The first reading and the Gospel both deal with persons afflicted with leprosy who are then miraculously healed. In biblical times leprosy was an incurable illness and mistakenly thought to be highly contagious. In Jewish society, those affected with the disease were usually forced to live apart from their family and tribe. The pain of social isolation was added to the suffering of those so afflicted. Thankfully, today, leprosy is fairly easily cured by a combination of medications.
Naaman did not come from the people of Israel; perhaps this is why he was not banished from society. Or there may have been few signs of his diseased condition. Naaman was the commander of the army of the king of Syria and held in high favor by the king. Prompted by a captured Israelite servant girl, Naaman went to Elisha the prophet, in hopes that he might be cured. When Elisha merely sent word that he should bathe seven times in the Jordan, Naaman was outraged. Fortunately for him, his servants pleaded with him, saying, “If the prophet told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more since he told you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kg 5:13).
Our first reading picks up the narrative from the Second Book of Kings. We read of Naaman plunging seven times in the Jordan river and being cleansed of all signs of leprosy, his skin being now “like the flesh of a little child.” Not only is his flesh restored, so is his heart. His initial outrage forgotten, he is overwhelmed with gratitude. With childlike faith he exclaims, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Naaman finally requests two mule-loads of earth – a “piece” of Israel – to take back to Syria so that he might have a sacred “place” to worship the God who cured him.
Today’s Gospel is the account of the ten lepers Jesus encountered as he traveled to Jerusalem by way of Syria and Galilee. In response to their request for pity, Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priests, who will verify that they are free of their disease. On the way, all ten are miraculously healed, “cleansed.” Only one, however, a Samaritan, “returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” We are left to wonder, along with Jesus, where the other nine have gone. Where is their gratitude?
Few people today have leprosy, but all of us were born with spiritual leprosy, the incurable sin condition we inherited from our first parents. The cleansing waters of Baptism have removed the stain of sin from our souls, but the lingering effects of our original wound still hinder us from following our call to holiness. Despite our convictions and desires, we experience that our will is weak. St. Paul describes our condition well: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate” (Rm 7:15). Another effect of original sin is the clouding of the intellect, a wound which at times we do not even recognize because we simply do not know what we do not know. The disorder in our sensory appetites, concupiscence, which also results from sin, is more obvious to us. This disorder explains why we so quickly take another generous portion of dessert, even though we are more than satisfied by the first portion, and why we so easily succumb to the offer of a second or third glass of wine, even against our own better judgment.
The central issue raised by today’s Gospel, however, is not the lingering effects of original sin, but our gratitude – or lack of it – for being set free of sin’s deadly consequences. Through no merit of ours, we have been welcomed into Holy Mother Church, the family of God, and set on the path to eternal glory with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This was all God’s work, and for most of us, it probably began in our infancy, before our first memories. As St. Paul says to Timothy, we have been offered a share in “the salvation that is in in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory.” Where is our gratitude? Today’s Gospel Acclamation reminds us that gratitude is the proper response to God at all times: “In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
We have much to be grateful for, and much to share with others! St. Paul’s life is an example for us. His own gratitude to God is so great that he is willing to suffer anything for the sake of spreading the Gospel. He may be chained like a criminal, “but the word of God is not chained.” For Paul, and for all of us who have faith in “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead,” even death itself is not an obstacle, for “if we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him!”
Do I trust in the plan God has for my healing, or am I doubtful like Naaman? Am I openly grateful to God for setting me free from sin’s deadly consequences? In my gratitude for the gift of faith, am I willing to suffer anything for the sake of spreading the Gospel?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.