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Another Fine Mess

October 13, 2007

The Backseat Homilist

Readings for the twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk?”

Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman begin the first chapter of their wonderful book, A Perfect Mess, The Hidden Benefits of Disorder with that little gem from Albert Einstein. They provide a long-overdue critique of orderliness and the aggrandizement of organization. Piles of papers, sticky counters and loosely run businesses are redeemed.

“We argue that there is an optimal level of mess for every aspect of every system,” say the authors. “That is, in any situation there is a type and level of mess at which effectiveness is maximized….”

Abrahamson and Freedman track the mess through history and into households, into personality types, leadership styles and political systems. There is, to be true, the pathological mess, which is not a good thing. However a certain degree of mess is praiseworthy when it fosters creativity, flexibility and inclusion.

Organized religion gets a good dose of mess critique by the authors, who point to its long history of legalism and rigid structure. The Gospel, however, sneaks by undetected. Which is a shame – because the Reign of God is gloriously messy in the best sense of the word. Unlike the institutional structures that purportedly line the road to Heaven, the Gospel is not ordered by purity, cleanliness, scrupulosity or legal fastidiousness. On the surface, it seems like just about anyone might be invited.

This idea that God’s salvation is meant for all people is in fact an old promise. The prophet Elisha acknowledged it when he healed the leper Naaman, who commanded the army of a pagan, enemy nation. Grateful for the miracle, Naaman, once a regular visitor to the temple of Rimmon, vowed to worship only the God of Israel. He even hauled two cartloads of Israel’s soil back home to aid in his worship, reflecting the ancient belief that a god was attached to the geographical place where the god was worshiped.

In the Gospel, a similar thing happens. Another foreign enemy – a Samaritan this time — gets invited into the fold. He too is cleansed of his leprosy, this time in the company of nine others who forget to thank the source of their healing. But the Samaritan – like Naaman – knows a gift from God when he receives one. And he knows that it is not only a personal healing, but a societal one. God’s gifts are a bit leaky that way.

It’s important to remember that the word leprosy in ancient biblical parlance was used for any infectious, contagious skin disease. In fact, in Leviticus 14 it was even extended to houses stricken with mold and mildew. In this case leprosy was a religious problem because it indicated the presence of the evil force of corruption, and belied “the lack of bodily integrity necessary for the worship of Yahweh….” (1) Leprosy was a sign of evil, and the price was separation from the community until a priest determined that the condition had cleared up.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus sees deeper than that, and he clears up more than skin. The sign of whether one is fit to enter into a relationship with Jesus is not kinship, nation, or even the proximity that comes with discipleship. The sign of the Samaritan leper’s faith in Jesus is his gratitude. He would not return to the social order until he had praised and glorified the divine order that had precipitated it.

Gratitude is a bit messy. It is a humble posture. It is not about control or the ordered and principled use of power. It’s about receiving something graciously and being thankful. In today’s culture, which prefers to give rather than receive, it may be a bit underused. It remains, however, a measure of faith.

Of course, it’s not hard to be grateful when you are on the inside looking out, as many of us Christians are. With a well-timed course of antibiotics, leprosy is no longer really a problem, let alone a sign of evil corruption. Alienation and social dislocation, however, are. Replace leper with illegal immigrant, detainee or homosexual, for example, and the story is newly at hand. The old fear is back too – what will happen to our individual, community or national security if we give them rights or let them in (or in the case of detainees, let them out)?

If really healing the breach that still divides us seems a bit perilous, even for a Christian, recall that Luke places this encounter on the last leg of Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem, where betrayal and crucifixion awaited.

That, along with the cleansing gift of resurrection, is the fine mess that Jesus has gotten us into.

(1) Roland J. Faley, TOR, Leviticus, New Jerome Bible Commentary

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