28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between being cured and being saved? A few days ago, I came across a BBC news story that truly warmed my heart. The story, however, begins in tragedy. In January 2013, while on vacation in Thailand, the Bloom family is stricken with shock and grief when their mother, Sam, has a terrible fall that leaves her paralysed from the chest down. You will never walk again, the doctor tells her. Naturally, Sam is distraught, and sinks into deep depression.
Then, three months after they return home to Australia, the family stumbles upon a baby magpie. The bird appears to have fallen from its nest and been abandoned by its mother. The family rescues it. Takes it home. And names it Penguin. Because that’s what it looks like. Over the next two years that Penguin spends in the Bloom household, a remarkable change comes over Sam. Somehow, having the little chick to care for and to talk to helps her come to terms with her paralysis. She takes up kayaking. And even makes the Australian para-kayaking team.
For Sam’s husband, Cameron, the bird rescued the family as much as they rescued her. Sam was in an incredibly dark place when she came home, he says. And when Penguin arrived in our lives it changed the mood in the house. It changed Sam dramatically. Of course, today Sam remains paralysed. But she is no longer crippled by depression. We might say that, even though she hasn’t been cured, Sam has been saved. Saved to live a life of extraordinary courage. Saved by her relationship with a magpie. Saved through a random act of mercy shown to a bird.
Mercy leading to relationship. Relationship resulting in salvation. This is what the Bloom family experienced, when Penguin entered their lives. Which is not too different from the experience that our Mass readings propose for our consideration today. In the gospel, Jesus utters words that may at first seem puzzling. He begins with a question: Were not all ten made clean? Then an observation: It seems that no one has come back to give praise to God, except this foreigner. And, finally, a commission: Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.
In these three utterances of Jesus, we see the same distinction that we saw earlier. Between cure and salvation. Ten lepers are cured. Only one is saved. But what is the difference between being cured and being saved? And how does someone come to be saved? The answer is found, of course, in the experience of the Samaritan. An experience that involves the same three steps that we found in the story of Penguin and the Bloom Family.
First, there is an act of mercy: Jesus cures the ten lepers of their leprosy. Mercy then leads to relationship: The Samaritan comes back, throws himself at the feet of Jesus, and praises God. He enters a new relationship with the Lord. And this new relationship results in salvation: The Lord sends him out to live a new kind of life. A life of faith. A life of courage. A life of discipleship.
Receiving God’s mercy in Christ… Beginning a new relationship with Jesus… And then being sent out to live the life of a disciple. A life of salvation… Mercy. Relationship. Salvation. These are the three steps by which people come to enjoy the fullness of life in Christ. This is how we Christians believe we are saved. But the process isn’t always a smooth one. Sometimes obstacles may get in the way. Our readings present us with three of these obstacles. As well as three corresponding ways to avoid them.
In the first reading, like the ten lepers in the gospel, the Syrian general, Naaman, also is cured of his leprosy. He too experiences God’s mercy. Except that his first reaction is to attribute his healing to the prophet Elisha. And, as an expression of gratitude, Naaman presses Elisha to accept a gift. But the prophet declines. And, by declining, Elisha helps Naaman to recognise the One who is truly responsible for his healing. Not the prophet himself. But God.
Here we find the first obstacle to salvation: short-sightedness. The failure to realise that all good things come to us not just through our own good fortune. Or the kindness of others. Or our own hard work. But, ultimately, as merciful gifts from God. And if short-sightedness is the obstacle, then the remedy is recognition. Recognition of God's goodness to us. Recognition leading to true worship. And worship to salvation.
We find the second obstacle in the gospel. Something that may surprise us. Why do the other nine lepers fail to give thanks? Are they so ungrateful? What causes them to miss the precious opportunity to enter into a life-saving relationship with Jesus? Could it be that they are to focused on doing what Jesus had told them to do? Too anxious to show themselves to the priests? So that, quite ironically, it is their concern to satisfy a religious obligation that distracts them from encountering the Lord. Not unlike how some of us may see our own religious practice–such as this Mass, for example–as nothing more than an obligation. Instead of a precious opportunity to encounter God. Distraction. This is the second obstacle to salvation.
In contrast, the foreigner is not distracted. Instead of rushing off, he is able first to pause and to return to Jesus. Perhaps it's because he realises that religious obligations are meant, not to burden us, but to set us free. To set us free to live truly human lives. To set us free to meet and relate to God and to one another. As Jesus says in another place, the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath (Mk 2:27). So that, rather than rushing off to satisfy an obligation, the Samaritan takes the time first to give thanks. To express his heartfelt gratitude. If distraction is the second obstacle to salvation. Then gratitude is the way to avoid it.
Finally, the third obstacle is implied in the second reading. Implied especially in the first word. Which is remember. Remember the good news that I carry…, St. Paul tells Timothy. Remember what God has done for you. Remember the mission that God has given you. Remember in order to avoid falling into forgetfulness. Which is the third obstacle to salvation. Remember. Isn’t this what we are doing here at this Mass? And at every Mass? To remember Jesus present in the community here gathered. Present in the Word that is proclaimed. In the Bread that is broken. In the Wine that is poured out. To remember Him, and to give thanks. To encounter and relate to him. And so to be saved.
My dear friends, truly there is a big difference between being cured and being saved. Just as Sam Bloom was saved by her encounter with a magpie. So too are we saved through our relationship with Christ.
What must we do, you and I, to continue avoiding the obstacles that threaten to come between us and our merciful Lord today?