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2 Kings 5:1-5a, 7-11 & 12b-15 (NRSV)
Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV)
In our culture, and the culture in which the Bible was written, your value determines what rights you have to a large degree. If you are seen as valuable, you have more rights, and if you are not seen as valuable, your rights tend to diminish if not vanish altogether. We use lots of factors to determine value in our culture, again many of the same indicators used at Jesus’ time. We use things like race, gender, age, ability and sexuality in individual terms, and then broader things like nationality, legal status, even what qualifies as “tribe” in our day and age, things like political party or on which side of an arbitrary border you might reside. And we often ascribe such discrimination to the will of God, which has the effect of making God seem inaccessible to those on the other side of our borders. That’s why I say – theology matters.
In the passage from Luke, these men who cry out to Jesus are lepers – or, in Greek, they have some sort of skin disease that renders them permanently “unclean,” or second-class. Their “value” determines their place in the world, it removes their rights and sets them aside. Later we’ll discover that one of them is even worse than a leper – he’s a leper who is also a Samaritan. In our culture, it’s like being a transgender Muslim, or a black woman – two strikes that almost add up to three. These men aren’t completely out, but they’re really, really close, and all of that is ordained by the dominant theology of that time and place.
Naaman, the central figure of the story from 2nd Kings, also has a skin disease of some sort, generically called leprosy, but the difference is that he has a class advantage the men in the gospel story don’t have, which has an impact on the theological oppression that might ordinarily be laid upon him. Even in our culture today people can be de-valued in multiple categories, each one closer and closer to the margins. And sometimes their definition in one category enables them, for the dominant culture, to “overcome” their definition in another, at least to a certain extent. Naaman is not rejected, but honored, despite the same ailment that ostracizes these ten men in the Luke story.
Naaman “overcomes” his infirmity because he’s immensely wealthy, a very powerful warrior, the commander of the army of King Aram. We should note that he does not beg for mercy nor wander the outskirts looking for a miracle, he seeks to deal with his ailment in the way that has garnered him respect and authority thus far – by conquering it. Only that doesn’t work. In all his effort, though he is a “mighty warrior,” he still suffers from this malady. It’s a chilling line, for how many of us try to will ourselves well, or seek to apply whatever skills we have for business or parenting or schoolwork or whatever it is in which we’ve found success, only to have that same effort fail in our attempts to be cured?
So, Naaman finds out he can’t get to wellness with all of the money and all of the power he has. He can’t buy healing, nor can he force his illness into submission. There’s no direct route, no single battle to win, no easy button. Finally, it is a message from a slave girl who tells him of this prophet in Samaria who could heal him. I will remind us that we should always pay attention in our Bible stories to the source of wisdom, to the voice in which God’s word is heard. So often it reveals the nature of God more than even the story itself. The action of healing or wholeness begins with an otherwise ignored voice, it starts with Naaman listening to a person he likely does not listen to very often, an unnamed slave girl. This micro-lesson that shows up again and again in our texts is that God often speaks to us from places we don’t anticipate, from the voices we ignore. We often decry God’s silence when what we should decry is our ears.
Meanwhile, off Naaman goes to see this mysterious prophet. And when he arrives, it’s also not what he expects. Already furious because Elisha sends a messenger rather than meeting him, a super important guy, in person, he rages at the suggestion that he must do some work for his healing…that he should wash himself seven times in the Jordan – which Naaman calls a “foreign” river. He’s already washed himself in the “truly holy” rivers in his country, why should he stoop to this inferior one? It’s a dismissive request to Naaman’s ears, the “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” of ancient healers. Frankly, he’s offended that he can’t simply buy his healing immediately. Maybe Elisha, with his prescription, senses that it’s more than a skin disease Naaman needs relief from at this moment.
Throughout both passages, healing is looked at from many angles. In the Luke passage, the Greek lets us see such exploration, for the words for cured and cleansed are both used, kind of back and forth, though we sometimes lose some of that in the translation. Is it made clean or cured, which are different things to us, or is it the phrase “made whole,” which is kind of like healing, but not really? And then, finally, the word that we get translated as “whole” or “well” in the phrase “your faith has made you well,” is actually the word sozo, the same Greek word we typically translate as “saved,” as in salvation. So what’s going on here? Jesus hears the cry of men that Luke identifies very specifically (and unusually for typical Greek grammar) as leprous men, not lepers, as if they are human beings who happen to have a skin disease, instead of being identified by their malady first and foremost. So, is the healing the removal of such identifiers, letting them been seen first and foremost by their humanity? Then Jesus sends them away to see the priest, the person in that culture who would have to announce them no longer unclean and as they turn to go to this place they’ve undoubtedly been before, to ask the priest once again for something they’ve already pleaded for, they were made clean. Does that mean no longer leprous?
