By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
In case you hadn’t already figured it out, the lectionary — the book of readings from Sacred Scripture that is used at Mass — is a very carefully arranged collection of biblical texts. As the Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass explains, harmony and semicontinuous reading are the two guiding principles that govern the order of readings for Sundays and feasts.
The principle of harmony focuses on the rich texture of interwoven threads that link the New Testament with the Old Testament. For the last several weeks, and continuing until the end of October, Sunday’s second reading offers a semicontinuous sequence of texts from Paul’s first and second letters to Timothy.
Together with the letter to Titus, these three are called the “pastoral epistles” because in them Paul counsels the next generation of leaders about matters of doctrine and discipline in the nascent Christian communities they serve. The deliberate harmonization of the Old Testament reading with each Sunday’s Gospel means that preachers who want to touch on all three readings must sometimes engage in homiletical gymnastics with a high degree of difficulty.
At first glance, the healing of people suffering from leprosy seems to be the theme that links this Sunday’s text from Luke with a first reading from the Second Book of Kings that tells of the cleansing of Naaman through the intervention of the prophet Elisha.
The Gospel reading then tells of the cleansing of not just one but 10 people. As Jesus entered a village, “ten lepers met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!’” The 10 keep their distance from Jesus, keeping with the requirements of Leviticus 13:45-46, which prescribes that infected individuals “shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’” and declares that “as long as the infection is present, the person shall be unclean. Being unclean, that individual shall dwell apart, taking up residence outside the camp.”
Yet there is nothing dramatic about the healings either in 2 Kings or in Luke 17. In fact, Naaman goes away angry at how simple Elisha’s instructions are, telling him to bathe in the Jordan River seven times: “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand there to call on the name of the Lord his God, and would move his hand over the place, and thus cure the leprous spot.”
As for Jesus, in Luke 17 he says only “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” and it is while the 10 are on their way that they discover they have been cleansed. What is very dramatic in both readings is the gratitude that is expressed by those who discover they have been freed from their afflictions. For his part, Naaman urges Elisha to accept a gift as thanks for his healing, and Elisha insistently refuses the gift. At the end, Naaman asks the prophet for two mule-loads of earth, so that when he returns home to Aram he can offer sacrifice to the God of Israel literally on Israelite soil.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, one of the 10, “realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” Reading just a bit more closely, then, gratitude is another key thread that connects Sunday’s first reading with Sunday’s Gospel. When Naaman and the Samaritan realize what God has done for them — however subtly their healing took place — they realize, as the Psalmist sings, that “the Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.” In countless ways, the Lord continues to reveal His saving power to us, healing body and soul and spirit. For this, let us never fail to give thanks and praise!
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.