DIRT. NOT JUST ordinary dirt, but game-used dirt from Citi Field. That’s what a dear friend gave me as a birthday present this year: a New York Mets souvenir ballpoint pen, filled with game-used dirt from Citifield, complete with a certificate of authenticity. My friend, who happens to be a Yankee fan, didn’t mean it as a joke. Quite the contrary: she knows I’m a lifelong Mets fan. She also knows that I’m fond of pens, and that my best writing takes place not at the computer keyboard but at the desk, with pen and paper. No kitschy souvenir this New York Mets ballpoint, not to this fan of baseball and wordcraft! For me it’s a teeny bit of Mets history, even a relic of sorts, if you will.
Dirt has an important place in this Sunday’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings. We read the story of Naaman, army commander of the king of Aram, who, at the encouragement of his wife’s Israelite servant, finds his way to Israel to seek a cure for his leprosy from the prophet Elisha. Bearing a letter of introduction from his king, Naaman makes his way to the king of Israel, who frets over an impossible request that he find a cure for Naaman. Elisha puts the king’s mind at ease, insisting, “Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.”
When Naaman reaches Elisha’s door, the prophet instructs him: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean.”
Naaman is less than thrilled, hoping that Elisha might have had something more dramatic in mind. Seething with disappointment, he turns away, until his servants offer sensible counsel: “if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.”
Persuaded that no harm could come from following the prophet’s advice, Naaman does as he was told, and the outcome is as promised.
That brings us to a happy ending with Naaman’s unexpected exclamation, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” This is where dirt enters the picture. When Elisha refuses Naaman’s urging that he accept a gift in gratitude for the healing, the prophet does give in to what seems a peculiar request: “Please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth, for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the Lord.”
What was so special about Israelite dirt that Naaman needed to bring it home? Wasn’t his hometown Damascus dirt just as good? Isn’t dirt from Fenway Park just as good as dirt from Yankee Stadium?
Bound to the Land
The answer is complicated, because this ancient text reflects a worldview according to which a nation’s gods were linked to the nation’s territory. Thus Israel’s God was understood to be bound up by covenant with the people and land of Israel, and so could most appropriately be honored by sacrifices offered in the land of Israel.
Faced with his recognition “that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel,” Naaman deals with the dilemma of having to return to Aram, where false gods were regarded as hometown heroes. It wasn’t Naaman’s faith that healed him. That he owed to the power of God acting through the prophet Elisha. Yet once Naaman recognizes Israel’s God as the only true God, he has to give his allegiance to Israel’s God.
His request for Israelite dirt, therefore, represents a clever – if unconventional – solution. He can offer sacrifice to the God of Israel even in Aram, provided the altar he erects is built on imported Israelite dirt! This seems odd to us, until we stop to think about the times we have collected seashells or even a bottle of sand from a favorite beach that brings back happy memories. For Naaman, the dirt he brings back to Aram is no mere souvenir. It is the stuff that is the very ground of the practice of his newfound faith in the God of Israel.
This Sunday’s reading from Luke’s Gospel deliberately echoes the healing of Naaman, with Jesus healing not just one, but 10 people with leprosy. No bathing in the Jordan this time, but instead an instruction, “Go show yourselves to the priests,” who (according to Leviticus 13) were charged with diagnosing leprosy, quarantining the afflicted to prevent contagion and ascertaining when to end the period of quarantine.
None But the Foreigner
Though all 10 are healed on the way, only one returns to give glory to God and to express thanks to Jesus. Only one of the 10 recognizes that the life-changing experience of healing calls for him to give glory to the God whose power he could feel at work in his own flesh. Luke points out that this one was a Samaritan, and Jesus Himself asks a rhetorical question, “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Like Naaman, whose healing in the waters of the Jordan led him to faith in the God of Israel, so too the outsider healed by Jesus Himself comes to believe, and Jesus assures him, “Your faith has saved you.” That faith was both cause and consequence of the man’s healing: it was faith that led him to call out “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” and it was faith that led him to glorify God in gratitude for the restoration of his health.
As with Naaman, and as with the Samaritan, so too with us: it is by faith that we are saved, through faith that we are made whole, and borders are no barriers to the saving power of God. We don’t know what words the Samaritan chose to give glory to God, but the words of this Sunday’s responsorial psalm are fitting both for him and for us: “The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation by our God.”
Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Kings 5: 14-17
Psalm 98: 1, 2-3, 3-4
2 Timothy 2: 8-13
Luke 17: 11-19
Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.