Today's readings remind me of people who know what they want, who know that what they want is good for them, and who also know that what they want as something ultimately good for them, is worth waiting patiently for, praying fervently for, and working feverishly for.
Where I come from, people have the utmost respect and reverence for farmers. I am one of those who look up to them with awe. My father was an accountant by profession, but a farmer by vocation. He loved to plant. He loved to till the soil and be close to nature. He began planting coffee trees at age 11, together with his even younger brother who eventually died as a boy of something that, by today's medical standards, could easily have been cured. He knew what he wanted. He knew that what he wanted was good for his future (and ours!). And he worked for what he wanted with utmost dedication, commitment, and perseverance.
For me, on account primarily, though not solely, of my father's and many relatives' good example, farmers are the epitome of patience and perseverance. They plant with a long range vision in mind. What they plant today, they know all too well, is not something they will reap tomorrow. They know how to watch and wait. And in the meantime, they fondle the work of their hands with the brightest of hopes accompanied by the most fervent prayer. Persistence and perseverance are two words that aptly describe them in general.
This kind of unflinching perseverance is what juts out of the first and third readings. In the context of a fierce battle that probably could have had something to do with a much-prized and much-coveted watering hole, Moses and his people put up a fierce resistance. Although there seems to be something faintly magical in what he does, the real focus of the passage is not the use of magic, but the persevering and long-suffering nature of what Moses does - raise up his arms in an obvious allusion to the biblical gesture of fervent prayer.
Our usual one-word summary of the first reading, is thus, none other than this simple word ... ALWAYS. If we are to take to heart the meaning behind the gesture of Moses (with the help of some equally committed aides), then the allusion to praying always could not be clearer. "As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight."
The Gospel passage, like the first reading, leads us to reflect on patient, persistent prayer. But there is more than just persistence in both readings. Beyond speaking of persistence, both readings allude to one obvious trait that accrues from, and accompanies, persistence - the capacity to conjure up various means and methods to achieve one's end. Moses' aides resorted to the ruse of propping up his hand(s). They took Moses' noble cause and made it their own, by taking part in Moses' ministry of intercessory prayer. The widow spoken of in the gospel did all her best to talk the wicked judge out of indifference and carefree insouciance, and cajole him to take action in her favor. Wicked though he was, he fell for the various antics and persistent ways of the widow. ALL WAYS is an apt phrase to summarize both readings. Persistence and perseverance are shown in creative and proactive stances to take up God's cause - in many ways more than one, just in order to advance one's vision and achieve one's legitimate aim. Some Sundays back if you remember, the gospel spoke all about the steward who wisely did EVERYTHING possible to save his own skin (25th Sunday, Sept. 23). St. Paul, too, alludes to this equally multi-faceted power and incisiveness of God's Word that works in "all ways," because it is "inspired of God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction and training in righteousness" (2nd reading).
A pray-er prays always and in all ways, and is "persistent, whether convenient or inconvenient" (2nd reading), as St. Paul continues to remind us.
Inconvenient is an apt word to describe many situations of our times. The growing traffic snarls all over the world, particularly in developing - and, I must add - corruption-ridden countries, the unabated rapid destruction of the world's delicate ecological balance, epitomized by the raging - if, irreversible - phenomenon of global warming, along with many others, are all in function of the overweening desire to reduce or banish whatever is inconvenient. Inconvenience, too, is what draws people away from church, or from personal prayer. Inconvenience, too, is what explains the loss of sacrality and solemnity in our hurried and harried Masses in far too many churches in our times. Inconvenience, too, is what explains the loss of the culture of "Sunday best" in people's attire in Church on Sundays. It's too much hassle to dress up properly and go to Church Sunday in and Sunday out. It is too inconvenient to be spending quality time each day for personal prayer and reflection, when that precious time could be used to be more productive and economically fruitful. I have heard quite a number of people complain vociferously when the priest, in his homily, does so much as add a minute or two to his "ten responsible minutes." And those who complain, by the way, are usually also those who come late for Mass - precisely for the same reason as "inconvenience."
