‘All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Shout to the Lord all the earth, ring out your joy.” The psalmist’s expansive praise of God’s salvation is truly universal. It knows nothing of fallen nature’s tendency to retreat behind the barriers of national and cultural identity, defences that sow suspicion, breeding alienation between peoples and nations.
The scriptures this Sunday probe our generosity of heart, contrasting our hidden and destructive prejudices with a divine love that takes us beyond our limited imagination.
The account of Naaman the leper was set in the early history of Israel’s kingdom, a time when survival was precarious, and every “outsider” was to be considered a potential threat to the very existence of the young nation. Throughout history such attitudes have been carried to extremes in times of crises, frequently isolating and victimising the “outsider”. It is a sobering thought that, despite the enlightenment, the 20th century has witnessed the most atrocious genocides in human history.
Naaman, a high-ranking officer in the Syrian army, represented everything that threatened Israel. The military power of Syria was a constant threat to Israel’s northern border and her religious beliefs an abomination to Israel’s faith in the one God.
The narrative, however, is not about the many things that divided Israel and Syria, but rather about the universal longing for healing and salvation that brings all peoples to God. Namaan longed for healing, a longing that enabled him to overcome his own prejudices and, with exemplary humility, to travel to a foreign land and the prophet of an alien God.
The detail of Naaman’s insistence that he carry back to his home soil from the land of his healing, while strange to our eyes, underlines his determination to carry with him, wherever manifested, the grace of God. We, in our turn, should never allow prejudice to blind us to the work of God in all peoples and all cultures. We should be enriched by such graces and carry them with us.
Throughout the gospels Jesus encountered such prejudice, and was not slow to refer back to Israel’s history and the faith of “outsiders” such as Naaman and the widow of Zarephath (Lk 4:25ff). The healing of the 10 lepers and its aftermath brings an added dimension to the debate. Ten lepers were healed, and yet only one, a Samaritan, returned to praise God and thank Jesus.
If we are to understand the bitterness that separated Jews and Samaritans, we should remember that they were the closest of neighbours, sharing the same land and the same religious roots. From experience we know that the most traumatic breakdowns are experienced with those closest to us. Hurt and misunderstanding rapidly give way to accusations of treachery and infidelity. Whatever the original cause, the breakdown takes on a dynamic of its own, becoming a hatred blind to any virtue or grace in the other.
We would be foolish to think that such blindness cannot overwhelm our own personal lives. The parable of the 10 lepers brings us back to our shared vulnerability, our shared longing for healing and wholeness. The Samaritan leper was led by such need to Jesus who was a Jew. He rejoiced in his healing and gave thanks to God.
Rather than retreating from everything that is “outside” what makes us comfortable, let us concentrate on the need that makes us one with the stranger, and in that need, find the Lord. Then we shall be worthy of the words spoken to the Samaritan leper. “Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.”