A practical gesture of reverence and respect

Father John A. Kiley

Although separated by centuries in time, Naaman the Syrian healed of leprosy and the thankful Samaritan also healed of leprosy both experienced an inner transformation that began with faith and evolved into love.

Naaman is so understandably thrilled with his cure that he wants to make a lavish gift to the prophet Elisha who was instrumental in his healing. When Elisha refuses the Syrian’s generosity, the military man does not let the issue rest. He requests that some good Israeli earth be shipped back to Syria so that he can continue to worship the God of Israel who effected his cure. His budding faith led to a practical gesture of reverence and respect, an emergent form of love.

Centuries later Jesus Christ would heal 10 lepers in the alien vicinity of Samaria. All 10 lepers had some primitive faith, crying out to the passing Jesus, “Master! Have pity on us!” But only one leper experienced a Naaman-like transformation beginning with personal faith that led to practical love. The single leper “returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” Genuine faith will always take practical steps to express itself. Genuine faith is always demonstrative. Genuine faith will always generate love.

In his encyclical Light of Faith, Pope Francis quotes St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “One believes with the heart” (Rom 10:10). When faith touches the heart it transforms the whole person: body, spirit, interiority, openness to others, intellect, will, affectivity. Hence faith becomes love, as it were. Faith transforms the whole person opening the heart to love. This blending of faith and love is the beginning of a lasting relationship. As with Naaman who wanted at least some dirt to recall the God of Israel and with the Samaritan who returned to thank Jesus, love draws one closer to the object of one’s faith. Love makes faith real. Love takes faith out of the head and rests it in the heart. Through love, faith begins to take steps to prove itself. “One believes with the heart,” as St. Paul wrote.

But here, Pope Francis continues, it must be appreciated that “love requires truth.” Only love grounded in truth can endure over time, transcend the passing moment and be solid enough to sustain a shared journey. Love without truth falls prey to fickle emotions and fades. Only truth can separate love from the fleeting moment allowing it to bear enduring fruit. But, the Pontiff instructs, if love needs truth, truth needs love. Loveless truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive. Love and truth together form a relational way of viewing the world, a form of shared knowledge, a vision through the eyes of another, a common perspective on all that exists. The Syrian Naaman and the Samaritan leper were both aliens to Jesus; they were foreigners. “Has no one returned to give thanks except this foreigner?” Jesus candidly inquires. But it was love awakened by faith that allowed these two cured foreigners to perceive the full truth. Faith-love allowed Naaman to recognize the God of Israel as the true God; faith-love permitted the Samaritan to acknowledge Jesus as his true Savior. Accordingly, the papal encyclical understands active faith and active love as a vital and authentic “source of knowledge,” shedding light not only on the destiny of Biblical Israel and the present church, but on the entire history of the created world, from its origins to its consummation.

Today, the Christian faith must be understood to penetrate to the core of all human experience. Divine faith and human reason are not in conflict as our contemporary world might often suggest. Faith actually can guide reason’s desire for truth and clarity. Truth nowadays is often reduced to the subjective truth of the individual, valid only for one’s personal life. Everyone creates his or her own universe, so to speak. Hence the modern world is left without dogmas and without morals. On the other hand, truth can become totalitarian, reduced to ideology, imposed by force, stifling the individual. Genuine Biblical faith, the faith seen in Naaman and in the Samaritan, is, on the contrary, alive with love and open to truth, leading to “witness and dialogue with all,” as Pope Francis notes. There is a humility about sincere faith that meets the other person at whatever stage of maturity (or immaturity) he or she might have reached (love) but at the same time is respectfully confident of one’s own spiritual resources to foster a thoughtful expression of one’s beliefs (truth). Faith generates love and truth.