether our response to such blessings will be a gratitude that expresses itself in justice, peace, mercy, and generosity to the less fortunate, not only in our own country, but throughout the war-weary world.