“Your faith has saved you.” The words of today’s gospel continue a “faith” theme that has been in our readings recently, and one that we will see continued next week as well. Clearly belief in the power of God is something that will bear fruit in our lives. Believing has the necessary ingredients, as it were, to invite and effect the action of God in our day-to-day living.
It’s not incorrect in any way to see an abundance of grace connected to faith. This may be one of the easiest things for us to understand about Christianity. It's possible for us to enter the mystery of salvation because God directs love toward us, and there is absolutely no limit to God’s love. When we apprehend the love of God, when we grasp it or take hold of it, we do so with faith. God meets us where we are, just as in today’s reading where Jesus meets the lepers as they are, in their place in life, without question—and most importantly—without judgment.
As wonderful and complex as faith is we may sometimes misunderstand faith as occurring in a single direction of our merely believing in and then hoping to receive from God, which is at least a start but it lacks the more mature and important aspects and nuances of living a life of faith. We might note that many people leave it at merely believing. Sometimes out of curiosity I will tune in to TV preachers. “Believe in God and receive” they say. However, understanding faith too simplistically leaves us feeling like there must be something more, though I have to admit that many years ago I was taught to accept faith on face value as belief. I well recall my mother teaching me her favorite bible verse: Mustard seed faith—“just believe,” she would tell me, “and you can move mountains.” However, I must add that mine was also primarily a “God and me” relationship, which only minimally considered the place of faith in the experience of community.
As a convert to Catholicism, coming from the evangelical tradition, I was relieved in many ways to learn that God wanted a partnership with humankind in faith. I was delighted, even, to learn that my actions could in some way effect in the big picture of what it means to participate in salvation. I had come to the conclusion as a young adult that there wasn’t much I could do in that regard. Practically everything was up to God and very little was up to me. Still, from the time I was a small child, I was taught that, at least where Christianity was concerned, faith was to be sought above all other things. I learned to value faith even if I didn’t necessarily hear a lot about how faith matures.
Both our Old Testament reading and the gospel today show us the restorative effects of faith as response to others, and this what I think we should consider today. In Second Kings, our Old Testament reading, Naaman who is a foreigner in the land, obeyed the word of God. He heard the prophet and he acted on it the word of God; he went forth and plunged himself in the Jordan seven times. He desired restoration. His doing so shows the dimension of faith as action and response to having heard the word of God. He then steps into a communal relationship of belonging and offering sacrifice to the God of Israel.
We see the same thing yet again in the gospel. Jesus meets the 10 lepers who were crying out, “Have pity!” Rather than immediately healing them, he demands restorative action. Again, it’s the action of faith. He tells them go and show yourselves to the priests. It’s not just believing and receiving that counts for faith: it’s believing, and doing that thing that will restore their place in the community.
This now brings us to the place of asking what we should do. I’m reminded of those who had gathered on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon all flesh, who in response to the things they saw asked Peter, “What shall we do?” So, where do we go? What actions do we take. What shall we do? It would be anachronistic for us to plunge seven times in the Jordan, though some might arrange a pilgrimage. However, for most of us that’s a bit out of reach. In the gospel Jesus offers the model of God’s faithfulness to us that we can imitate in our own lives.
To get a better idea let’s return to the gospel. Of the 10 lepers Jesus healed the one whom he championed as having faith was a Samaritan. We hear about Samaritans in the gospels but we typically may not know much about them. Perhaps we may recall from the familiar story of the woman at the well that Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with one another, but do we know why? Was it because of some ethnic or racial separation? I don’t believe that was it.
Samaritans still exist today as a small ethnic minority in the Middle East, in the nation of Israel. They are known as Shomronim. Their religious practice differs very little from the time of Jesus. It is still the same “unorthodox” version of Judaism as they practiced in the 1st century. They still revere Mt. Gerizim and go there for their holiest rites. They still live near the mountain, and they are still understood—in terms of religion—as being “other.” In Jesus’ time this difference caused Samaritans to be known as outsiders, foreigners and as people on the edge, as marginal and unwanted people. They experienced broken community with those who lived around them
The healing of the 9 restored them to community, but where did it leave the Samaritan? My work outside the parish is as a special education teacher serving students with low-incidence disabilities, and one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is the value of community. Many times my students have told me what they really want more than anything else is just to belong to the larger group. They want community.
It's greatly ironic that Jesus tells the Samaritan to go and show himself to the priests because he knew well that the Samaritan had no priests, at least not at the temple, and not in Jerusalem. Instead, the Samaritan, acting on faith, returns to Jesus, and I have an idea in that in that latter encounter with Jesus he discovers restoration, community and belonging.
Our acting on faith takes many different forms, and what it is that we are to do is ultimately something that we discover for ourselves. However, we may find that our faith has matured when we begin to reach out and find ways to heal others by participating in the restoration of community. We find our own salvation, healing, and restoration, indeed we find Jesus, when we reach out in faith and offer belonging.