Overcoming our prejudices

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.

Why we care about Lampedusa

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Just recently I read a book called ‘Invisible Romans’, which was very good apart from its animosity against St Paul and its curious statement that early Christianity had no theology, no beliefs! Presumably the author believed that the Church made it all up later, as it went along. Yet our reading from 2 Timothy(2:8-13) speaks eloquently both of the Incarnation and Resurrection: “Jesus Christ risen from the dead, sprung from the race of David” ; and it also speaks of the promise of eternal life with God given to every Christian: “If we have died with him, then we shall live with him. If we hold firm, then we shall reign with him.” The statements might be bold and brief, but they speak to an already well developed theology, beliefs about Christ and what that believing gives to us.

Christian belief has always been founded on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The one his followers had seen crucified and had buried was alive once more among them. It was this fact that turned the small, dismayed and scattered Christian followers, many of whom were about to go back to fishing in Galilee, into the fighting force which would take over the religious beliefs of the Roman Empire and spread throughout the world. It would be a faith which witnessed to the faithfulness not just of believers, but of God himself: “He is always faithful, for he cannot disown his own self.” The very identity of God is tied up with and in his creation; we are made for divinity.

Our Old Testament reading and our Gospel (2 Kings 5:14-17 and Luke 17:11-19) both deal with the healing of lepers. Leprosy was one of the many scourges of the ancient world, and indeed until the development of antibiotics in the last century. It isolated people, from the rich Naaman, who ran armies to the ordinary. Lepers were often forced to live apart from their families, friends and away from their towns and cities. All those means of social communication we take for granted were denied them and as they could not work and earn their livings and would inevitably decline more and more until death took its toll. Imagine then the effect of someone, be it Elisha the prophet or Jesus, who had the God given power to restore limbs eroded by disease and lives ruined beyond earthly hope. Small wonder then that Naaman was willing to lavish costly gifts on the prophet and his god, and that the cured Samaritan prostrated himself in worship in the dust at Jesus’ feet in thanks for the new life he had been given. This was of course no ordinary gift, but one far beyond the power of mortal men.

We, who look back on over 2,000 years of Christianity, generally have little regard for the huge legacy of care and social concern that our faith, following in the Jewish tradition has bequeathed to the world. Granted, it may be common for Catholics to serve in the curing, caring professions, but how many of us stop to consider that this is fundamental to our Christian understanding of just how deeply our lives are actually rooted in Jesus, in the One who by his very being is new life, and who constantly confers it to all classes, colours and races of people? Making sense of the tragedy which occurred off Lampedusa is critical to our faith.

Part of the point of the 2 Kings story lies precisely in the fact that Naaman was an Aramean; a powerful and feared group of people centred on Damascus far to the North East who terrorised and enslaved the people of Israel. They worshipped different gods and threatened the very survival of the nation, they were hated foreigners. Yet it was this man who was healed, not some equally needy Jew. The same theme runs through our Gospel, where we are told that Jesus was on the border between Samaria and Galilee. Once, under Solomon Samaria was united to Judah, but all that was in the dim and distant past and whilst Samaritans believed in the God of Israel, they did not look to Jerusalem for leadership but had their own customs and sacred mountain in their own territory and relations between the two states were very strained; they were often at war. Yet, as we know from both Luke and John’s gospels, Jesus’ ministry included this despised group who were totally unacceptable to the Jews of Judah and their very inclusion by Jesus would be a further sign of his impiety and attack on Judaism which would ultimately result in his death.

If Judaism thought these people beyond the pale, imagine their reaction when Peter and Paul embarked on their missions to convert the pagans of the Roman Empire! Paul resolutely insisted that the Good News of the risen Jesus, one “sprung from the race of David”, was for the entire human race and that our faithfulness to that God made Man carries with it God the Son’s irrevocable commitment to the rest of humanity. When Paul speaks of the ending of barriers between Jew and Greek, slave and free, and other weird foreigners he is not presenting this as a possible option we might take in our outreach to others in God’s name. It is at the heart and centre of our understanding and commitment to the Incarnation. God has become human for our salvation, and now the entire human race stands in a new relationship to God because of it and with it. Our whole-hearted affirmation of the value of all human beings is fundamental. To reject this would be to reject Christ. “If we hold firm, then we shall reign with him, if we disown him, then he will disown us…. He is always faithful.”