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 simply because God’s Word is God. It is the Word through Whom everything that exists 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, that is, 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, thus 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 simply because he was going up to Jerusalem. However, Jesus had greater 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. In today’s Gospel, while this village may not have been fertile preaching territory, 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 aspect. Nine of the ten men cured would not return to give praise to God and give thanks for their cure. However, one did, and we are told that he was a Samaritan. Jesus then asks where are the other nine, and their absence suggest that they had benefitted from the miracle only on the physical level. Did they not see the spiritual implications of this great gift from a stranger, a preacher of the Word of God who had stopped to cure their bodies? Had they returned He could also have cured their souls as well. But 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, not because it had caused the miracle, but more likely because the miracle had opened his heart to the gift of faith, the greater gift, and thus Jesus says, “your faith has saved you.” So while Jesus doesn’t say that it had cured his body, more importantly Jesus says that his faith had saved him, thus pointing to the deeper spiritual implications of this whole miraculous event.
But what does that statement imply concerning those who had not returned to praise God and give thanks? It does not imply that they will be damned, but it reveals that at this favorable moment they also didn’t receive the grace of salvation; maybe they will later, but not at this time. What their failure to show at least a natural response of praise and gratitude to God shows is that they are definitely 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, unlike the Samaritan who responded with gratitude, are not yet ready to receive the gift of faith, and thus they are not yet 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, but God always takes the initiative, makes the first moves, but man has to respond to these initial gestures of grace in order to open himself up to the gift of justifying grace, the gift of salvation. When men are lacking even in the most fundamental responses of natural virtue, such as gratitude for a great favor, they are still locked within their own hearts. They have not yet created the spiritual space for God to act at a deeper 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 had 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 or hoped in some way, before they got to the temple priests, that Jesus had cured them, or why would they have gone? And in fact they were all cured along the way. But what they did not have was the complementary natural virtue of gratitude to make them do what the one Samaritan did, to go back and find Jesus, to thank Him and to praise God. Evidently they were more interested in their own reintegration into society, that is, more interested in themselves than in the one who had 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 masses 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 men in one way or another, but obviously not all are open to recognizing the value of the gift. Grace builds on nature. Unless a man has important natural virtues, he will be too caught up in his own little world, his own self, to notice that God is calling him. He will be 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 of the ten lepers.
The lesson for our own day should be obvious. How many Christians, Catholics, are like the nine lepers who only have a kind of natural faith, or, who are true believers at first 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 kingdom in the sacrament of confession. But eventually they become more absorbed in this world and in themselves than in Jesus and His kingdom, and so their charity grows cold and their hearts grow indifferent and ungrateful. They no longer feel compelled to return to Church and thank the Lord who has so blessed them and 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 truly present today in the flesh, in the sacrament of His love, in the Eucharist, to tell him again and again how grateful they are for his greatest possible gift, the gift of being healed from sin and restored to God’s own family, and the gift of Himself.
Perhaps they still have a certain faith in Jesus, but if that faith is not informed by charity, if it is a dead faith, reduced to a purely 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, that is, where faith is informed by charity, such faith is truly saving, and such saving 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 frail human hearts, we will inevitably be filled with a deep undying gratitude. We will never grow tired of going back to Jesus, where he always awaits us, especially in the Eucharist, to thank him, to throw ourselves at his feet and to praise him. There, at the feet of Jesus, and only there, can we hear those most consoling of all his words from Him: stand up and go your way, your faith has been your salvation. For such human hearts, the Word is never chained.