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Rachel LuFebruary 12, 2024
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for Monday of the Third Week of Lent

Find today’s readings here.

Let him come to me and find outthat there is a prophet in Israel.

The Old Testament is full of reminders of the importance of ritual. In Leviticus, the sons of Aaron are consumed by God’s fiery wrath for disregarding liturgical rules. King Saul loses God’s favor by offering a sacrifice without proper authority or approval. By contrast, many figures, from Abel to Ezra, win God’s approval by offering fitting sacrifices to the Lord. The Bible resoundingly affirms the importance of showing the sacred due honor and propriety. We need to worship God according to his wishes, not our own.

The story of Namaan puts a different spin on this same truth. Namaan is not an Israelite, but he is an important man. When he shows up in court asking the king of Israel to heal him of his leprosy, the king is bewildered, but the prophet Elisha is amusingly blasé. What’s the big deal, king? Send him on over; I’ll heal the guy.

Elisha doesn’t even bother to come to the door when Namaan arrives. This offends Namaan.. He is used to being treated as a man of consequence, and further, he anticipates his own miraculous healing as a momentous event involving healing hands and sonorous incantations. He wants smells and bells. Elisha’s message that he should bathe in a muddy little creek like the Jordan feels beneath him. He considers departing in wrath until his servants persuade him that, after all, the demand is so simple that he might as well give it a try. Just like that, Namaan is healed of his hideous, disfiguring disease.

For God, it really is that easy. His prophet can cure our worst illnesses without even interrupting his lunch.

It would be wrong to conclude from this story that liturgy is unimportant. Ritual can be beneficial to human beings, because we should sometimes take trouble for God’s sake. Good liturgy can help to lift our minds towards heaven. Nevertheless, divine grace overflows in ways unbounded by custom or ritual. Indeed, ritual can be a spiritual obstacle for us if, as in Namaan’s case, it elevates our own sense of self-importance. The really important rule is that we should never refuse grace because it is offered in a form that displeases us. Namaan had to get over himself, forget about the magnificent rivers of Damascus, and go take a bath in a river that, unbeknownst to him, was the most fitting place on earth for a baptism. What is God asking us to do in order to receive his grace?

The Gospel draws our attention to another important aspect of this story. God’s grace transcends both ritual and tribe. Elisha was a prophet of Israel; he could have spent his time healing the lepers of his own land and people. Only Namaan the Syrian received this benefit, bestowed on him not so that he could win more wars or enjoy a comfortable retirement, but so that he could “know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.” Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the story of Namaan shows us that God’s grace is not really restricted to any particular group of people. It is available to all, but only if we receive it in the spirit of humility, as Namaan was expected to do.

In our vanity and insecurity, we often find it difficult to accept grace on God’s terms rather than our own. We want to be consumers of grace, communing with God in ways that are comfortable and emotionally gratifying. This can easily become a form of self-worship. We must pray for the humility to be open to God’s gifts in whatever form they come. It may turn out that our deepest afflictions can be cured far more easily than we would ever have dared to expect.

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