This reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, October 13, 2013. For last Sunday’s reflection, click here.
As you probably know, Naaman the Syrian was mad about how the prophet Elisha cured his leprosy: “I thought, he will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.” But instead, Elisha told him to bathe in the River Jordan. “Are not . . . the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage.”
That comes before Sunday’s reading. This week we read the end of the story. The interesting part is about dirt: “Naaman said, If you will not accept, 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 the Lord.”
This is a strange request: two mule-loads of earth? But it is the key to the story. Naaman had no problem believing the God of Israel could heal him: that is why he came to Elisha, and he expected Elisha to “call on the name of the Lord his God.” What he did not expect was the physical connection to the land of Israel: “May I not wash in the rivers of Damascus, and be clean?” At the end he not only decides to worship the God of Israel – he wants the dirt. He wants a connection to that holy land – just as Elisha healed him through a connection to that land.
Our Gospel takes up this theme in two ways. Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem. In fact, all of Luke’s Gospel is built around this journey. In one strange place, it says the Samaritans “did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem” (Luke 10:53). What such a face looks like, I have no idea. But the point is, that is who Jesus was: a man on his way to Jerusalem.
In fact, our reading today, which is near the end of this journey, begins, “as Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.” Well now, the first thing you learn about the geography of the Holy Land is that Galilee is in the North, Samaria is in the middle, and Jerusalem is in the South. But Jesus was already in Samaria “on his way to Jerusalem” in chapter 10. Now in chapter 17 he’s going through Galilee – in the wrong direction – but still on his way to Jerusalem. In other words, we are not just talking about the direction he is physically travelling. Even when he’s headed the other direction, Jesus still has his heart set on Jerusalem.
And he sets others towards Jerusalem. In this story, too, there is healing of lepers. But the more interesting parallel is the focus on the land. First, he tells the healed lepers, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” He sends them up to Jerusalem (or at least to the local representatives of Jerusalem).
But then comes the punchline. “One of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice . . . and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.”
Jesus is the true Jerusalem. He is the Holy Land. He is the temple. He is the great king’s city.
Modern authors like to say the God of the Gospels is “personal.” That’s okay. But in Scripture, the bigger point is that he is particular. Yes, yes, he is everywhere. But more importantly, he is somewhere. The waters of Jordan, the dirt of Israel, the walls of Jerusalem, Mount Zion: they all speak of him being somewhere in particular. We love the face of Jesus because it is his face; we go on pilgrimage to where he is.
One aspect of this is that it builds a Church. Where he is – and where his vicars of various kinds are – there is the Church. That is the point of the Bible’s nationalism: when we go where God is, we become part of his people, united to everyone else who gathers by that same God. We make a pilgrimage together up to Jerusalem – to Jesus.
The epistle makes this just as particular. “Jesus Christ . . . a descendant of David.” Particularity: not “universal Messiah from nowhere.” And we go to be united to him: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him, if we persevere, we shall also reign with him.” And he remains there, waiting, ever faithful.