The first scripture we hear today is taken from the Second Book of Kings. It relates the story of a highly esteemed and respected Syrian army commander, Naaman. Sadly, he suffered from leprosy. His wife’s slave, a Jewish girl captured during a raid on Israel, told her mistress that there was a prophet in Samaria who could cure her master. Naaman responded to her suggestion. He went to the king of Syria who gave him a letter of introduction to the king of Israel along with gifts of ten silver talents, six thousand gold pieces and ten festal garments. Naaman and his retinue then set out to Israel. After delivering the letter of introduction and the gifts to the king, he went to the house of Elisha the prophet.
Naaman was told, through a messenger from Elisha, to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. He became enraged because the prophet didn’t come out to greet him personally, and that he was told to bathe in the Jordan, a river much inferior to the rivers of Syria. However, his slaves encouraged him to perform the simple task. What did he have to
lose. He bathed in the river seven times and was cured. He sent word to Elisha that he would, from that day on, wor- ship only the God of Israel.
The Gospel relates the story of Jesus curing a band of ten lepers. Unlike the highly respected Naaman, these men were social outcasts. The law prohibited them from approach- ing anyone, including family. They had to keep their distance from all healthy people. So, “they stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master! Have pity on us.’” He told them to go and show themselves to the priests. This
was to receive from them an official declaration of health, and the freedom to return to their former lives. One of them, realizing that he was cured, be- gan to glorify God. He came to Jesus, threw himself at his feet, and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan.
Both of these accounts remind us of the importance of faith. Naaman discovered the true God through his healing. Jesus told the Samaritan who returned to give thanks that his faith had saved him.
Both of these stories focus on the outsider – the person who doesn’t fit in or isn’t in harmony with the society around him. Naaman wasn’t a Jew. His country had been in conflict with Israel. Yet he dis- covered a new life by entering the faith life of his enemy.
The Samaritan, despised by Jews, and separated from his own people because of his illness, found salvation and healing because his faith made him strong enough to reach out to the Jewish prophet, Jesus. Where can we go with these accounts?
We always need to bring the scriptures into our
present-day experiences if they’re going to be a source of spiritual enrichment and guidance. Then perhaps the first question we should ask is, what does the image of the leper evoke for me, personally?
We may not have a physical illness, but we all suffer quietly within ourselves. We all experience what seems like an incurable sense of shame. Think back to your adolescence when you felt ugly, or overweight, or perpetually awkward. It was a period when the slightest comment about you could be the source of tremendous inner pain. You covered up the pain. You smiled in public but wept when you were alone. That adolescent shame rarely leaves us as we immerge into adult- hood. Perhaps we don’t feel it the same way, but it festers quietly within us, and subconsciously affects the way we act and our relationship with others.
Each of us needs inner healing. In one way or another each of us can relate to the painful isolation of the lepers in today’s readings. Each of us can cry out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on me!”
On the societal level we continue to suffer tremendously because of the hidden shame we carry as a society. We don’t seem to be able to unite as a community of diverse people. Just when we think we’ve healed some of our societal wounds like racism and sexism, another painful ulcer appears. Witness the brutality of our immigration policies. Witness the harassment, and sometimes even murder, of transgender people. Our society can cry out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!
Each of us needs to bathe in the Jordan seven times. Each of us needs to cry out for healing from the Master. We haven’t been able to heal ourselves. We have to trust a power greater than our own to heal the inner shame that continues to torment us and our society.
Each of us has to ask ourselves the deep question, “What am I ashamed of?” When we honestly answer that question, we can call out a sincere plea for heal- ing. We have to have faith that the Divine Physical can cure us and our society. We have to have faith that the love of God can cure all our ills. We have to heal our shame in order to free the divine love that is within each of us. We have to ask for heal- ing so that we can all walk in the glory of the children of God.
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
We’ve all heard this teaching many times. I don’t know about you, but I question the depth of my faith every day. Right now, as I’m writing this reflection, I’m asking myself, “When was the last time you had enough faith to uproot a tree or to move a mountain?!”
Jesus’ declaration makes me, a supposed man of faith, feel guilty about my lack of faith. I know that Jesus was using hyperbole in this teaching, but still, I don’t feel that I’ve ever done the equivalent of uprooting a mulberry tree or moving a mountain with the power of my faith! I take this teaching as a tremendous personal challenge. I wonder if my faith will
ever grow to the size of a mustard seed. With this personal confession, I’ll move on to the second part of his teaching.
“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table?’ Would you not, rather, say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished?’ Is he grateful to that servant be- cause he did what he was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are un- profitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
The second part of this teaching doesn’t leave me feeling as guilty as the first part. I work very hard. But often, I put too much on my plate, and so don’t always do my best. There’s a discipline that I lack. I rarely say no. I feel guilty about this, too.
