In my early-onset amnesia, I wrote a homily for this Sunday (28C) having wholly forgotten that we have a pastoral letter from the archbishop appointed to be read. To save myself from the feeling of utter futility I post it here so that at least it was not totally for nothing!
Sadly the lectionary gives us only the end of the story of the healing of the Aramean army commander, Naaman. This is a great pity as it is a very important event in the Old Testament, reinforcing a message that informs all the Jewish Law and Prophets but was so seldom acknowledged by the Jews: that God has indeed chosen Israel as his people but not for their own sake alone, and certainly not to make them self-satisfied, but in order to do God’s work in and for the world. Or to put it another way, for the sake of the world God chose Israel, but his work was not confined to Israel.
Naaman had leprosy, which for the Arameans was unfortunate but for the Jews it was disastrous as, all other effects aside, it made one ritually impure. So a little Jewish girl captured by the Arameans and made a servant of Naaman told his wife that he should go to see the prophet in Samaria. That prophet was Elisha, a Jew from Samaria. Naaman duly went and Elisha told him to bathe seven times in the River Jordan. Naaman was put out, as this seemed to be far from the wonderworking he had expected, and his pride kicked in as he asked why he should bathe in a dirty stream like the Jordan when there were great rivers in his own land of Damascus. It was put to Naaman that if he has been asked to do a great and difficult thing, would he not have done it? So why not do this simple little thing? Naaman took the point and did as he was instructed and after the seventh bath he was cured. Then we come to that point we heard in the first reading. Naaman asks for the soil of the land so that he could offer worship to Israel’s God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in his own land.
Sadly the lectionary also omits the last couple of lines of this episode, when Naaman asked Elisha for forgiveness in advance, since his position in his homeland obliged him to accompany his lord to worship in the temple of the pagan God Rimmon. Elisha’s reply was simply, “Go in peace”.
Only when we have taken in the whole episode can we appreciate properly its full significance. God, through his prophet, acts for the benefit of a pagan and brings him to faith. Elisha works this miracle for free, so Naaman asked to take the holy soil on which he was healed with him so that he could continue to worship the God of the Jews and the Samaritans. In different ways throughout the Old Testament a similar message is driven home: God works through Israel to bless all the world. That is both Israel’s blessing and privilege, that through her the world should come to faith in God.
With all that in mind let us look again at the gospel. Jesus was in the borderlands between Israel and Samaria. Ten lepers sought healing from him, inspired by a seed of faith. Jesus told them to show themselves to the priests so that their healing could be ritually verified. But, think about this. There is more to this Samaritan than that he is the only one to give thanks. He would have been caught in a bind. The 9 Jewish lepers went south to Jerusalem to show themselves to the temple priests. But the Samaritans did not accept the temple in Jerusalem; their temple was on Mt Gerizim. But the Samaritan does not go to his own land; nor does he take with him any of the soil on which he was healed. He returns to Jesus to offer worship, to Jesus directly. His worship is a thanksgiving, a eucharist as the original Greek puts it.
In other words, this Samaritan leper has moved one step ahead of even the insightful Naaman. He needs neither the soil of Samaria nor the soil of Israel in order to worship. It is not a matter of choosing between the temple in Jerusalem or the temple on Mt Gerizim. Both are no longer relevant. Jesus is the new temple, in him is the new Israel of the Church. And wherever there is faith in Jesus and worship of Jesus, with his Father and his Spirit, there is the holy soil of the new Israel. We would be reasonable to infer that unlike Naaman, the Samaritan returned to his former land a disciple of God’s full revelation and God’s new covenant.
If we read about some of the chaos surrounding the Synod in Rome on the Amazon, we might keep this in mind. The Amazon is no more a paradise than Lancashire. Any land can be like a paradise, a spiritual one at least, if there is faith in Christ there. It is faith in Christ, and worship in thanksgiving—Eucharist—to him that is crucial. Without Christ there is nothing of any real value in this world; in fact, without Christ everything has in it the seed or sapling of danger.
Today Bl John Henry Newman will be canonised as a saint of the universal Church. He composed for his tombstone in Birmingham a Latin phrase which summarizes his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem—“From shadows and images into truth”. For him Anglicanism was a Syria or Samaria—or an Amazon—where God could work but where God did not make an abiding home, where he could only be glimpsed in a land of little light and greater darkness. For him coming to the Catholic Church was a coming home. Like Israel, the Church’s mission is to entice all the world back home to dwell on the soil of Christian faith to the true worship of God, in spirit and in truth, in a Eucharist offered on this rich soil of Christian faith.
St John Henry Newman, pray for us.