Some people like to say that the scriptures are a bit obscure. They say (rightly) that they are from a different place, a different time and a different situation – they say this makes them very hard to understand, very hard to fathom, very hard to get a handle on their message. They say (rightly) it’s like those people who watch planets with telescopes – they say you feel you are doing the same when you are listening to the scriptures, what it is describing, the life, the people, the situation seems a million miles away from us. It is true you sometimes feel that you are like an archeologist digging down to unearth what it really means, to discover what it is about. But like any search, like any deeper thought or reflection the rewards are great and the effort is worthwhile.
What we often find when we look behind the scriptures readings that instead of being obscure, removed from us, hard to understand there are things which are universal themes of mankind: treachery, lies, love, deception, the fluctuating moods of the human heart, people’s search for honesty and good lives, people dealing with calamities (wars, hunger, being landless, being ruled over by unscrupulous leaders), people before God and their attempts to be faithful to him.
Today the readings instead of being obscure sound rather modern, contemporary and familiar to us. The first reading is about a Syrian called Namaan who leaves his land in search of healing, he is like many of the Syrians who today leave their land in search for something better, something safer, something more hopeful. He has gone to another land, Israel, in search of a cure to his healing of leprosy, but simply for his troubles gets told to bathe in a local river and wonders whether he has made the right decision thinking that there are plenty of rivers in Syria that he could have stayed and done the same. Like many of those refugees of today he finds in this new land, hospitality, care, healing – new possibilities which lead him to understanding the generosity and mercy of God. He does what he is told and is bowled over by the result.
St Paul in the second letter to Timothy is a different type of man travelling from country to country. He is the type who is being taken in chains (as he says), for he is under arrest and is being taken to Rome to be tried before the Emperor. Like the people of today there are many under duress, persecution and torture, they are taken forcibly from their lands through cruel overlords who wish to do them harm.
In the Gospel Jesus is walking in the lands and comes across 10 people who suffer from the same thing as the man in the first reading (leprosy). It is difficult to appreciate the wretchedness of this illness and the fear that it generated amongst people. The illness became a byword for outcast, unclean and untouchable. We hear that all get cured but there is a twist in the story only the foreigner returns to give thanks.
In middle eastern culture even today, there are 2 strains of how to deal with a foreigner. Kindness and hospitality and care are expected but on another level there is suspicion, watchfulness, caution that is in the air. Does that now sound a bit modern, contemporary to us – those strains we often see in our own times today between those who would welcome the foreigner and those who would keep them at arm’s length.
So often Jesus leans one way – the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast becomes the hero of his stories. So often they do the thing that is right and true and good while others who should know better do not. Again it is true in this instance, the others who should have known better are remiss, the foreigner does what the other 9 should have done.
These passages land on our lap today, they are put down for our consideration. Instead of being something from a former time, instead of being something which seems a bit obscure or distant from us, like from another planet they seem, fresh, relevant, on the ball, exactly the situation we find ourselves in, this day, this time and in our world. The letter the Hebrews says this: The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
The first reading today speak of a human being searching for a new life, new possibilities, healing from the brokenness of life and finding it in a new land. The second reading speaks of a man in chains, transported through lands, how often that has been the fate of the many, transported in slave boats to other countries, or imprisoned by their conquerors? In what the Gospel says, how often have we witnessed that fear of the stranger, the foreigner – they are not like us, they come to do us harm - only to find out something different about them that they act righteously, that they do the right thing when others around about them do not.
How should we read the readings of today’s Mass: as a warning against dangerous winds that could blow us off course? Not to be suspicious or threatened by the foreigner. Is it a gentle reminder of what is important and unimportant in life? Is it meant to be an eye opener?
What we can’t get away from is how relevant and timely they sound. Instead of being from some distant planet we realise it is about now and about things going in today, in our time and place. It asks moral questions of us.
Namaan could have stayed put in his land. Paul could have escaped his persecutors. The leper who was a foreigner might not have returned to give thanks. But all 3 did not. By some miracle of grace their situations speaks to us today. We can’t help thinking it is not by chance. Again as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us of something when the scriptures land on our lap or are spoken to us: For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.