Scripture and the Liturgy

Gratitude, Anyone? 28th Sunday in OT

These commentaries are available in published book form, Year C here, Year A (starting Nov 27 already) here.

The Thanksgiving holiday is coming upon us shortly, and this season of the year always makes me think, How do you give thanks if you don’t believe there’s anyone there to thank?  Thanksgiving is not a holiday that ever could have arisen in an atheist culture. 

The themes of the Readings for this Sunday focus on the gratitude for God’s salvation.  Gratitude is an important psychological and spiritual disposition.  Dr. Daniel G. Amen, the popular brain researcher and public health spokesman, identifies gratitude as a key character quality of persons with physiologically healthy brains.  That’s right: gratitude affects your physical health, including the shape and functioning of your brain.  This Sunday’s Readings focus particularly on gratitude to God, and how it should be expressed.

1.  Our First Reading is 2 Kgs 5:14-17:

Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times
at the word of Elisha, the man of God.
His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child,
and he was clean of his leprosy.

Naaman returned with his whole retinue to the man of God.
On his arrival he stood before Elisha and said,
“Now I know that there is no God in all the earth,
except in Israel.
Please accept a gift from your servant.”

Elisha replied, “As the LORD lives whom I serve, I will not take it;”
and despite Naaman’s urging, he still refused.
Naaman said: “If you will not accept,
please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth,
for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice
to any other god except to the LORD.”

This excerpt really isn’t comprehensible unless the homilist provides the background for the story.  Hopefully most homilists will.

Naaman was not an Israelite: he was a Syrian (Aramaen) army general renowned for his military success, including campaigns against Israel.  However, Naaman contracted leprosy.  His wife’s maid, a young girl he had captured during a raid on Israel, informed “Mrs. Naaman” that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure leprosy, and she in turn told her husband.  Eventually, Naaman journeyed to Israel and sought out Elijah, the said prophet.  Although Naaman arrived at Elijah’s home with great pomp and dignity, Elijah did not even come out to meet him.  Instead, sent his servant to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan river, and he would be clean.  Naaman was insulted by this, having expected Elijah to come in person and perform a dramatic ritual or miracle.  He prepared to leave in a huff to return to Syria, but his servants persuaded him to follow the prophet’s instructions:

“My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kgs 5:13)

So Naaman descends to the Jordan and washes.  That’s where our First Reading begins. 

Naaman is “converted” by his experience.  He lays off the worship of the pagan gods of Syria and devotes himself solely to the LORD, the God of Israel.  Thus his request for two mule-loads of earth.  He intends to being the dirt back to Syria, and build an altar on top for sacrifices to the LORD of Israel.  (It was a common notion back then that national gods could only be worshipped on native soil.)

Naaman is one of many Gentiles in the Old Testament who experienced conversion to the God of Israel.  Others include Rahab, Ruth, Uriah the Hittite, and Ebed-melech the Ethiopian.  His conversion was made possible by humility.  He was willing to humble himself (though it took persuading) to wash in the muddy creek that is the Jordan, though the rivers of Syria and Damascus were much more impressive.  Naaman is a type of the believer in Christ.  We need to humble ourselves to wash in the Jordan—that is, to receive baptism—in order to be healed of our spiritual leprosy.  Those who despise the Church and scoff at the sacraments may go their way—but they won’t be healed. 

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4:

R. (cf. 2b) The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.
Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done wondrous deeds;
his right hand has won victory for him,
his holy arm.
R. The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.
The LORD has made his salvation known:
in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice.
He has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness
toward the house of Israel.
R. The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation by our God.
Sing joyfully to the LORD, all you lands:
break into song; sing praise.
R. The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.

This ancient Psalm gives thanks to God for revealing himself not only to Israel but to all the “nations” or “Gentiles” as well.  We do not know what event of revelation the psalmist had in mind: perhaps he was thinking of the ten plagues and the Exodus, news of which spread all over the ancient world.  Or perhaps he was thinking of the return from Babylon, which publically demonstrated the LORD’s mercy for the people Israel in the midst of all the nations.  In any event, we observe a common theme with the First Reading, in which God revealed his power to the Gentile Naaman, and through him to all of Syria (biblical Aram). 

As we, the Catholic Church, gather for Mass this Sunday, we can reflect on the fact that there is no more diverse human organization on the face of the planet, 1.2 billion persons from every continent and every ethnic group.  When this psalm was written (c. 500BC? Or earlier?), who could have foreseen a day when over a billion Gentiles would be gathered into one group dedicated to worshiping the God of Israel.  Truly, “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation by our God.”

