Sunday of the 28th Week of Ordinary Time
2 Kgs 5:14-17
Ps 98:1,2-4 2
“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” It is shocking to read that only one of the ten lepers healed by Jesus came back to say “thank you.” Being grateful is not just a social duty that we share, but an expression of our interiority that also becomes a spiritual act.
The Gospel story of the healing of the ten lepers may have been modeled on the Old Testament story of the cure of Naaman. The commander of the Syrian army, Naaman, is a great man, a trusted advisor of the king and a brave warrior, but he is afflicted by leprosy, the most feared disease in the ancient world. It takes a little girl, an Israeli prisoner of war, to help this “great man” discover how to heal. He will be cured, the unnamed girl tells Naaman’s wife, if he goes to “the prophet in Samaria” (2 Kgs 5:3). Naaman must first ask permission from the king of Aram, who tells him to present himself to the king of Israel with his letter. Taking with him some gifts, Naaman travels to Israel with the letter, which the king of Israel misunderstands. Thinking that the king of Aram intended to provoke him, the king of Israel tears his clothes in anger. The prophet Elisha, hearing of this, invites the king to send him the sick man: “Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kgs 5:8). Personal encounter and recognition are essential for the commander’s recovery. Naaman arrives at the home of Elisha, with an impressive retinue. And in keeping with his status as army commander, he expects a more elaborate healing ritual than Elisha calls for. But the prophet, without going out to meet him, sends him a messenger to indicate what to do: wash seven times in the river Jordan (a prophetic sign of our baptism). It is too simple for Naaman to believe. Should he not meet the prophet personally? Do not they have better rivers in Damascus? The narrative suggests that one part is being cured while another is being healed. The cure is physical; the healing is internal. Naaman, though indignant, obeys. When he realizes he is healed, he comes back to Elisha to thank him, offering gifts as a sign of gratitude. This is where he finally meets the prophet in person. Total healing, true conversion, is the result of his obedience to the word of the prophet, of his personal encounter with him, and of the sacramental mediation of the water of the river Jordan. It is an encounter that leads him to recognize the God of Israel.
In the Gospel reading, Luke allows us to encounter again the figure of the stranger, as we follow Jesus on his journey. This journey has as its geographical goal Jerusalem, but its existential end is the offering of his life on the cross, the sign of the limitless availability of the Son for the Father and his work of universal salvation. Jesus is headed for Jerusalem, the “holy city,” but to get there he passes through territories that the Jews considered too close to foreigners (the so-called “Galilee of the Gentiles”) or even impure because they were inhabited by heretics (the population of Samaria).
It is precisely along this risky route that Jesus meets a group of people who were among the most marginalized of the time: lepers (such as Naaman the Syrian). Leprosy was a skin disease that was considered a punishment for sinners (see King Uzziah in 2 Chr 26:20). It was believed to make its victims unfit for worship or for living among the community, so they were forced to live apart from the rest of society (see Lv 13:46). Lepers were excluded, forced to wander in solitude, accompanied only by other lepers, always calling out ahead of them when they approached inhabited areas. They were also humiliated by the fact that they had to wear ragged clothes with their heads uncovered.