Sunday's three readings remind us that some tenets of biblical faith can and have changed through the centuries; others haven't; and some can't.

Naaman's request in the first reading (2Kings 5:14-17) to "have two mule-loads of earth" comes from a period in which people thought Yahweh was only the territorial God of Israel. Take one step over the border and Yahweh was no longer responsible for you, nor in control of what happens to you. Other gods and goddesses take over once you leave the Promised Land.

Naaman believes in Yahweh but is returning to Damascus. How will he "offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to Yahweh?" Answer: He'll take two mule-loads of Israelite dirt back with him and spread it around his property, creating a small annex of Israel in Syria, thus permitting Yahweh to hear and answer the former leper's prayers.

Unconfined God

A few centuries after this event, Deutero-Isaiah, exiled in Babylon, hundreds of miles from Israel, begins to understand and proclaim Yahweh's presence beyond the Promised Land's confines.

That is a tremendous shift in Jewish and biblical theology. On the other hand, another theological aspect in the first reading hasn't (or shouldn't have) changed. Elisha refuses Naaman's grateful and gracious post-cure gift. "As Yahweh lives whom I serve," the prophet asserts, "I will not take it."

Elisha's adamant refusal springs from the biblical conviction that accepting a "stipend" for performing a holy action is tantamount to saying the human agent, not God, accomplished the sacred act. One way to know that God actually performed the action was for the person through whom He worked to refuse any payment for his or her part in the event.

Though this no-pay-for-sacred actions belief has never changed, we Christians have created all sorts of theological loopholes (e.g. "I can't accept anything for doing it, but you could give me something on the occasion of my doing it").

Elisha warns us that any linkage between money and the sacred is always forbidden. (Read on a few more verses to find out what later happens to Gehazi, Elisha's servant, after he finagles two talents of silver and two festal garments from Naaman.)

In the Gospel (Luke 17:11-19), Luke reminds his readers of another dimension of faith that never changes: gratitude. Only the heretical Samaritan returns to thank Jesus for curing his leprosy. The other nine disappear down the road.

But it's left to the author of the second reading (II Timothy 2:8-13) to state a specific belief about Jesus that always remains the same for Christians.

Quoting an early Christian hymn, the writer states, "If we die with Him, we shall 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."

Jeweled cross

Dying and rising with Jesus is at the heart of our faith. That's why the earliest crucifixes never depicted Jesus' body. During the Church's first centuries, His followers employed only a cross adorned with jewels instead of a crucified body.

The cross represents death; the jewels, life. One object thus portrays the basic tension of our faith: simultaneous dying and rising. Those who imitate Jesus' dying and rising actually become one with Jesus. No wonder His followers were called "other Christs."

Though certain aspects of our faith can't be changed, they can be forgotten or relegated to the perimeter of our religious practices. Fortunately, they can never completely be blotted out. We have God's promise on that.

As the author of the second reading says clearly, "The word of God is not chained."

(10/11/07)