3.  The Second Reading is 2 Tm 2:8-13:

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David:
such is my gospel, for which I am suffering,
even to the point of chains, like a criminal.
But the word of God is not chained.
Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen,
so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus,
together with eternal glory.
This saying is trustworthy:
If we have died with him
we shall also live with him;
if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.
But if we deny him
he will deny us.
If we are unfaithful
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny himself.

The Second Reading continues its march through St. Paul’s letters to individuals, which will last for two more weeks yet.  Here, we find ourselves in the 2nd Epistle to Timothy, composed while Paul was in prison, possibly just before his execution.  St. Paul remembers “Jesus Christ … a descendant of David.”  We recall that to David the kingship of the entire earth was promised.  He was to be “the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Ps 89:27).  So it has happened: Jesus has become the greatest king of all the earth, especially in Rome and over the Romans, who were holding Paul captive as he wrote this letter.  St. Paul explains to Timothy that attitude that he maintains while being incarcerated: “I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen.”  He closes with a quote, perhaps from an early Christian hymn: If we died with him, we shall also live with him …  The ending is paradoxical: If we deny him, he will deny us.  If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, because he cannot deny himself. 

Well, then, which is it?  If we are unfaithful, will Jesus deny us or not?  Here Paul is using a typical Jewish form of rhetoric by juxtaposing two seemingly contradictory statements (cf. Prov 26:4-5).  He means to affirm, on the one hand, the fidelity is necessary on our part: “If we deny him, he will deny us.”  Nonetheless, even if we fall into unfaithfulness, there is room to hope in his mercy: “He remains faithful, he cannot deny himself.”  Since we have been incorporated into Christ, we enjoy a special privilege of belonging to him, and Jesus is slow to cast us off, because he sees us as his own flesh and blood.

4.  The Gospel is Lk 17:11-19:

As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
“Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said,
“Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.”

As I’ve said before, we are journeying with Jesus in the Travel Narrative (Luke 9-19), in which he marches from Galilee in the north to his death in Jerusalem to the south.  In between he has to pass through Samaria, as mentioned in v. 11 at the beginning of our Reading.  The Samaritans were mixed-race descendants of the ten northern tribes of Israel, who were conquered and exiled by the Assyrian empire in 722 BC.  They were related to the Jews and practiced essentially the same religion, but worshipped at a different temple and kept different “kosher” laws (i.e. they had a different halakhah).

Ten lepers approach Jesus for healing, and he sends them to the priests.  In this, we note the fact that Jesus upholds the written law of God and the authority structure of the Old Covenant, while it stands.  Jesus was well aware of corruption in the priesthood, and several chapters earlier (Luke 10) he told a story of a priest and Levite who just “passed by on the other side.”  Despite that, the written word of God by Moses had a procedure for the cleansing of leprosy, and Jesus follows it.  There is a lesson here.  Jesus understands authority and authority structures.  Individuals may be corrupt, but that doesn’t justify anarchy in society or in the Church.

All the lepers are cleansed, but only one—the Samaritan—returns to thank Jesus.  “He fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him”—this is virtually an act of worship.  So we note that in both the Gospel and the First Reading, we have foreigners (Syrian and Samaritan) who are cured of leprosy, and whose response is grateful worship. 

These Readings are leading us to understand worship as an expression of gratitude.  This is especially true of the central act of Catholic worship, the liturgy of the Eucharist, since “eucharist” comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.”  Today’s readings are calling us to recognize that we, the vast majority of whom are Gentile “foreigners”, have been cured of our terminal spiritual leprosy by washing in the humble waters of Baptism.  Having been cured, our proper response is eager gratitude expressed through worship.

The Christian life certainly does not consist only in going to Sunday Mass; yet, it also certainly must include attendance at Sunday Mass, for many reasons.  One of these is that the Mass is our highest expression of thanks and gratitude for what God has done in our lives. 

Even if we had no divine revelation, no Bible at all, it would still be possible to (1) reason to the fact that God exists, and (2) discern that it is morally necessary for us to give God worship.  Worship of God is a basic moral obligation evident to properly exercised reason, and were there no revealed religion, it would still be morally obligatory for us to devise some rites through which to express our gratitude for the Being who caused our existence. 

How much more so when this Being has revealed Himself to us, become one of us, died out of love for us, rose again to show us the way to life?  And in the face of that we can’t devote an hour a week in thanks to Him?

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