Summary: The story of Elisha and Naaman teaches us about the Word of Evangelization, the Word of direction, and the Word of testimony, all powerful in the saving of souls.
Monday of the 3rd Week in Lent
At least as early as the time of St Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century (On the Baptism of Christ), the Fathers of the Church were seeing this healing of Naaman the Syrian as a type of Baptism. The story is a compelling reminder of the impotence of false gods, and the power of the Word of our God and Father. Just imagine the scene: the great general, strong in military might but weak in soul and body, roars up to the prophet’s hut with a vast retinue of chariots, horsemen, and soldiers. Elisha, who kowtows to nobody, doesn’t even leave the hut. He sends his loyal but greedy servant out with only a message–wash seven times in the nearby Jordan River. The general is furious. A week’s travel ends in the hot, humid Jordan River valley and the prophet doesn’t even come out of his hut! But, as at the beginning of the story, it is a poor servant who has all the wisdom. “Surely if the prophet had told you to do something fabulously hard, you would have done it? Isn’t it reasonable if you want to be cleansed, that you should wash?” Thus the Fathers argued that the symbolic washing of Baptism actually does cleanse us from all sin, and give us the new life signified by Naaman’s childlike healed skin.
St. Ambrose (Concerning the Mysteries, III) asks us to consider the young captive Hebrew girl as a type of the Church, scattered among the pagan world. Our witness to the pagan world causes them to recognize their uncleanness, their sin, to repent and to be healed, like Naaman. We don’t come to Mass to celebrate how wonderful we are, but how great and powerful our God is, who takes away our sins and empowers us to witness His love to a world in need.
We have to recognize in this story the power of the Word of God. First we see the word of good news, of evangelization, shared by the little girl. Then we see the Word of direction, given through the servant by Elisha. Finally we see the Word of testimony, which converts the heart and soul of the general to true worship.
All these meanings come from the Word of God as written in the Book of Kings, but the Holy Father reminds us that underneath all the many layers of meaning and interpretation, there is an historical event. That is, this story is a tale of something that really happened. It’s not an invention, a myth from somebody’s brain, but a real event that was passed orally from community to community, and collected and written down by the sacred scribe. Then, generation after generation of Hebrew scribes, followed by Christian monks, laboriously copied by hand, word for word, the revealed Word of God. We forget the love they had for the Word of God at our peril. The Pope tells us that this monastic culture is “the ultimate foundation of European culture; at its root lies a concern for the word.”
With this in mind, the Pope helps us to understand the relationship between the Church’s teaching office and the work of modern scholars, the so-called “higher criticism.” The Holy Father is not giving credence to those who would abuse this science to debunk the Scriptures, like the so-called “Jesus Seminar.” (Every year, just before Easter, these has-been scholars are dragged out by the media to say that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says, or that only 5% of what the Bible says are Jesus’s words actually came from his lips.) Benedict points out that as long ago as Pius XII’s “Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu [the Church has been] careful to avoid any hint of a dichotomy between “scientific exegesis” for use in apologetics and “spiritual interpretation meant for internal use”; rather it affirmed both the “theological significance of the literal sense, methodically defined” and the fact that “determining the spiritual sense … belongs itself to the realm of exegetical science”
The goal, of course, is to understand both the “back then” meaning of Scriptures and the “today” meaning of Scriptures for us. Those meanings are not contradictory, but one can help us communicate the other. There are three principles that must be kept in mind when interpreting Scriptures, and I will look at each of them individually during the rest of Lent. In short, they are: “1) the text must be interpreted with attention to the unity of the whole of Scripture; nowadays this is called canonical exegesis; 2) account is be taken of the living Tradition of the whole Church; and, finally, 3) respect must be shown for the analogy of faith.”