When convenience and the search for quick results become the true protagonists in the daily drama of life, the "always" and "all ways" character of prayer bows out of the stage of everyday life. Like the proverbial dodo bird, they just fade away from the scene, and their absence is effectively masked and covered over by the more attractive pull of what gives comfort and convenience for the here, for the now.
Where I come from, I saw many years ago (don't ask how many) very good examples of these "always" and "all ways" of prayer that is as persistent as it is creative and proactive. My grandmothers of both sides were women of prayer. As a boy, the most vivid memories I have of both of them were when they were praying. Like most old people I knew back then, they were praying when they were not working, and they were working when they were not praying. And it was hard to tell the difference between one and the other. Of course, my mother who knew what she wanted at all costs, prayed fervently for what she wanted above all - the grace of a happy peaceful death. And we all think she got what she prayed for ... every day, in every way, all the way.
There is something very real and concrete in what is proposed to us by the readings. Times are both "convenient and inconvenient" for the most dedicated and pious pray-er that, I would like to think, all of us at least fancy ourselves to be at some point or other in our lives. With climate change and its effects hanging like a Damocles' sword on each and everyone of us, with the specter of so much self-destructive behavior that societies are all too prone to, with so much corruption in and out of governments, along with the progressively diminishing natural resources that more and more people are vying for and even fighting for, like fresh water, less and less time and energy is given to what is perceived as a non-productive activity that prayer is perceived to be.
But we just have to take God's word for it. We simply have to make good what we, in fact, pray for each day: "Give us this day, our daily bread." Such daily insistence and persistence ... such daily perseverance are of the essence of prayer. Peter John Cameron is right ... "The heart of prayer is praying with our heart." It is praying with all our heart, with all we've got ... time, means, effort, faith, and all ... We need to stow it in our hearts and show it in our lives ... pray with persistence and perseverance ... ALL DAYS, ALL WAYS, and for ALWAYS.
Today, the readings speak about something totally unexpected, something unpredictable, and utterly surprising from all points of view. Naaman, a foreigner, a non-Jew, and a non-believer, is healed of his dermatological problems of depressing and alienating proportions (1st Reading). What makes it surprising is that a foreigner is deigned worthy of being healed by God. What makes the story unexpected is that he, a man of means and a man of influence "went down and plunged himself into the Jordan seven times," - a possible allusion both to embracing humility, and doing as he is instructed by Elisha, that is, physically going down the waters of the Jordan. What makes it unpredictable is the total and complete turn-around of somebody who was not expected to believe and embrace the faith of Elisha and all those the prophet stood for.
Naaman's story is a story of reversals par excellence.
The Gospel story, too, is one whose element of surprise is more than just a cute literary device designed to impress, drive home a moral lesson, and function like one of the stories that make up the highly popular "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series. The parallelism between the story of the named Syrian (Naaman), and that of the unknown and unnamed Samaritan, is too striking to be missed and glossed over. Both men, though unworthy, were healed of their maladies. Both returned to give thanks. And both stand for important truths that ought to be of much help to us - here and now, as they were - there, and then.
What truths do we see jutting out of the pages of today's readings? What truths can we see as we take a backward glance to what transpired then, so that we could gain insight as to how we ought to value, and thus, learn precious lessons from what transpires in the here and now? What parallelisms appear to us now between the two lepers' stories and our ongoing stories now in this place, in this time?
We can focus on the more obvious elements, to start with. It is no secret to many of us that anyone who had any type of sores on the skin was not just labeled a leper, but, more so, considered unclean. Unclean people were supposed to be shunned and kept at more than just an arm's length away. They were to be actively avoided. They were pariahs, outcasts, and deemed non-entities, walking zombies - in effect, considered dead, though still physically living. They were to be treated as separate, as on the other side of the great, though imaginary divide between healthy people and the scum of society, which they effectively, were.
