FROM A READING FOR OCT. 9, 2016: 28TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'The saying is sure: If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny HIm, He will also deny us...' -- II Timothy 2:12

Sunday's II Kings (5:14-17) reading is one of Scripture's most significant passages. It not only shows us how Jewish faith changed through the centuries, it also challenges us to live up to the unchanging ideals of that faith.

Three insights

Let me highlight three points:

• First, this particular sacred author (along with all other biblical authors) insists that God's actions are never limited to just one group of individuals, even if they're God's Chosen People.

Naaman is a Gentile, a Syrian army officer, a frequent enemy of the Jews. He only comes to Elisha seeking a cure for his leprosy because his Jewish slave girl told him about the healing powers of this ninth-century-BCE prophet and encouraged him to make the politically-delicate trip. Nine hundred years later, Jesus would get into trouble with some in His Nazareth synagogue audience when He reminded them that God ignored many Jewish lepers to take care of this non-Jew.

• Second, though it flies in the face of our Catholic tradition of clergy receiving stipends and stole fees, the II Kings author is adamant about Elisha's refusal to accept any sort of gift from Naaman.

"As Yahweh lives, whom I serve," the prophet insists, "I will not take it." The reason is simple and irrefutable: If we're rewarded for channeling God's actions, it would appear they're our actions and not God's. I don't remember that law ever being changed in Scripture.

• Third, there's a theology in the Naaman story that we've gone beyond: the belief that God is territorial. God is obligated only to take care of people who reside in Canaan, the story goes; take one step across the border and you're in the domain of another god or goddess.

That's why Naaman asks to take "two mule-loads of earth" back with him to Damascus. We presume he's going to spread that dirt over his property, creating an extra-territorial piece of Canaan, obligating God to take care of anyone who lives (and worships) on that soil. He says as much: "I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to Yahweh."

The sixth-century-BCE Babylonian Exile would put an end to that restrictive theology. Jews forced to live hundreds of miles from the Promised Land eventually began to experience God's presence and power in a country that technically "belonged" to other gods. No longer was God limited to just one piece of geography.

Jesus' insights
Luke's Jesus mirrors some of the Naaman/Elisha story (Luke 17:11-19). Though the leprous Samaritan isn't a Gentile, he's regarded as being outside "acceptable Judaism." His heresy excludes him, under pain of death, from even going into the sacred confines of the Jerusalem temple.

Obviously, Jesus can work beyond the restrictions with which people limit Him. Not only that, but the heretic alone returns to thank Jesus for the cure. The other nine orthodox recipients of God's favor seem to have forgotten their manners.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons the unknown author of II Timothy (2:8-12) zeroes in on our obligation to die with Jesus. He's convinced that only those who have died with Him will live with Him. It doesn't make any difference who we are or where we are; the one essential, unchanging aspect of our faith is a willingness to die with Jesus by giving ourselves to others.

No future theology will contradict that. No matter who or where we are, we're expected to always pull that off. What an insight! Yet, I suspect we rarely thank the historical Jesus for sharing that insight. We just take it for granted and walk away from the person who died for us.