28th Sunday of the Year
But the word of God is not chained. (2 Tim 2:9)
Who can chain the word of God? No one, not even Satan has such power. God’s word is all-powerful because God’s Word is God. It is the Word through Whom all of creation was created, the Word who was made flesh for our salvation that He might take away the sins of the world. This Word cannot be chained. St. Paul who spoke this truth in today’s reading from 2nd Timothy was in fact himself in chains, was suffering for the Gospel, when he wrote that sentence. Nothing can chain the Word of God, and if Paul is not able to sow the seed of that Word by his preaching, then he will sow the seed of God’s word by his suffering, witnessing to both its power and its truth.
Then, in the account of the miracle in today’s Gospel we have another sign of the power of that Word that cannot be chained. Jesus is passing through the border area between Samaria and Galilee, and we know that Jews were not particularly welcome among the Samaritans. Recall from the Gospel of Luke (9:51-56) that James and John wanted to call down destruction on a Samaritan village which would not welcome Jesus because he was going up to Jerusalem. Jesus had, in fact, great success in another Samaritan village where he preached to the people who were drawn to Jesus by the testimony of the woman at the well. But here, there was no such reception. This village was not exactly fertile preaching territory, but that does not stop Jesus from exercising the power of the Word to cure some lepers, at least some of whom were Samaritans. The preaching would come later, now that the power of the Word was made known through this miracle of the lepers.
Nonetheless, the miracle was not without its negative implications. Nine out of the ten men cured did not return to give praise to God and thanks for their cure. One did, we are told, and he was himself a Samaritan. Jesus asks where the other nine were, had they benefited from the miracle only on the physical level of their being? Did they not see the spiritual implications of this gift from a stranger, a preacher of the Word of God who had stopped to cure their bodies, but being a man of God could not have but hoped to cure their souls as well? Only one man saw the greater implications of this gift, and he, we are told, “returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” Then Jesus praised his faith and said not that it had caused the miracle, but more likely that the miracle had opened his heart to the gift of faith, the greater gift, for Jesus says, “your faith has saved you.” Note that Jesus doesn’t say that it had cured his body, but that his faith had saved him, pointing to the deeper spiritual implications of this whole miraculous event.
But then what does that imply about those who had not returned to praise God and give thanks? It does not mean they will be damned, but it means that at this moment they did not receive the grace of salvation; maybe they will later, but not here. What their failure to show at least a natural response of praise and gratitude to God shows is that they are not yet open to the gift of faith. They are still self-consumed, too focused on themselves to see the gift in all its implications; they are not yet ready, like the Samaritan who responded with gratitude, to receive the gift of faith, and thus not ready to be saved. This is a good example of the axiom of St. Thomas Aquinas that grace must build on nature. God does not force his gifts on us. God always takes the initiative, makes the first moves, but man has to respond to these initial gestures of grace to open up to the gift of salvation. When men are lacking even in the most fundamental responses of natural virtue, like gratitude for a great favor, they are still locked within their own hearts. They do not create the space for God to act on a higher level, the level of faith, hope, charity and saving grace. There is something sad, even ominous, in the questions of Jesus,
“Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Perhaps all ten did have a kind of natural faith in Jesus, enough faith to make them go out of their way to show themselves to the priests who had to verify their healthy condition before they could be restored to society. They must have believed that somehow before they got to the temple priests that Jesus would cure them. And they were all cured along the way. But they did not have the complementary virtues of gratitude and reverence to make them do what the one Samaritan did, go back to find and thank Jesus and praise God. Evidently they were more interested in their own reintegration into society, that is, more interested in themselves than in the one who cured them. They were men who valued the human more than the divine, the physical order more than the spiritual. They were men not unlike the vast hordes of materialistic men of this modern age.
It is faith that matters in the end, but the kind of faith that is more than human, supernatural faith, only attainable as a gift from God. We know that God offers that gift to all in one way or another, but not all are open to recognizing the value of the gift. Grace builds on nature. Unless a man has some natural virtues, he will be too caught up in his own little world, his own self to notice that God is calling him, too closed to the world of God, the spiritual world to take any notice even when the gift is staring him in the face, as in the case of this miracle.
The lesson for our own day should be obvious. How many Christians, Catholics, are like the nine lepers who have a kind of natural faith, or at first are true believers and perhaps even grateful as children for what the Lord has done for them. But as they move along the path of life their love grows cold, and they are no longer grateful for what Jesus has done for them, the way he has removed their leprosy and restored them again and again to His Father’s society, in the sacrament of confession. But eventually they become absorbed in this world and it’s company, and in themselves, more than in Jesus, and their charity grows cold and their hearts grow indifferent and ungrateful. They no longer feel compelled to return to Church and thank the lord where he waits for them. The Samaritan went back to where Jesus was physically present to express his gratitude. But many Catholics no longer feel compelled by gratitude to return to where Jesus is physically present, in the sacrament of His love, the Eucharist, to tell him again and again how grateful they are for the greatest possible gift, the gift of being healed from sin and restored to God’s own family.
Perhaps they still have some kind of faith in Jesus, but if that faith is not informed by charity, if it is a dead faith, only a natural faith, it will not suffice for their salvation, and they will not hear the words of Jesus, “your faith has been your salvation.” Where faith is living, where faith is informed by charity, that is, where faith actually is saving, such faith will always be manifested by the kind of gratitude we see in the Samaritan healed by Jesus from his leprosy. When such living faith is present in our human hearts, we will be filled with undying gratitude. We will then never grow tired of going back to Jesus, where he always waits for us, especially in the Eucharist, to thank him, to throw ourselves at his feet and praise him. There, at the feet of Jesus, and only there, can we hear those most consoling of all his words: stand up and go your way, your faith has been your salvation. For such hearts the Word is never chained.