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FORGIVENESS AND GRATITUDE

Father Francis's picture
Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

2 Kings 5:14-17 & Lk.17:11-19

Gratitude is a quality which springs in response to a realisation of a favour received. The greater the magnitude of the favour, the greater should be the gratitude felt and expressed to the benefactor. And yet it often happens that the gratitude expressed to God falls far short of the requests that are made to Him.

We keep asking God for a favour, and when He does grant it, we may say a quick ‘thank you’ and proceed to make our next request. If only we realised how much God has done for us in Jesus, we would never stop thanking Him. Indeed, we will be doing so in Heaven for all eternity! What God has done for us is expressed symbolically in both today’s readings as curing our leprosy of sin.

In previous centuries leprosy was a dreaded disease. The person became physically deformed, as the skin wasted away progressively, riddled with ulcers. And due to the highly contagious nature of the disease, the leper was ostracised from society and had to live in the wilderness, shouting ‘Unclean, unclean’ to anyone who approached.

This exclusion from society was so radical that, in the Middle Ages, it was performed as a ritual almost resembling a funeral service. The person was dead to the world, so he was led away and consigned to a leper colony as a dead body to a grave. In Jewish tradition, moreover, leprosy rendered a person virtually unclean. He or she would only be re-admitted to society if cured and this cure was authenticated by a priest.

Against such a background, we can appreciate the significance of the stories in the First Reading and the Gospel today. The lepers recognise the gravity of their illness and their need for healing. Both are necessary before the process of healing can begin. This applies just as much to us, not only to our physical and emotional illnesses, but also to our spiritual illnesses, our sins. If we humbly acknowledge our sins, then the way is open to receive God’s forgiveness.

God is the ultimate healer of all our ills. It is not enough for the sick person simply to admit his illness and the need for healing; he must also make an effort to approach God, either directly or through others, and ask to be healed with faith and confidence in God’s power.

In the First Reading, Naaman the leper, comes all the way from Syria to approach the God of Israel through the prophet Elisha, in a spirit of faith. In the Gospel story, the ten lepers come to meet God directly in the person of Jesus, the Son of God, and make their requests in faith. We, too, having acknowledged our sins and other illnesses must turn to God with confidence, and ask for His forgiveness and healing.

Healing requires the sick person to cooperate with the healer by doing whatever he is asked to do. In ordinary life, this involves taking whatever is prescribed by the doctor. Naaman was asked by Elisha to go and bathe himself seven times in the river Jordan. Initially he was reluctant but eventually he did and came away completely cured. In the Gospel story, similarly, Jesus gives the lepers a task to do: they are to go and show themselves to a priest, and in performing this task they are healed.

These two stories are symbols of the two sacraments by which Jesus cures us of the spiritual leprosy we call sin. The first story reminds us of Baptism; just as Naaman, the foreigner, was healed in the waters of the Jordan and professed his belief in the God of Israel, so also, in the waters of Baptism, people outside the Church are cleansed of their sins for the first time and are joined to Christ.

The Gospel story reminds us of the Sacrament of Penance in which sins committed after Baptism are forgiven. The ten lepers already believed in the God of Israel, and Jesus asked them to show themselves to a priest in order to be cleansed. So, also, we who are already baptised are asked to show ourselves to a priest in the Sacrament of Confession for the forgiveness of sins, because the Lord Jesus expressly willed it that this forgiveness should be obtained through the ministry of the priest. In the Sacrament of Confession, the priest represents both Christ who is the Head and the Church which is His Body. This reminds us of the fact that just as our sins damage our relationship with God and with the Church, so also forgiveness restores this two-fold relationship.

The final and climatic part of the healing process is the act of thanksgiving and worship offered by the person who has been cured. Naaman is so overwhelmed by his cure that he returns to Elisha and offers him a gift in thanksgiving which is promptly declined. Instead, it is Naaman who goes away with the gift, not only of health, but also of the knowledge of the true God. In the Gospel story, too, the Samaritan leper returns to Jesus and expresses his gratitude prostrating himself at His feet.

In our lives, too, the healing from sin should lead us to thank and worship God which we do in the Eucharist. Indeed, the word Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving’, so it is really the sacrifice we offer to God in gratitude. And, like Naaman, we too go away with a gift – the Body and Blood of Christ.

Finally, the beautiful irony of both stories is that the gratitude is expressed by non-Jewish people, a Syrian and a Samaritan. This is a salutary reminder to us of how easily, those of us who are cradle Catholics can take for granted what God had done for us. Sometimes, those who become Catholics from other faiths, or no faith at all, have a far greater sense of gratitude to God than we have.

Lord Jesus, we ask for the grace to thank God for all that He has done for us through You, and to express this gratitude by coming as frequently as possible to the Eucharist.

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