The marble sculptures of classical antiquity are recognised as some of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements. Within this period we can recognise two quite distinct approaches, from the Hellenistic era to the later Roman Imperial style. The Greeks preferred to idealise the human features in their quest to capture perfect beauty. As a result the faces have a rather unreal, mask-like quality to them. In contrast, Roman portraiture tended to opt for a ‘warts and all’ approach in order to create the most accurate likeness of the subject. The result is often less beautiful, however these portraits often reveal an extraordinary psychological depth of character captured in marble. They are more honest and therefore more real.
Today’s gospel about the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector presents us with two quite different self-portraits. The Pharisee knows what is required of him by the law, and he sets about in a rather clinical and formulaic way projecting an account of his virtue. His is a portrait of moral perfection that would rival the beauty of a Greek goddess! Yet how honest and accurate is this portrait? Is it not perhaps a little too idealised to be convincing? By contrast the tax collector comes before God in prayer and presents himself with brutal honesty, ‘warts and all.’ He recognises the truth of who he is before God, a poor sinner in need of mercy. The self-portrait may not be flattering, but it is convincing, compelling and credible. And ultimately it is the truth that sets one free (cf. John 8:32) and sees one go home at rights with God.
In the hierarchy of relationships there is none more important than our relationship with God. Communication is the foundation to all human relationships. The absence of communication quickly engenders a sense of indifference, distrust and eventually contempt. This holds true in our relationship with God. To ignore God by our neglect of prayer is almost to say, ‘I’d rather you didn’t exist!’ The role of prayer in the life of the believer is indispensable; it is the primary means of communicating with God. Whatever else our religious obligations might be, prayer is never an optional extra; it is truly essential. This raises a problem: If communication is so important in our relationship with God, then why is God so silent? Even when we take the time to pray, why do we seem to do all the talking while God says nothing?
We can all recognise that there is a difference between ignoring someone in the same room and spending time in silence together. For example, the intimacy of lovers will sometimes mean that words are superfluous; simply passing the time together is sufficient. The “Curé d'Ars”(i.e., Parish Priest of Ars), St John Vianney noticed a simple peasant spending much time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Curious he asked the peasant what he said to Jesus in prayer. “Nothing,” he replied, “I look at him and he looks at me!” Behind the simplicity of his reply the Cure, recognised a profound wisdom: The peace-filled gaze of contemplative love requires no words! The great Carmelite mystic, St John of the Cross, offers the insight that “the first language of God is silence.” Prayers spoken from the heart or recited from memory assuredly have their value. Yet sometimes in our busy, noisy, frenetic world we can forget that placing ourselves in God’s presence in silence, gives God the opportunity to speak to us in his first language.
In today’s reading we hear of two miraculous cures of leprosy. The first from the Second Book of Kings is the cure of the Syrian general, Naaman, through the ministration of Nathan the prophet. The second is the cure of the ten lepers by Jesus Christ in Luke’s Gospel.
To the Christian audience the cure of Naaman is striking, because his cure is achieved by being immersed (in the Septuagint Greek translation the word is ebaptisato = ‘baptised’) in the river Jordan. Having being baptised in the river Jordan by Nathan, we are told that Naaman’s “flesh became clean once more, like the flesh of a child.” We cannot fail to see here an Old Testament allusion to the grace of Christian Baptism whereby the soul is washed free from the corruption of sin, and we emerged as a new creation, a child of God. To use the typological language of the Church Fathers we can interpret the cure of Naaman as a kind of foreshadowing of the salvation that God would accomplish through Christian Baptism. Elisha refuses payment because this was not his doing: it was the work of God. Likewise, God’s salvation is always experienced as a grace, a free gift: it cannot be paid for in any earthly currency since it was paid for with nothing less than the blood of Christ (cf. 1Peter 1:18-19).
Naaman recognises that his miraculous cure is a sure proof of divine intervention, and so concludes that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Significantly the profound gratitude evoked in the heart of Naaman moves him with the desire to offer the exclusive worship owed to the one true God: “[I, Naaman,] your servant will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.” Strangely Naaman requests “as much earth as two mules may carry” to take back to Syria. Why? As a symbolic gesture that he can worship on the same soil as Israel, living as a ‘spiritual Semite.’
By contrast Jesus’ cure of the ten lepers involves no washing. Indeed all Jesus does is tell the lepers to show themselves to the priests. The reason for this becomes clearer in the light of Leviticus 13-14, those ominous chapters containing all the prescriptions for the diagnosis and treatment of lepers. Leviticus legislates that the leper “shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp” (Lev. 13:46) which these lepers are certainly doing. Exclusion was an unfortunate but necessary measure to contain the disease in an age where there was no known cure for leprosy. Leviticus 13-14 also makes it clear that it is the priest’s responsibility to pronounce the diagnosis or cure of leprosy: the Leper “shall be brought to the priest; and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall make an examination.”(Lev 14:2-3). Lest the Jews find an occasion for scandal in the miracle, Jesus, in obedience to the Law of Moses, has the lepers present themselves before the priest, even if it is by Christ’s power alone that the cure is accomplished.