But we really are all lepers and outcasts on account of the greatest separation we are capable of heaping upon ourselves - SIN. Sin isolates us. Sin separates us from God, the All Holy One. And sin is something that we all have, whether we are fair or dark skinned; whether we are rich or poor, dull or intelligent. Naaman, though rich, was really shunned, avoided, and kept at a comfortable distance by the rest of humanity. Riches were no guarantee he was to be treated differently and mercifully. This is the first word in our three-word summary of today's liturgy - SEPARATED. Our ongoing experience of sin brings into relief the egregious truth that sin separates, that sin isolates, and that sin alienates. When we sin, we lose our lifeline. We lose our status. We lose self-respect. And we lose the respect of others.
But the surprising thing that the readings today tell us is that, though separated on account of sin; though isolated by our sinfulness, and though alienated from God, others, self, and nature, God's love and His gift of salvation know no boundaries. Of all people who ought to have been healed, it was the foreigner Naaman who got healed. God's saving mercy knows no bounds, and is given to Him whom He wills, to anyone who is honest enough to acknowledge the deep and big chasm that divides and separates him and the God of mercy.
This brings us to the second important truth - the second word in our three-word summary - SAVED. More than just physical healing took place for both Naaman and the unnamed Samaritan. Healing constituted being re-instituted as a subject of rights, a person worthy of attention, an individual that ought no more to be considered separated and isolated. Healing restored both persons' dignity. They were both rehabilitated before the society which before, they could have no dealings with whatsoever as lepers. Healing constituted earthly salvation for them. Once healed, they were free in senses more than just one. They were saved from a lifetime of insecurity and utter alienation from others. They were saved from a status of rejection to a status of acceptance. This is what St. Paul so gratefully speaks about in his hymn-like passage in his letter to Timothy: "Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory" (2nd Reading). This same reality of being saved by God is the same joy that emanates from our response to the first reading: "The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power" (Responsorial Psalm).
But there is more ... Sinners like all of us are, though separated once, were brought closer to God and to each other by the gift of salvation. But the story does not end there. Having been favored with a clean slate by the gift of salvation, having been made recipients of a great gift from above, the two lepers found it in themselves to go back and declare undying gratitude. Naaman swore to worship the only true God, as symbolized by his carting home soil from Israelite land. The unnamed Samaritan, only one out of ten, came back to give thanks to the Lord. And this is where the third word, SENT, enters in.
Like grateful former lepers-made-clean; like former pariahs and outcasts, but rehabilitated by the gift of salvation in Christ, we come back and gather together to give thanks - to do Eucharist. This is what the Holy Mass essentially is. We come back to the house of the Father to give thanks. But we gather and unite ourselves to God and to each other only to be SENT once again. We gather, not in order to glory selfishly and revel solipsistically in our good fortune. We gather only to be sent forth. At the end of the Mass, we are told: ITE, MISSA EST. Go ... you are sent ...
The Gospel passage could not be clearer on this aspect, at least. The Samaritan who was healed, the only one out of the total ten who received a great favor, came back to give thanks. But he came back not in order to stay. He came back only to be told as, indeed, all of us who attend Mass, are told: "Stand up and go ... your faith has saved you."
This, unfortunately, is the ultimate litmus test of total healing. He who is restored to total healing is sent forth to mission. He who has been restored to God's good graces cannot remain unaffected, uncommitted, and disengaged. "Stand up and go ... your faith has saved you. ITE, MISSA EST.
For once we were separated from God, but now are restored and saved in Christ. In His name, and on account of Him, we cannot but see ourselves as a people sent to give to others the same good news we ourselves have received and benefited from.
What, you might ask, does being saved and sent lead us to? What fruits can we reasonably expect from doing a Naaaman and acting magnanimously like that Samaritan who went back to give thanks? St. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, could not be clearer: "If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we persevere, we shall also reign with him" (2nd Reading).
I am a pilgrim. I am a learner. I journey with others in faith and life. In all I do, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, "all I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). By so doing, I humbly hope to make a difference in people's lives.