Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday of the Third Week in Lent

4 Kings 5:1-15 / Luke 4:23-30

Among the objections hurled these days against revealed religion, and against Christianity in particular, two are especially prominent. The first is that the Christian faith, if true, should be available everywhere equally by everyone. Said differently, what worries these objectors is that the faith is too bound up in particulars, passed on in a specific set of texts and practices arising from the Bronze and Iron Ages through a determined means of transmission and reception, i.e. the Church. That only some people should have access to and be beneficiaries of what claims to be a universal vocation would, for the naysayers, count against the truth of the Christian faith.

The second objection is that the faith, if true, ought to be undeniably manifest. Like universal gravitation or the light of the sun, such objectors balk at the suggestion that God might work in indirect ways, and without the regularity of a testable law capable of independent and repeated confirmation in controlled experiment. If there were a God who wanted to be acknowledged by all peoples, the ease with which he can be denied counts for these objectors as a clear argument against the plausibility of Christian truth.

While these latter day unbelievers might flatter themselves that their concerns arise from a more advanced perspective due to the advent of the modern scientific method, these objections can be seen in those very Bronze Age texts the naysayers disdain. The Syrian general Naaman in particular exemplifies both of these objections. He is clearly offended by the particularity of Elisha's plan for healing him of leprosy. Why, he wonders, must he wash himself in the waters of the Jordan? Are not the Abana, and the Pharphar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them, and be made clean? Furthermore, although he does not voice the objection, he might well wonder why he must wash seven times, and not some other number, more or less. The very specificity of the place and mode of the cure, however simple and easily accomplished, offend the cultured despiser from Syria.

Nor is this Naaman's only objection. While some of his concern may stem from wounded pride, Naaman found it especially galling that the cure proffered by Elisha was announced indirectly, through a messenger, without any direct contact with the prophet himself. I thought he would have come out to me, and standing would have invoked the name of the Lord his God, and touched with his hand the place of the leprosy, and healed me. The great general worries, and is indeed made angry, that a healing from the God of Israel should be so hidden and unpretentious, so devoid of obvious marks of divinity, so possible to deny to be the work of the prophet, much less of God himself.

What offended this foreigner would, in a similar way, offend those who heard the preaching of Jesus. When Jesus was challenged to work wonders in his homeland — as great things as we have heard done in Capharnaum, do also here in Thine own country — he reminds them instead of what might seem potentially worrisome stories. He speaks of the feeding of the widow of Zarephath in Sidon by the prophet Elijah, while the widows of Israel went hungry, and of the cleansing of Naaman, a Syrian, of his leprosy, while the lepers of Israel remained afflicted and unclean. The crowd, perhaps understandably, grows angry and seeks not merely to drive him out of town, but to kill him by hurling him over the brow of the hill whereon their city was built; the people of Israel in the time of Elijah and Elisha were infamous in Biblical history for having forsaken the way of the Lord, and that Jesus should compare his old neighbors of such infidelity is rather too much to bear. Yet, one wonders also at the offense it suggests in the very particular and limited exercise of mercy Jesus reminds his hearers to be recorded of the Lord God. That God should choose not to heal his own people, that he should send his prophets only to save a few foreigners, and that this should lead not only them but his own people to affirm with Naaman that there is no other God in all the earth, but only in Israel, might also have stirred the wrath of a people expecting, even presuming upon a God who always comes to the aid of everyone in need.

We who live and walk by the light of Christ ought to take caution from the examples of Naaman and of the synagogue. We might slide all too easily in presuming that God's universal work of salvation in Jesus Christ frees us from seeking out those very particular means by which God has provided his Church with the healing grace that flows from the side of the Savior. We might balk at hearing the good news from a pastor too hastily educated or take counsel from a confessor not sufficiently nuanced in moral theology. We might look down our noses at the devotions, pilgrimages, and pious exercises approved with indulgences or recommended by private revelations to the simple: to children in Portugal or a religious sister in Poland. We do so at risk of missing out on the abundance of riches that God has poured out on his Church in Jesus Christ. Most of what the saints and blesseds, both recognized and known only to God alone, present us with means to holiness that are both altogether particular in form and perfectly simple in execution. Would we deprive ourselves of these means of sanctification for the same kinds of objections that risked keeping Naaman from being healed of his leprosy? Or, shall we heed the advice of Naaman's servants: Father, if the prophet had bid thee to do some great thing, surely thou shouldst have done it: how much rather what he now hath said to thee?

Let Thy mercy, O Lord, come to our aid: do Thou as protector remove us, and as our Savior preserve us, from threatening perils produced by our sins.

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