It is interesting to note that some of the very same countries and regions that are in the news constantly today were familiar to Jesus as well, nearly twenty centuries ago, and were very much part of the Old Testament narrative. Israel, Syria, Iraq (Babylon), Iran (Persia), Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and other countries were all woven into the fabric of story of the Bible. In today’s first reading Naaman the leper, a Syrian warlord, is the featured character; he hears of the prophet Elisha and his healing powers and sought him out successfully. Naaman is so moved by his healing that he swears: “I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the Lord” (2 Kings 5:17). This is remarkable given that Naaman was a Syrian (a non-Israelite) and the Lord’s salvation was often seen as being restricted to the people of Israel. The Psalmist ratifies Naaman’s joyful sentiment by singing: “the Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power” (Ps 98:2).
This movement of God’s intervention in human history outward from Israel to the nations is furthered in the gospel, when Jesus himself travels through the territory of the Samaritans and heals a group of lepers, much like Elisha healed Naaman. They were just as thrilled by their newly-found health as Naaman was, but only one of them bothered to return to thank Jesus, and he was a Samaritan. The Samaritans were Jews, but over time and through intermarriage with other ethnic groups their identity as Jews was brought into question by many and denied outright by some. They were definitely outsiders in the religious world of Judaism of Jesus time, and were regarded as second-class persons or “foreigners”.
That Jesus so readily heals a Samaritan and holds him up as an example to his disciples would have been astounding to his followers, as were other instances of Jesus elevating this particular group to be an example to others of the right disposition one should have before God: we might think of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus broke down the false idea that God was only concerned with the people of Israel, and he assured all who put faith in him (for example the Syro-Phoenician woman) that healing and salvation was open to them as well—if only such a merciful attitude would be seen in the nations of today!
We sometimes may feel unworthy of the Lord or outside the scope of his healing grace. It took great courage for Naaman to travel from Syria to Elisha’s home, just as it took strength of character for the Samaritan leper to return to Jesus and humbly thank him. Today’s gospel gives us similar courage by reminding us that regardless of our background or our status as “outsiders” in some people’s views we are all infinitely precious in God’s eyes and are worthy of healing and redemption. The gospel goes even deeper, asking us to examine how we might fall short as Christians by seeing others as “foreigners” to Christ or unworthy of our attention and intercession. We are challenged as well to not only leave behind any attitude that would regard others as inferior to us but to positively go forth and make disciples of all the nations by way of our Christian lives.
We are reminded elsewhere in the New Testament that we are all “aliens and sojourners” (1 Peter 2:11) on account of our Christian faith, that we are “citizens of heaven” (Phil 3:20), and that “here we have no lasting city” (Heb 13:14). Looking out upon “the nations” and doing our best to be faithful our own, today’s readings teach us that we ought to exercise diligence in our citizenship in this world, but should strive above all to seek the definitive healing and redemption of the Kingdom of God that is coming and that is already in our midst.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.