When I first entered the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament as an impressionable teen- ager, I was impressed by an image our founder used to focus our call to serve Jesus. He asked us to be like the vigil candle that burns before the Blessed Sacrament. Its flame can continue to be a sentinel of faith only because the candle gives up its life to feed it. When I feel the stress, and sometimes pain, of working, I often think of the image of the candle. It helps me renew my energy and I keep going.
These are my thoughts about the gospel passage today. I’m sharing these personal thoughts with you to encourage you in your own reflections. Faith is a very personal matter. You have your own, very special and
unique experience of faith. You hear the call to be God’s servant in your own way, and your response is unique to you.
Try not to let any feelings of guilt you may experience as you reflect on these teachings paralyze you from taking a positive step as a disciple of Jesus. I’ve always found that my feelings of guilt were a hindrance to my accepting God’s loving call. Don’t let negative feelings dis- tract you from what Jesus taught us: that God is love. He clearly manifested that in his own life.
The two teachings we’re thinking about to- day, faith and service, point us to his call to love as God loves – unconditionally and sacrificially. To teach that we’re here on earth to serve God, means we’re on earth to love. That’s the challenge we all face as his disciples.
This week’s Gospel relates the well- known parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It begins by giving us a glimpse of “the gilded age” in Jesus’ time. “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.” The palatial homes of the wealthy were built in a way that would flaunt their riches. Wealthy city- dwellers had dining rooms that were often slightly elevated from the street level and opened-aired. In the hot climate this afforded cool evening breezes to blow through. It also allowed the “common peo ple” to get a glimpse of the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Lazarus, a beggar who was covered with sores, found a place on the street below the dining room. He would watch the master of the house and his guests feast day after day, his mouth watering and his stomach growling all the while. His only companions were the street dogs who would approach him, and kindly lick his sores.
The scene quickly shifts. Both Lazarus and the rich man have died. We need to understand the concept of death that was prevalent at the time of Jesus to understand this scene. At his death, the rich man found himself in the netherworld. This isn’t what we would portray as hell, though the rich man speaks of being tormented in fire. The netherworld was the underground abode of the dead. Jesus often described this as the place where there was, “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” It’s the place of tremendous regret. There, the rich man suffered with the memories of missed opportunities. Distracted by his wealth and daily feast- ing, he had no sympathy for the hungry and sick beggar peering into his dining room every day. And so, unlike Lazarus, he wasn’t “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” He was brought to the abode of the dead.
The heart of the parable consists of a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham. The rich man looks up and, way in the distance, sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side. His self-absorption still in high gear, he calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus, like a servant, to relieve his suffering with a drop of water.
With touching compassion, Abraham addresses him as, “my child,” and explains to him that Laza- rus is being comforted for his long suffering, while he is tormented by the terrible emptiness of his life of selfishness and excess. Abraham goes on to tell him that by ignoring the suffering of others he had dug a huge chasm around himself, stranding him- self in a place of painful isolation.
The rich man suddenly thinks of his five brothers who are living the same selfish life-style. Again,
he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them to alert them so that they can change their ways. But Abraham tells him that they have all they need. They have the wisdom of the Law and the prophets to direct them. The rich man immediately pro- tests telling Abraham that if Lazarus came from the dead to warn them they would repent and change their ways. Abraham responds to him with compassion and sadness. ”If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The rich man knew the wise teachings of the Law and the prophets. He didn’t take them seriously. He knew the teaching from Deuteronomy, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but never thought of reaching out to Lazarus who was suffering in the street right below his dining room. In fact, he was so self-absorbed that he didn’t even know Lazarus was there.
This parable, unlike Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t end with a joyful conversion. Jesus was portraying someone very wealthy. But wealth and extravagance wasn’t his sin, his self-absorption was. It smothered his life. He went to the abode of the dead because he was dead his entire life. He didn’t see the world around him. His narcissism created the “great chasm” that isolated him from the world, a world that was often suffer- ing.
In this parable Jesus is teaching us that, to be truly alive, we must permit ourselves to SEE and FEEL the world around us. This isn’t as easy as it may sound because, when we do so, we’ll often feel uncomfortable. When we see suffering around us it tears at our heart. Sometimes we want to DO something to help but don’t know what to do. We feel impotent. When we see homeless people on our doorstep, or the terrible violence and suffering in the Middle East, the people trapped in the starvation belts across the world, the destruction and death in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, and the families suffering in the internment camps across the country, the compassion we feel can turn into painful despair. But this shouldn’t prevent us from feeling, from mourning. We have to remember what Jesus taught us. “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Blessed are the merciful.”
There’s always something we can DO, but it will often feel miniscule in comparison to the scope of the suffering we see. But we must continue to SEE it. We must continue to FEEL it. It will keep us alive – alive in spirit and truth. It will prevent the digging of the “great Chasm” around us. It will add the healing ingredient of compassion into our world. One heart at a time, it will change the world.