There is an obvious message from the Gospel today, isn’t there? (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. I’ve just been on the Somme Battlefields commemorating the centenary of the tragic slaughter there of so many people including my own Great-Uncle Fred. I was happy when instead of struggling with my French, I met someone to whom, to my relief, I could speak English! But there is a lot more in the story than this and today I want to show you how the Old Testament readings that we have at Mass add to our understanding of all that Jesus says and does.
Just a quick reminder then, that 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 which we normally hear as our 1st Reading was and is the Bible of the Jewish people, and so this 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. So if we want to know Jesus better, then the more we get to know his background the better we will know him. You might look up this story in the Bible at 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 let’s look at the whole story together, not just the bit we read. First of all, Naaman is not just a leper but also a foreigner which is why he links with our Gospel story. He’s 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 that washing in the River Jordan wouldn’t do any harm, so he does… and (as we hear in our bit of the story) is cured. Notice here the role of the servants. They are more sensible than the master they serve. Actually the word servant should really be translated as slave, because that is what all servants were. Remember last Sunday where we are encouraged to say of ourselves “We are merely slaves. We have done no more than our duty”. 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? The job of the lowliest slave. This is something St Francis of Assisi says, that we Christians “should never desire to be over others” but “Ought to be servants.. to every human being for God’s sake.”
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. Now Elisha teaches him another lesson, one that Jesus rams home on several occasions. By refusing payment Elisha makes clear that payment is not an appropriate response to God. Riches cannot get you into heaven. Indeed, as you know, Jesus goes further and says that riches are a positive hindrance in getting closer to God.
The background then to this one leper returning to give thanks is full of much more meaning than first appears. Our response to God’s love can sometimes be to assume that we are in a sort of commercial relationship with him; but when Jesus dies for us, he chooses to die as many many slaves died. In doing so he makes clear that he only expects one thing from us in return, not money, not lots of good actions, although we may offer both to God when we can. No, he asks the only thing that poor leper can give, our thanks for all he has done and is doing for us. If we serve God grudgingly we have missed the point. At the heart of all we do in response to God’s love, is to offer a heart of thanksgiving back to him.