Reflections on the readings for Sunday 10 October 2010
2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98:1-4; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
I’m sure you’ve had times when you have been so grateful it felt as if you wanted to burst – those moments when joy explodes your heart and you couldn’t keep a smile off your face or a spring out of your step even if you tried. Keeping the good news to ourselves would seem almost like torture. And if the reason for our thankfulness is unexpected and brings us out of crisis or despair, our euphoria is all the greater. Psalm 98 is a joyous shout of gratitude for when we cannot keep our happiness to ourselves.
Naaman was a foreign army general who was afflicted with leprosy. The story which precedes our reading tells how he comes to Elisha for a cure and is put out when the prophet doesn’t meet him but simply sends instructions that he dip himself in the Jordan seven times. Naaman is a proud man used to being respected and ordering others around. But the change that comes over him when he emerges from the Jordan the seventh time is astounding. Not only is he completely restored physically, but he is overcome with wonder and gratitude for Elisha and Elisha’s god. The gifts which he urges Elisha to accept are more than the payment for a transaction; they are Naaman’s way of expressing his gratitude. Elisha’s wise refusal to accept them nudges Naaman toward expressing his gratitude toward the true healer. Naaman returns home with a cartload of soil, a tangible sign of the connection which gratitude has forged between Naaman and God.
The Gospel story is also about the healing of lepers and the gratitude of an outsider, a Samaritan. Lepers were excluded from society and forbidden to come into physical contact with healthy people. I have no doubt that all of them were overcome with delight when they discovered they were healed – a social as well as a physical restoration. So I don’t think we can say that the Samaritan who returns is the only one who is grateful. What is different about him is that he comes running back to Jesus to give expression to his thankfulness. This is much more than the politeness of saying ‘thank-you’ that we try to instil in children. True thankfulness experienced in the depth of our being draws us toward the one we thank. It establishes or deepens our connection with them. By giving expression to his gratitude, the Samaritan opens himself to a deeper transformation in his encounter with Jesus.
It is easy to see how and why a healed leper would give thanks. In the midst of crisis – and here I think of Ireland’s clerical and economic woes – what can we be thankful for? Paul’s words to Timothy give us a glimpse of how the Apostle can remain positive despite the hardships he is facing. He is writing from prison. This man who had travelled from city to city preaching and establishing churches is now chained like a criminal, awaiting sentencing and probable death. But he remains utterly convinced of the truth of the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee that the domination system, represented in those days by the Roman empire and in ours by unjust political and economic systems (read the Market, clerical abuse of power and political cronyism) will not in the end triumph over the purposes of God. Faith in Jesus Christ hasn’t been the easy head-in-the-sand option for Paul. It landed him in prison. And nor is genuine faith the easy option for us. It involves identifying with God and what God is doing in the world, even if that means dying (and not only symbolically in baptism). It means holding firm, and not disowning Christ. It means trusting in God’s faithfulness. But when our hearts have been warmed by gratitude it is easier to hope, and also to notice the little things around us for which we can give thanks now.