The sign on a local Presbyterian church recently reminded all who passed, "One small action is worth infinitely more than a million huge intentions." Our biblical authors would have applauded that insight.

Scripture revolves around actions, God's and ours. As Christians, we remember that in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus' first message to His followers is, "God's reign is close at hand." God is present, working among us; we can't extend a hand in any direction without touching God.

Jesus' second message is a demand that our actions respond to God's actions: "Repent and believe the Good News." Only those whose actions show that they're constantly becoming new people will be able to recognize God present and working among them.

Acts of faith

Regretfully, if we read only the truncated liturgical version of Sunday's first reading (II Kgs 5: 14-17), we'll miss most of what the author believes about actions. Naaman the leper is a Syrian general, a frequent enemy of Israel. He actually finds out about Elisha's miraculous powers from a Jewish slave girl who was captured in war. His request to travel into Israel to see the prophet creates a national crisis.

Elisha eventually steps in and encourage the Israelite king to permit Naaman's entry, in order that the Syrian may "find out that there is a prophet in Israel."

Naaman initially rebels when Elisha tells him simply to wash seven times in the Jordan, assuring him "you will be clean." His servants stop him from returning to Damascus by reasoning, "If the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it?"

One of the most significant actions happens after the cure, when Naaman insists Elisha take a stipend for his miraculous intervention with Yahweh. "As Yahweh lives whom I serve," the prophet replies, "I will not take it." The only true reaction to God's action is a changed life, not change in the intermediary's pocket.

Elisha's generous refusal prompts Naaman to request, "two mule-loads of dirt," dirt which he'll spread around his Syrian property so he can worship the God of Israel on Israelite soil.

The author presents us with a multiple message about actions. God acts in everyone's life, even the life of our worst enemy. Such actions can be triggered by and observed in ordinary, everyday events. One of the proofs they truly are God's actions springs from their being totally free. (The Sacred Writers knew nothing -- and would have rejected had they known -- of the medieval scholastic distinction of giving money on the occasion of, not for, a sacred action.)

Appreciation

Gratitude is the proper response to the God who acts in our lives. Naaman demonstrates it in the first reading; the cured Samaritan leper in the Gospel (Lk 17:11-19). "Were not all ten made whole?" Jesus asks. "Was there no one to return and give thanks to God except this (unexpected) foreigner?...Stand up and go your way; your faith has been your salvation."

We discover the key to deciding which of our actions properly will correspond to God's actions in the second reading (II Tim 2:8-13). "You can depend on this," the author assures his readers, "if we have died with Him (Jesus), we shall also live with Him; if we hold out to the end, we shall also reign with Him. But if we deny Him, He will deny us."

Unless our actions join us to Jesus' death, they're not Christian actions. Our Sacred Authors believe we die daily by becoming one with all around us, by recognizing God at work in everyone's life in the most ordinary people and circumstances. Living this insight -- not sacrificing money for sacred actions -- is the only death Jesus expects.

Wouldn't it be terrific, if on the occasion of the millennium, all Christian ministers would declare they'll never again accept money "on the occasion" of mediating God's actions? Because the ministers are willing "to die financially" in administering them, they'd help us to recognize how different (holy/sacred) those actions really are.

At that point, everyone could be expected to do something good for his or her neighbor, the only act of gratitude God expects us to perform.

(10-08-98)