A little over two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the leprosy of my soul. A person suffering from leprosy cannot hide his physical disfigurement from the world, but I can hide the leprosy of my soul. My interior disfigurement is not easy for others to see and I can cloak myself with good works even though I have no faith, no love. I find myself thinking about this interior leprosy and the importance of Baptism after today’s readings:
An early Christian teacher, Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 AD) had this to say about the passage in 2 Kings:
Therefore Naaman was sent to the Jordan as a remedy capable to heal a human being. Indeed, sin is the leprosy of the soul, which is not perceived by the senses, but intelligence has the proof of it, and human nature must be delivered from this disease by Christ’s power which is hidden in baptism. It was necessary that Naaman, in order to be purified from two diseases, that of the soul and that of the body, might represent in his own person the purification of all the nations through the bath of regeneration, whose beginning was in the river Jordan, the mother and originator of baptism.
I take the Sacrament of Baptism for granted, not realizing that there are still many Christians of good will who actually don’t believe what Christ and the first Apostles said about it (John 3:5; Mark 16:16; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38; Titus 3:5). God doesn’t need us to believe in Baptism to give us common grace, but we are so much poorer for not understanding and receiving it. If one believes in Christ, then Baptism is needed for salvation (cf. Jn 3:5; Mk 16:16). Confessing the “Sinner’s Prayer” is not enough; as Christ told Nicodemus, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”
I find it notable that Naaman, a pagan army commander, was blessed with common grace even before confessing the True God of Israel. Why would a captured Jewish slave girl want to help the pagan commander if he wasn’t, to her, a good master (cf. 2 Kgs 5:2-4)? Even after his prideful rejection of the Prophet Elisha’s command, Naaman’s servants — who loved him so much that they called him “father” — managed to change his mind (cf. 2 Kgs 5:13). Servants don’t call their master “father” and would not have the courage let alone bother to convince an evil master from his error. So, Naaman was a good man. God wanted to lead this good man to the source of his blessings: the God of Israel. The physical healing of Naaman’s leprous hand was a minor miracle compared to the miracle of a pagan army commander professing belief in the god of his enemy, Israel.
The mercy that God has for non-believers is an important lesson for all Christians. Pope Francis is emphasizing this generous mercy when talking about prisoners, homosexuals, divorced Catholics, and souls suffering from abortion. Critics who don’t like this message of mercy (i.e. “Who am I to judge?”) are in danger of committing the same sin as Jesus’ own village people of Nazareth in Luke 4:28. Nazareth… Christ’s own neighbors, folks that grew up with him, suffered from a hardness of heart and nearly tossed Our Savior off a cliff. When we reject mercy for sinners whose spiritual disfigurement is open for the world to see, that rejection is the same rejection of those villagers. Blessed are those who are aware of their poverty of spirit; may we continue to receive His sanctifying grace and grow in charity for our neighbors.