In last week’s readings we learned about living by faith. In this week’s, Jesus tells the leper who was cleansed, “your faith has saved you.” In fact, this week’s readings take us deeper into the grace in which we have faith.
The readings begin with Naaman the Syrian. Naaman, you’ll remember, came to Elisha to be cleansed of his leprosy. Elisha sent him to wash in the River Jordan, which was surprising.
Naaman’s response teaches us much about grace. First he acknowledges the God of Israel, and responds, “Please accept a gift from your servant.” Literally, it’s a blessing, or benediction. God has given Naaman a gift or a blessing, and Naaman wants to repay him. Perfectly respectable.
But Elisha says, “As the LORD lives” – he invokes the unspeakable name of the unfathomable God of Israel – “whom I serve, I will not take it.” And Naaman learns a new approach: “If you will not accept, please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth,” so that when he goes back to Syria, he can worship God on the soil of God’s blessed land.
The moral of the story is that our relationship with God is not quid-pro-quo, it’s not about trading blessings, paying God back and making things even. Elisha leads Naaman from a response that tries to bless God back to a response that merely continues to receive God’s blessing.
We don’t buy grace. It is a free, unmerited gift. A gift, yes, that changes our lives, that makes us new. But nothing we can pay back.
We are spending seven weeks on Paul’s two letters to Timothy. In this week’s reading, from Second Timothy, Paul again speaks of the inequality of God’s power and ours. Paul is “suffering” for the gospel, “even to the point of chains, like a criminal.” On one level, Paul is doing something very meritorious.
But Paul makes a play on words. He is in chains, “But the word of God is not chained.” I am weak and he is strong. I willingly boast of my weakness. What Paul can do for the Gospel is just to show that it’s not Paul who makes the Gospel powerful, but God. He is not the hero, God is.
He quotes a little song, or saying. “If we have died with him we shall also live with him” – all we can do is die, but he can raise the dead to new life. “If we persevere we shall also reign with him.” Literally, it’s “if we stay under”: a bit less active than “persevering,” we just cling to him – and he reigns, and brings us to his reign.
“If we deny him he will deny us. But if we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” The only unforgivable sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit – the only sin that cannot be healed is the one that we don’t bring to Jesus – the only way he will turn away from us is if we turn away from him, push him out of our life. And yet he remains faithful, not because we are good, but because he is.
All is grace. I am weak but he is strong. I gladly boast of my weakness, for when I am weak, then I am strong.
In the Gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers, who have all asked his mercy – but only one returned to thank him. All were healed of their bodily disease, but only to one does he say, “Your faith has saved you.” Faith is the recognition of grace, the knowledge that it is God who has done it. And that is the more radical healing.
Oh, we are changed, healed morally, just as the leper was really healed. Don’t get me wrong: “all grace” doesn’t mean that we remain the same. Grace heals us. Grace makes us holy. Grace even, in the language of St. Thomas, makes us “merit” heaven, makes us in some sense worthy of God’s grace. We are called to be changed. But that change doesn’t begin with us. It is Jesus who heals us, not we ourselves. We are justified not by works but by God’s grace – and so too, the Council of Trent and St. Thomas will say, along with St. Paul, we are saved by faith, by our discovery of God’s promise to save us.
And the heart of the matter is not the healing, which all ten lepers received, but the recognition of the healing, the return upon grace to acknowledge that it is grace, that this is God’s work in me. To be changed would be nothing if we did not return to give thanks. He makes us holy so that we can worship.
In Latin, as in Spanish, grace is both the word for a free gift and the way you say thank you. Gracias, they say in Spanish: free gift! Wow, thank you!
For what works of God in you do you need to return to give thanks?