In this story, Jesus is traveling along the border between Samaria and Galilee, the same Samaria Naaman travels to for healing. Jesus walks to Jerusalem via the in-between place so to speak, he walks intentionally on the borderlands. It was a place of division then, and today there is a literal wall there, dividing the West Bank from the southern parts of Israel. In that same place today, as well as borderlands in many other parts of the world, the idea of foreigner is deeply entrenched in society, coloring almost everything that happens. Being “cured” is a complicated prospect in this story because it means the healing of a physical ailment, but also social, psychological, even spiritual healing.
It is possible to see this story as a simple tale of the grandness of God’s mercy, given even to the worthless and pathetic. You can also see it as a sign of God’s grace given out freely to all, with no restrictions. I will leave it to you to decide what is happening here, whether this is a physical healing of a skin disease, or the metaphorical healing of a broken heart, or the spiritual healing of a cultural bigotry that is based on something created entirely by human incapacity to embrace diversity and only blamed on God. I will leave it to you to decipher the mystery handed to us by Luke who gives room for our hearts to make all kinds of interpretations and then asks us with his larger gospel story to consider…what would Jesus do?
It is also possible to see both of these stories as theological claims upon us, presenting how God works in ways that are decidedly different than the ways we expect. So often the Luke passage is lifted up as one of gratitude, that we should be thankful for what God can do for and with us, and that’s not incorrect. Yet, if we see only this and ignore the ways that Jesus interacts, who God heals, who God speaks through and with, and how Jesus frames the requirements for God’s healing…all of those things are theological claims that ought to shape us as much as gratitude. Amongst the confusion about what kind of healing is going on, both Elisha and Jesus impart the clear message that there is room for all sheltered in God’s Love…and that theology speaks louder than words.
Not all healing is physical, and not all things can be healed, of that we are very certain. When we cannot heal a physical malady, or rid a person forever of a mental illness, what then? Is there nothing left for us if the prognosis isn’t good, if the condition is chronic, if the healing that we expect never comes? Or does our language of God’s healing carry forth anyway, knowing that there are always layers to our therapies? The stories suggest that God wants our wholeness, and that wholeness has components to it – physical, psychological, spiritual. They suggest that healing may have as much to do with our acceptance, our inclusion, as anything. I wonder, for instance, if, after the healing that Jesus imparts, the other nine men tell this Samaritan to get lost? Their unity had been based in identification of a common disease, but that’s something they no longer share. So now, he’s just another Samaritan, someone to be rejected. He heads back to Jesus to give thanks, yes, but perhaps also for refuge, refusing to accept that he has been healed from one barrier only to be dropped into another. And Jesus makes it clear that his recognition of his own liberation from marginalization, shown in his gratitude, is the thing that brings true healing, the thing that brings him salvation. He understands that he is home and it’s his task now to bring that same message, that same feeling, to others.
Interestingly, the Hebrew suggests something beyond a cure of a skin disease as well. Keep in mind that throughout this story it has been the most marginalized who moved the plot. It’s a slave girl from Samaria who first suggests Elisha, then its the other servants who talk Naaman into washing in the river when he’s offended at the suggestion. It’s those on the edges who Naaman barely acknowledges and only rarely listens to who deliver the action of God. While his entourage of slaves watches, Naaman demeans himself, in his mind, and dips himself seven times in the humble Jordan. And then, the Hebrew says, he is tehar, a clean which denotes ritual purity. But it also notes that his skin is like that of a young boy, na‘ar in Hebrew, which also, significantly, means ‘servant’. Perhaps Naaman, like the Samaritan in Luke’s story is healed in more than one way.
So, when Naaman finally submits to the remedy prescribed, setting aside some of his preconceived notions, he is cured, the story tells us. He begins, perhaps, to see the world differently and he returns to Elisha to give him a cash reward, but Elisha refuses the gift, claiming that he does this for the Lord, whom he serves, modeling for Naaman a better way to be grateful than a transactional payment. And Naaman then asks for something strange – two cart-loads full of earth from around Elisha’s home, for Naaman has found a new home…he has found there in Samaria something that he could never have had in his homeland…his heart has changed a little bit, and wants to take the very earth around him to be reminded with every prayer from that day forward.
For the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring a theme that comes to us from one of our traditional hymns here at Fellowship – one we sing at the end of every congregational meeting – Blessed Be the Tie That Binds. We’ll be asking, what binds us together, church? I’m ultimately going to suggest to you that it is a theology – a theology that differs from what we walk in here having absorbed, through direct contact or osmosis in the buckle of the Bible Belt. A theology which hopes for healing – deep, complete, whole healing that changes us, and then the world around us…welcoming people who have been rejected, including people who have been excluded…a theology that asks us to build a home, not only for us, but for all who would seek it…a theology that sees mercy and contrition in the act of reparations or the effort to uncover mass graves…a theology that wishes and hopes for the best in all of us, and gives the benefit of the doubt as freely as the gift of grace has been given to us.
May God’s Grace and Love, which has guided us thus far, continue to guide us.