As we’ve seen in recent columns, faith is closely interconnected with many truths, attitudes and perspectives. Today’s readings reveal that faith requires obedience, is expressed in gratitude and praise, and is often accompanied by suffering.
The story of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian king’s army, fits perfectly with today’s Gospel. Contracting leprosy in the ancient Middle Eastern world was about as close to death as one could get without actually dying. Lepers were essentially the “living dead,” whose condition severed them from community and normality. If a leper thought he had been cured, he presented himself to the priest for inspection, was sprinkled seven times with the blood of a bird, bathed and shaved, was separated from others for seven days, and then offered further sacrifices (Lv 14).
The backstory to Naaman’s encounter with Elisha (see 2 Kgs 5:1-13) adds much to the narrative. Naaman, for instance, hears about a possible cure through his wife’s servant — a young girl who had been captured from Israel during a raid by the Arameans. God does indeed work in mysterious ways! And Naaman apparently thought the directive given by the prophet — “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan” (2 Kgs 5:10) — was both mysterious and messy. “Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel?” he angrily asked. His servants “came up and reasoned with him.” In a subtle fashion, the relationship between faith and reason is brought to the fore. While an act of faith might at first appear unreasonable, it is never contrary to true reason, for it is in accord with God.
So Naaman, a Gentile, was plunged seven times into the Jordan, an act prefiguring the saving baptism that would one day be offered to all people because of the work of the God-man, who himself was baptized in the Jordan (Mt 3:13-17). Cleansed through his obedient act, Naaman praised and proclaimed the God of Israel.
Compare Naaman’s response with that of the 10 lepers in the Gospel. They came to Jesus shortly after he had chastised the apostles for their lack of faith (Lk 17:5-6). Rather than heal them immediately, Jesus directed them to present themselves to the priest, showing that his ministry was never contrary to the Law, but always fulfilling it (see Mt 5:17-19). This also required the lepers to act in faith. But although all 10 were healed, only the Samaritan returned. Ten had come, but only one returned to demonstrate his belief that Jesus was Lord.
Those other nine, wrote St. Cyril of Alexandra, had fallen into “thankless forgetfulness.” That description resonates beautifully with a passage in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”): “The sacraments communicate an incarnate memory, linked to the times and places of our lives, linked to all our senses; in them the whole person is engaged as a member of a living subject and part of a network of communitarian relationships” (No. 40). Faith requires memory — not just individual recollections of God’s goodness, but the lived memory of the Body of Christ.
Faith, St. Paul reminds us, involves suffering, for the Gospel is a call to sacrifice. But if we have died with Christ “we shall also live with him” ( 2 Tm 2:11). Those who persevere in faith “shall also reign with him.” Faith is a journey, a daily walk with Christ to the Cross — and beyond.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.