2 Kings 5:14–17; 2 Timothy 2:8–13; Luke 17:11–19
My dentist is one of our parishioners here: Dr. Scott Morrell. He takes very good care of me and hires top-notch hygienists. I’m one of those lucky few who have excellent dental health, so I only have to go in once a year for a cleaning. What that means is that even though my teeth are in great shape, I always have that tartar that has to be chipped away, and that’s rarely any fun. And then when the cleaning is finished, the last thing I want to do is to eat anything because my teeth feel so great.
It feels good to be clean. It feels good after we’ve worked hard and we can go get a shower. It feels good when we can take off our work clothes and change into something clean. Cleanliness feels good. Gina tells me that my stepson Caleb actually used to cry when he got messy, and we saw that son was like father when our grandson ate his first birthday cake in the normal toddler fashion. Then, looking at his hands completely covered with chocolate frosting, he burst into tears. Like father, like son.
In our readings today, we get a sense of cleansing that goes deeper—beyond the superficial removal of dirt from a surface. In the section from 2 Kings, Na’aman is suffering from leprosy—a horrible and contagious affliction that made people outcastes in their communities and often resulted in disfiguring lesions and infections.
He hears of a prophet in Samaria. He goes to this prophet Elisha, who tells him to go dip himself in the Jordan seven times. Na’aman is not happy. He’s thinking, “I came all this way for you to tell me to take a bath in the Jordan?” But with some prompting from his servant, he does it, and his leprosy is gone. His skin is restored. Note that he is not merely healed—not with rough patches and scars as someone who has been treated by a physician. His skin is restored like that of an infant. This is proof to him that this God of Israel is worthy of his gratitude and his worship. Now, back then, gods were thought to be regional—tied to their land. So Na’aman wants to take some of Israel’s soil back with him to Syria so he can build an altar on it and continue to make thanksgiving sacrifices to the God of Israel.
In the reading from the Gospel of Luke, ten lepers approach Jesus as He enters a village. They cannot enter the village because of their affliction, but they call to Jesus from a distance and beg for His mercy. Jesus freely gives it and sends them to fulfill the requirements of the Jewish law so that they will be readmitted into the community. Notice that Jesus tells them simply to do what the law requires, and they trust Him and go, being cleansed on the way. That much is simple enough.
But one of the lepers realizes he has been healed. One grasps that he is healed not just because Jesus sends them to the priests, but because he experiences that he has been cleansed. And experiencing that renewal, like Na’aman, he runs back, and in gratitude, falls at Jesus’ feet. This man is a Samaritan. Well, we have two parables now that take a figure from Samaria: one is the good Samaritan who exemplifies what it means to be a neighbor, and this other is one who exemplifies the grateful penitent. Both passages of the good Samaritan and the leper Samaritan come from the Gospel of Luke. I find this interesting as a student of scripture because the tones in both of these parables would have been discordant to Jewish ears—presenting their hated enemies as righteous.
Notice here sort of a reversal between the two readings. At first, Na’aman is appalled at Elisha’s command. How can dipping himself in the Jordan seven times cure him? Yet it does. The mere action heals him, and he comes to belief. In the gospel, the ten accept that if they follow the prescripts of the Law, the priests will find them clean. The only one who returns to thank Jesus is one who is not subject to the Law of Moses, a Samaritan. The Jews know what the Law requires, but the Samaritan recognizes the Divine intervention in his healing. In the reading from 2 Kings, Na’aman is reluctant to trust because the offer seems too good to be true. In the Gospel, the ten lepers, minus the Samaritan, just seem to think it’s a simple matter of adherence to the form.
Both of these extremes seem to be how many of us approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation—that is, the Sacrament of Confession. On one side, some believe that the action of confessing to a priest couldn’t possibly actually cleanse us of sin. Why do I have to confess to a priest? That’s just a law of men. I should be able to confess directly to God.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who think that adherence to the law does all the work. Some people seek the sacrament of reconciliation regularly, but they make little attempt to remedy the source of their sinfulness—their sinful attitudes and habits. They use the sacrament as a get-out-of-jail-free card rather than as a sacrament of true reconciliation and healing—one that can draw us truly closer to God.
Both of these approaches to the Sacrament of Reconciliation are wrongheaded because neither of them acknowledges the gratuitousness of God’s gift to us—like Na’aman and like the repentant leper. Forgiveness is pure gift! We can’t deserve it or earn it. That’s why we use the term grace to describe God’s action in our lives. The word Gratia in Latin—which we translate as grace—is God’s favor to us, and He gives it freely.
Now I want to talk about the Sacrament of Reconciliation in more practical terms. I see the lines in a number of churches locally on Saturday, and I’m happy to see that they are busy. We often have enough people here at St. John’s to keep two priests busy from 3:00 to 4:30, which is our allotted time for the sacrament on Saturdays. But frankly, not enough of us take advantage of this beautiful sacrament. I have to admit that I was not encouraged to go to confession when I was a child, and I perhaps went two or three times prior to slipping away from the Church in my late teens. When I did make my first confession after more than 19 years, I felt free. I felt cleansed. That is how I feel now when I go to confession, and I try to do so at least once a month. It helps me to stay in contact with my bad attitudes, habits, and motivations, and when I have messed up, it helps me to get back on track and reconcile with God. That is what the sacrament is about—forgiveness of sins, yes, but also reconciliation with God and with each other in the Church. You may not realize this, but spiritually, when you or I sin, we harm the Body of Christ. All sin is communal. There is no private sin. So our reconciliation is both with God and with each other.
If you haven’t sought the Sacrament of Reconciliation recently, I encourage you to do so soon. All of our parishes in the valley offer it on Saturdays. St. John’s is one of the most generous with time and also offers the sacrament on Tuesdays after Mass. And if you haven’t confessed in years, you can always make an appointment. If you have a smart phone, you can download an app like Laudate which can help you make a good examination of conscience.
Remember, one of the precepts of the Church is that we as Catholics will confess our sins at least once a year if we have any serious sins on our conscience. If we have a serious sin on our conscience, we should also not receive the Eucharist until we have confessed. These are the teachings of the Church, and they’re not meant as punishment but are intended to bring us to healing and reconciliation, so that when we come to this altar and offer ourselves with Christ, we will make a worthy offering.
I’d like to add one last comment about the current election season, and I fully recognize that some of you will not be happy with me for doing so. You have no doubt heard that you must oppose presidential candidate X or Y because their positions are out of accord with Catholic teaching. You might also hear attached to that dogmatism that voting for a third party or not voting for one of these two candidates is actually somehow a vote for the opposite candidate. I want to tell you with no reserve whatsoever that these claims are lies. As a Catholic citizen, you are obligated to inform your conscience according to the doctrines of the Church. And you are expected to exercise your civic duty in accord with your well-formed conscience. Do not ignore the issues of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, immigration reform, fair wages, and just war in your decision, but make sure you are informed in what the Church teaches on these issues. You might not have to explain your vote to your neighbor, but you will have to explain it to God.
We are the hands and feet of Christ in this world, and when we make our decisions in the voting booth, we need to be in communion with the Church in our thinking.