The season of Lent prepares us to celebrate the New Life given to us at Easter.
For those who are catechumens, they are preparing for the sacrament of baptism. For those of us who are already baptized, it is an occasion for us to renew our baptismal promises. The scripture readings of today prefigure the Christian baptism that was to come after Christ. Yet, the process is similar to anyone who wants to arrive in faith in Christ and celebrate their faith in baptism.
At the outset, the gospel message is addressed to everyone. In the cure of Naaman and how Elijah was “sent to a widow at Zarephath, a Sidonian town”, Jesus makes it clear that the message of salvation is given to all, including those who are gentiles. “There were many widows in Israel, I can assure you, in Elijah’s day, when heaven remained shut for three years and six months and a great famine raged throughout the land, but Elijah was not sent to any one of these: he was sent to a widow at Zarephath, a Sidonian town. And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel, but none of these was cured, except the Syrian, Naaman.” The invitation to salvation is not only extended to the Jews but to all, even the pagans. God desires all to be saved “and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4)
However, the message was first addressed to the Jews. Indeed, Israel was the chosen instrument of God, to be His messenger for the salvation of humanity. That was why Jesus in His earthly ministry did not venture beyond Palestine in His preaching. When the Canaanite woman asked Him to deliver her daughter from the demon, He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt 15:24) Unfortunately, His own did not receive Him. This was what happened in today’s gospel. They could not accept Jesus because they thought they knew Him too well as He was one of them. St John remarked, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1:11-13)
The beginning of faith must come from a recognition of our need for salvation. It is an awareness of our sinfulness and of our emptiness. In the case of Naaman, he was helpless in the face of the most dreaded disease in his days, namely, leprosy. In biblical language, leprosy is a symbol of one who is rotting in sin. When a person sins, he does not become a great sinner overnight. Just like leprosy, sin slowly eats into him. For others, it is an experience of emptiness and restlessness. Like the psalmist, many are longing for fullness of life. Like the psalmist, we pray, “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life: when can I enter and see the face of God?” When our life is miserable because of sin, or empty because of the lack of fulfillment, we begin to search for God.
Secondly, faith is transmitted and is caught. We need messengers of God to lead us to faith. We do not have faith by ourselves. All of us are called to be an apostle of our Lord. One does not need to be a theologian, a priest or a religious or an educated person to be an instrument of God’s message; we only need faith. In the case of Naaman, he was led to God not by some great and holy people but his faith was initiated by his servant girl who told her mistress, “If only my master would approach the prophet of Samaria. He would cure him of his leprosy.” It was her faith in God’s prophet that gave Naaman hope of being cured. Consequently, it is important for Catholics to share their faith with others, tell them about Jesus and lead them to Him, regardless of their level of knowledge.
Thirdly, the message of salvation is given to all, irrespective of our rank or status. In the eyes of God, we are all His children. Naaman was not aware of this fact. He thought he was somebody and he expected special treatment because of his position. He did not even get down from his chariot to greet Elisha. To teach him a lesson on the equality of men and women before God, “Elisha sent him a messenger to say, ‘Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will become clean once more.’” Indeed, as Christians we are all equal before God. We have different roles but we are equal in dignity. St Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27f)
Fourthly, the healing grace of God is given to us through ordinary means. This is what the sacraments are all about. God uses natural elements of creation to transmit eternal life to us all. God’s healing is not for spectacular display to command obedience. It is not for entertainment and curiosity. God works through natural things like water in the sacrament of baptism. Naaman expected Elisha to perform a great miracle. Indeed, “Naaman was indignant and went off, saying, ‘Here was I thinking he would be sure to come out to me, and stand there, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprous part. Surely Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, are better than any water in Israel? Could I not bathe in them and become clean?’ And he turned round and went off in a rage.”
Fifthly, God can only give His grace to those who are docile and humble. Perhaps, we can overlook Naaman’s arrogance and pride because of the office that he held. He was used to performing heroic acts and received with honour and dignity. When he was dismissed by the prophet and was asked to bath in the narrow stream of Jordan, he was flabbergasted. But he thought over and swallowed his pride when the servant reasoned out with him, “My father, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? All the more reason, then, when he says to you, ‘Bathe and you will become clean.’” Truly, without humility, we cannot expect God to work in our lives. Without docility, we cannot be obedient to His word. God’s command to Naaman was so simple and yet he refused because it was too insignificant a task for him. He had nothing to prove his might. But God gave him the grace of docility. He listened to his servants, “So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, as Elisha had told him to do.” It was because of his receptivity that he saw the power of God.
Sixthly, we see the consequence of baptism, “And his flesh became clean once more like the flesh of a little child.” Indeed, when we are baptized, we are born again. We are a new creation. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 Jn 3:1) St Paul wrote, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” (Gal 3:26) We are given a new life in Christ.
Seventhly, baptism is a free gift of God. We cannot pay a price for our salvation. “Returning to Elisha with his whole escort, he went in and stood before him. ‘Now I know’ he said ‘that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.’ Then he added, ‘please accept a present from your servant.’” (2 kg 5:15) But what was the response of Elisha? “’As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!’ He urged him to accept, but he refused.” (2 Kg 5:16) Indeed, nothing in this world, no riches or status can buy salvation. God gives His salvation freely and to all. No earthly wealth could be compared to so great a gift of becoming God’s children.
Finally, the process of coming to faith does not end with baptism. It is but an incorporation to the Church which is the body of Christ. We cannot journey alone in our faith. To be baptized means that we are incorporated into the body of Christ. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Rom 12:4f) If we journey alone, we will not be able to sustain our faith. It is this realization that Naaman asked for “two mule-loads of earth” so that he “will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.” (2 Kgs 5:17) In bringing back the soil, he was reaffirming his solidarity with the rest of the Israelites in worshipping the same God.
Indeed, it is ironical that those who have faith in God are the pagans, more so than those of us who are so-called believers. More ironical still is that those who have deep faith are often the simple ordinary Catholics; not those who are schooled in theology and scriptures. Sometimes, too much knowledge make us too rationalistic and even skeptical. In both scripture readings of today, we see how the Gentiles were more receptive to faith. In fact, the king of Aram and Naaman had more faith than the king of Israel when he cried out, “Am I a god to give death and life.” Precisely, we are not gods but mortals, even if we were someone of high status in life. That is why we must, in humility and in faith, turn to the Lord for our salvation. Let this be our humble prayer, “O send forth your light and your truth; let these be my guide. Let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.” May the poignant words of Jesus not be said of us as well, “’I tell you solemnly, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.”