We find the key to understanding Sunday's readings in II Timothy: 2: 8-13: "The word of God is not chained."

Many of us believe God's word is chained. We hear it within the limits our experiences place on it. People of faith live within a tension. We're what our environment and traditions have formed us to be; yet, at the same time, God's word calls us to go beyond those circumstances to shape a new environment and create new traditions.

We hear this tension in the first reading (II Kings 5: 14-17). On one hand, Yahweh is still limited by geography. At the time this narrative was composed, Israelites believed Yahweh was God only of Israel. When Jews traveled outside the Promised Land, Yahweh was powerless to help them. The gods whose territory they entered took over at the border.

Moving earth

That's why the now-cured Syrian general Naaman asks Elisha for "two mule loads of earth." He plans to take the Jewish soil back to Damascus and spread it around his property. As he says, "I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other God except to Yah-weh."

Though Yahweh normally has no power or influence in Syria, Naaman intends to pray on Israelite soil, empowering Yah-weh to help him.

But, on the other hand, we also hear the limitlessness of Yahweh's word in two ways. First, Yahweh's prophet, Elisha, reaches beyond the "expected" and cures not only a Gentile, but also a hated Syrian enemy. Second, the prophet refuses to accept a "stipend" from Naaman.

To accept any payment for being the channel through whom God worked was regarded as blasphemous. It implied the agent controlled how God acted in people's lives. The biblical practice of refusing even a well-intentioned gift is one way of demonstrating that God can break into our lives at any time, in any place, working through any person.

God isn't limited by the restrictions we create to govern such actions. (Reading beyond our liturgical selection, we're mildly amazed at the punishment Yahweh inflicts on Gehazi, Elisha's servant, for later finagling a gift from Naaman.)

We hear a parallel tension in the Gospel (Luke 17: 11-19). On one level, Jesus' actions are limited by the Jewish law, which says only the priests can declare someone a leper or cured of leprosy. That's why, though cured by Jesus, the ten must "show themselves to the priests," who will officially declare them cured.

Cured outcast

On the other hand, Jesus, like Elisha, reaches beyond the norm. He first cures a heretical Samaritan. Then, after this outcast Jew returns to thank Him, Jesus makes the mind-bending statement, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you."

It's precisely because Samaritans lacked orthodox faith that mainstream Jews ostracized them. To everyone's amazement, Jesus is declaring that God's saving actions aren't limited by a person's orthodoxy.

Now it makes sense why the author of II Timothy includes part of a beautiful, early Christian hymn in his reading. "If we have died with Him, we shall also live with Him; if we persevere, we shall also reign with Him. But if we deny Him, He will deny us. If we are unfaithful, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself."

Christians believe that becoming one with the risen Jesus is the most unrestrained experience we can have on this earth. Dying and rising with Him takes us beyond the restrictions our daily lives impose on us. Jesus' actions aren't limited even by our unfaithfulness to Him.

Perhaps one way to respond to these readings is to start a habit of not only examining our own actions every day, but also reflecting on God's actions in our lives. If we do, we, like our sacred authors, will be amazed at how often those actions break through the restrictions our religion places on them.

(10/7/04)