The message today from the Gospel is clear. (Luke 17:11-19) The foreigner, the stranger (in this case the Samaritan) is often closer to God than we are. This is a big challenge, for we are always more comfortable with people who are more or less like us. One even meets people who are convinced God only speaks English! However, the question I want to tackle today is what do these Old Testament readings add to our understanding of this basic message? Why does the Church insist on giving us these 1st Readings week by week that most of you really do not understand?
Just in case you are already muddled, the Bible is in two parts. The New Testament was written by Christians and is about Jesus and about the life and thought of the early Church. The Old Testament was and is the Bible of the Jewish people, and so was the Bible that Jesus knew. This is what he was brought up to read and study, learning much of it by heart as people did in those days. If we want to know Jesus better then we need to get to know his background and the Old Testament is where we find it.
So if you want to know more about the background of Jesus. I’m afraid you need to do some homework yourself. For example, look up this story in the Bible or www.biblegateway.com (2 Kings 5) and look up Elisha on Wikipedia. But be warned, the Old Testament, is not to be taken literally. It was not written like that. This particular story certainly has some real history in it, but the person who wrote it would have felt it was perfectly Ok to change details in order to get across what he wanted to say.
So lets look at the whole story together. First of all, Naaman is a foreigner to the people of Israel, which is why he links with our Gospel story. He is actually an important person from Syria, and he hears that there is a very holy man in Israel who will be able to cure him of his leprosy. A political point is then made, because he goes first to the King of Israel who when asked for healing thinks he is being threatened with invasion. There is also a crack here against people who think kings (now we call them politicians) have all the answers, which means we can blame them for everything!
Finally Naaman gets to Elisha, but is really annoyed when instead of coming to see him, to pray over him etc, Elisha just sends a message saying go and wash in the River Jordan. Here we have a crack at self-important people who think they should be given special treatment!
He’s about to ride off in fury at being so treated, when his servants suggest washing in the River Jordan wouldn’t do any harm, so he does… and (as we hear in the bit of the story we heard) is cured. Notice here the role of the servants (slaves actually). This idea that the slave can have more wisdom than the worldly wise is one that is very important to Christianity, but it begins in stories like these. Remember that Jesus becomes like a slave in order to bring us the wisdom and salvation of God? Remember how he washes the disciples feet? Remember how we are called to be servants of one another and servants to the world?
Next we see the very thankful Naaman actually lowering himself in status by going into the presence of Elisha to offer him payment. Clearly before, he had just sat, self-important, in his chariot; which might well be why Elisha just sent him a message. Now Elisha teaches him another lesson, one that Jesus rams home on several occasions. By refusing payment Elisha makes clear that God cannot be bought. Riches cannot get you into heaven, indeed, as you know, Jesus goes further and says that riches are a positive hindrance in getting close to God.
Finally, at last, Naaman really humbles himself, asking only for some earth to take home with him. This is because of the ancient pagan idea that each land had its own god, so he couldn’t worship the God of Israel back in Syria unless he had some earth of Israel on which he could pray. One of the most important Old Testament themes, of which we have a tiny part in this story, is the way the people of Israel gradually began to understand, that the only true God is not limited by geography, or national or racial boundaries. To be truly God, God must be God for all men and women whatever their background or nationality might be. Many people did not accept that in the time of Jesus, and many still do not accept it today. We humans have one God and are one family. That is a great message that we Christians are called to proclaim, and to live out, every day of our lives.