TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2019)
2 Kings 5:14-17
2 Timothy 2:8-13
There are those, many with a peculiarly conservative bent, who believe that you cannot come to God without an overwhelming sense of guilt. For them it is guilt that drives you to God, usually through the confessional door. Some preaching, both Catholic and Evangelical, is based on the premise that we are sinners, and if we don’t turn to God we run the risk of burning in hell.
Our readings today, however, suggest a different approach, as they highlight what some suggest is the primary, and stronger, impetus for going to God. St. John of the Cross felt that the first true movement of grace was gratitude, and Fr. Terrence Klein, SJ, in his commentary written for America Magazine, points out that “The Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, wonderfully illustrates her Carmelite forebears’ wisdom. God touched her first with gratitude, not guilt. She straightaway recognized who God was in her life when she first felt grateful for that life. And this happened incredibly early.”
Our first reading from the second Book of Kings speaks of Naaman, a Syrian, and thus a non-Jew, who after being cleansed of his leprosy brings his “entire retinue” before Elisha the prophet. That entire retinue, like Naaman, were brought to faith in the God of Elisha, for they “will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the Lord.” Naaman is able to “sing a new song,” for the God of the Jews “has done wondrous deeds” for him.
We might suggest that there is a deep sense of gratitude behind our second reading from the second letter to Timothy, for all of Paul’s preaching exudes a sense of gratitude for what God has done for him. Paul is grateful that God knocked him off his high horse and led him from persecuting Christ’s followers to becoming one of the strongest pillars of God’s church. Everything Paul writes, even when imprisoned, as he is in our second reading, is written with a sense of gratitude for God’s “kindness and faithfulness.”
This brings us to one of the best stories about gratitude in the entire gospel corpus, a story that only appears in Luke’s gospel, a story which has peculiarly Lukan characteristics. Luke recounts this parable about gratitude as Jesus draws closer to his goal of reaching Jerusalem. In some ways, there is an urgency, an importance, to this message, just as last week’s gospel emphasized faith. The lepers stood at a respectful “distance,” no doubt recognizing they would not want to make this Jewish itinerant preacher unclean. Their shouted declaration, “Have pity on us,” leads us to understand that they understood their place in a Jewish world. But the statement is also, in some way, a profession of faith that Jesus can help them, even though they do not specifically asked to be cleansed. They address Jesus as “Master,” a title only used in Luke’s gospel, and a title, other than in this story, is only used by disciples. Jesus is not close enough for any particular action, like laying His hands on them, and from a distance He seems to shout “Go show yourselves to the priests,” an action that could only be accomplished if, in fact, the lepers had been made clean. Their willingness to begin the journey to the priests is also a sign of their newfound faith, and its as “they were going [that] they were cleansed.”
Only one of the ten, “realizing he had been healed,” returned, “glorifying God in a loud voice,” and throwing himself at the feet of Jesus. He can now finally draw close to the Lord, and thank Him properly, and it is here that Jesus is given the chance to speak about the importance of gratitude. “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the foreign leper cooperates with the grace that comes from a loving and caring God, and that leads him to an act of thanksgiving, enabling him to know the Lord more intimately than the other nine who were not moved to say thank you. Jesus is not casting judgement on the other nine, as much as He is emphasizing the importance of gratitude. That He tells the grateful leper “your faith has saved you,” is not meant to lead us to assume the other lepers were not also saved. All we can conclude is that they were not moved enough to return and throw themselves at the feet of the Lord in gratitude.
The story is meant for Jesus’ disciples; the story is meant for us. To be fully aware of what God has done for us, even in times of trial and stress, should compel us like the psalmist to “Sing to the Lord a new song,” a song of perpetual gratitude. We need to resist all temptations to think that God owes us – because we go to church, say the rosary, or pray often. The God who freely bestows His grace on the good and the bad, on the Samaritan and the Jew, on the sick and needy, freely bestows His grace on us. If we are fully open to that grace, we will respond with acts of kindness that make our gratitude real. The grace we receive every day is a free gift from the God who loves us. It is the power with which we overcome obstacles, find healing, resist temptation and serve the needs of God’s kingdom. That we can receive that grace and act because of it is a cause for a lifetime of thanksgiving.