Fifty-sixth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
I recently read one of the best descriptions of the Church: that it is the only organization that exists “primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” How very true it is when we stop to think about it, from its very beginnings and even before. Israel was meant to be a light to the nations. The Incarnation ensured that the Redemption would be for everyone. Jesus sent His disciples forth to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The messages of the more mystically inclined Saints, however we may feel about their private revelations made public, are remarkably consistent in their attitude that all people should come to know the power and mercy and love of God. Even the tales of heavenly visions in the Bible give scenes of vast and diverse multitudes of both angels and of witnesses to the faith. When the Lord said He makes all things new, He didn’t just mean my things or your things, or even the Church’s things. He makes all things new. He is the God of all, within all, and so His Church must be for all.
The First Reading shows us the healing of Naaman the Syrian, a foreign official who had come to Israel in the hopes of having his leprosy cured. The prophet Elisha gave him the simple task of bathing seven times in the River Jordan, and when He did His skin was cleansed. He comes back to the prophet to give thanks, saying he will no longer offer sacrifice to any god but the God of Israel, the LORD. A similar situation is occurring in the Gospel reading, as Jesus clears the skin of ten lepers who beg His aid, and one of them – a Samaritan, a foreigner – comes back to give thanks for his cure. Both stories illustrate for us the indiscriminate way in which God exercises that mercy and reconciliation which we are also called to exercise just as impartially. This “hospital for sinners” as Pope Francis has referred to the Church must always be at the ready to be “merciful like the Father,” by working to heal all wounds that keep us apart from each other and being active agents of both charity and justice.
But there is another lesson to take from these stories for us who are inside the Church: just as we are not above sharing the great gift of God with all the world, we are also not above giving thanks to God for those gifts. It is always noteworthy to point out, and Jesus Himself does in the Gospel, that “[t]en were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?” But it’s not just that only one out of the ten came back,it’s that that one was someone outside the organization. “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Jesus asks. Even Naaman from the First Reading is referenced by Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels as an example, saying that in Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel but we never read of any of them being cleansed, just a foreigner from Syria. Just as both stories are an illustration to us of how we are to act towards even the most different from ourselves, they also serve as a warning to us of how complacent we can become in our attitude towards the God Who is acting through us and for us. And we inside the Church do face that dangerous tendency every day to become soft, lazy, thankless, presumptive, even jaded. When the Church forgets Her relationship with God is two-sided, that is when She stops being a hospital and becomes a museum. We can’t be for the benefit of others when we can’t even accept our own benefits for what they are. It would be far better, I dare say, to deny Him completely and willfully than to ignore Him incrementally and passively.
But the God Who makes all things new even makes us new, always makes our relationship with Him new. Every day we open our eyes is another opportunity to renew our commitment to God and to each other. And this cuts to the heart of the litany that Saint Paul provides to Timothy in our Second Reading, a series of cause-and-effect statements that come to a screeching halt at the end in a way that balances the two other readings. This series of straightforward statements of our actions and their consequences – if we die with Him, we live with Him; if we deny Him, He denies us – are flipped on their head with something so shockingly simple: “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” This one statement can buoy the hopes of those outside Her walls looking for a way in and should shame any self-righteous soul within Her walls into throwing open the gates. It is an utterance that should destroy our preconceived notions about the Church and what She is for. She is the great house for all humanity, the dwelling place for the dwelling places of God. She is indeed the Bride of Christ, and the two are made one flesh – a flesh He will make us new again and again, for which we should never cease to give thanks.
The Church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of those outside it. It is the Church’s duty and destiny to bring as many people inside as possible. A joy like ours should never be kept quiet, whether by failing to share it or by failing to give thanks for it. Let’s continually rediscover that joy every time we open our eyes, and engage in joy with everyone our eyes fall upon. After all, that’s what God is trying to do when His eyes fall upon us. Let’s work so that everyone can go in peace, because our faith has saved us. And let’s keep asking the Lord to increase that faith.
A final note: Naaman was told simply to bathe in the Jordan. The ten lepers were told simply to show themselves to the priests. So often faith lives in the little things!