2 Kings 5: 1-15c, Psalm 66, Luke 17:11-19
Again we hear of the chasm between the world’s ways of thinking and God’s ways of thinking. The world thinks these things matter to God and salvation—war horses, chariots, generals, kings, letters of introduction from the influential, wealth, complicated religious rituals, cleaner and better rivers and waters. And those who are successful according to the ways of the world think such things matter too and will influence God.
But they do not.
The Old Testament story from 2 Kings about the healing of Naaman, the great army commander, is wonderful for the way it portrays the way the powerful might think, that using their wealth they can buy their health and happiness contrasted with how God’s purpose to bring healing and wholeness to all people cuts across the lines that divide people and nations. This theme is carried through in the story in Luke about the healing of the 10 lepers, but I will come back to that later.
It is helpful to hear these stories in the midst of the election campaign where political parties vie for power and where we see egos and ambitions clearly on display vying for our vote, our money and our loyalty. However, each election season we are invited as Christians to listen again for what is important for God’s greater purpose to be fulfilled, to notice how the Spirit works in the world to bring salvation and wholeness to all people, especially the poor and vulnerable.
What is so interesting to me in the healing story of Naaman is to notice that Naaman is the successful army commander of an invading nation – an enemy nation of Israel– yet it is a captured slave girl from Israel who has compassion for his suffering due to his skin disease. Just to note that the term leprosy is used often in the bible just to describe any skin disease and may not actually be that disease known as leprosy. Although Naaman is a powerful man in a military sense, he is still human and knows vulnerability through his disease. This unnamed girl cares about him and it is made known to him that the God of Israel can heal him through their prophet.
His Lord, the King of Aram understands Naaman’s desperation and sends a letter along with many expensive gifts to the King of Israel to ask him to heal Naaman. You can understand why the King of Israel, who has been conquered by the Arameans, is suspicious and wonders what sneaky plan is underfoot. Luckily the prophet Elisha hears of the request and directs Naaman to go to the Jordan river to wash so that his skin will be restored. Naaman becomes angry too that the prophet Elisha won’t even see him personally because he is this great man.
The powerful Naaman is insulted by the simplicity of these directions and skeptical that this small, dirty river can do anything for him when their rivers back home are so much bigger and cleaner. Again his great ego almost prevents him from being healed. It reminds me of when people with wealth and means find themselves unwell and are skeptical when the doctors advise them that a simple change in lifestyle, exercise and diet is all they really need to be doing to get better.
Again, it is the unnamed servants in Naaman’s entourage that, understand his egotistical needs and encourage him to listen for the wisdom of the prophet, to do what he says – and he is healed, his flesh restored like the flesh of a young boy, reminding us that it was a small young girl who first directed Naaman to go to the place of healing. What riches Naaman would have missed out on had he not heeded his servants’ advice to obey God’s Word through the prophet Elisha? What blessings could we miss out on if we dodge God’s word and will in our pride and independence?
It is hard not to remind ourselves again that we need to listen and take seriously the voices and wisdom of the youth such as Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Autumn Peltier who raises her voice for the protection of sacred waters around the world, and other young people who are pushing forward the needs of our earth and the need to make both simple and radical changes in our lifestyles and economy if indeed we are all going to be saved. During this election campaign, in the midst of all the divisive politics, I have heard some voices urging us to work together, to be willing to cross party lines and ideologies to work together to solve our world’s most pressing problems.
An important part of being able to work together, is to acknowledge our common humanity, our common vulnerability, our similarity as people with hopes and dreams and not to get blocked by worrying about our differing backgrounds, colour, province, country of origin etc.
The story in Luke’s gospel also helps us to see again how God is at work in the world and in Jesus’ mission that will be focused and energized by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The opening verses of this simple story about the 10 lepers sets the stage, focusing us on where Jesus’s is headed – “on the way to Jerusalem he was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee”. He is walking where both the ‘foreigners’ and his own people would be living, in that space in between where those who are different and those who are Jews like himself will be living. But as in every place, there are still those people who live on the margins, who are rejected or feared. In his culture they were labelled as ‘unclean’ and were given many rules of exclusion in which to live out their existence.
Today we know that this still is a dynamic in our communities but which may come with different labels and realities – the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the religious, and now especially during this election campaign, the term immigrant seems to be added by some to refer to people who are unwelcome, to be feared and kept on the margins or completely out of our country.
When I offered an invitation on Thursday evening to come into the church for a simple meal of soup and bread and conversation, there was one student who joined Grant and I and then later an older gentleman wandered in who came not for food, but just for conversation. He self-identified as a Christian but almost immediately began expressing a great depth of fear about all those ‘other people’ who seemed to be taking over our city who didn’t look like him, who frightened him and should not have been allowed in. I tried to acknowledge his fear and sense of alienation while gently reminding him of that Jesus’ mission was to welcome the stranger and so on. The eyes of the young student however revealed a real look of shock and she said she just could not understand where he was coming from as she had grown up in Mississauga which to her mind had always been diverse and she regarded people as her friends from all over the world.
This simple story of the healing of the ten lepers really helps to make clear that God’s Spirit of love and healing reaches out across all kinds of human barriers whether it’s social status or nationality. The ten lepers (noting again that this term probably refers to skin diseases in general) approached Jesus but kept their distance, knowing their place, but seeing in Jesus a person of compassion and healing. I also wonder if there may have been some women in that group too. Like Elisha the prophet, Jesus directs them to the source of healing, to the place of God where the priests were. He tells them to show themselves to the priests. What a radical invitation that must have been to their ears, to be told to go to the temple, a place where they would normally be excluded, and that in finding that courage would set them on the path of faith.
Today there is a similar struggle in many places in our country and in the world where people in the LGBTQ community know they are not welcome in the church and are frightened to go, where racialized people or indigenous people in our own country fear that coming into a church where the mostly white or settler congregations worship would make them feel unwelcome and unacceptable just as they are.
Somehow these 10 lepers are convinced by Jesus’ urging and so go to the temple to see the priest and while on their way they are healed of their skin disease. There is some interesting scholarly debate about the Greek words used to relay this story as to just what transpired in that journey toward the temple of God that caused them to be healed. It wasn’t the priests that healed them, but their willingness to turn towards God in the first place that set them on the journey of healing and salvation. Jesus named this as ‘faith’ when he says to the leper who returned to praise him that ‘your faith has made you well.’ Go on your journey he says and live out that faith.
I wonder too what it was that brought them healing? Was it because they were part of a small community of people who understood each other’s limitations who could find solidarity as they sought healing? Anyone in the self-help movement knows this to be true.
Was it because they found in Jesus a man of compassion, a person who listened and took seriously their cry for mercy, who understood the suffering they were experiencing in their life out there on the margins? Not only did Jesus listen, but he pointed them in the direction of healing and finding a solution to their suffering. Are these the attitudes that allow God’s healing to work in our lives?
Was there healing for their lives because they listened to Jesus and took some initiative to find a better path for their lives? Is that the moment of healing for any of us when we seek the help we need for whatever our problem or distress is? Is this what it means to seek after God, believing that God wants something better for our lives, that God values and loves each one of us with equal depth and desires for us to be restored, healthy, strengthened and empowered?
The one leper who realized where his healing came from praised God with a loud voice and returned to prostrate himself at Jesus’ feet, full of thanksgiving, not unlike the poor shepherds we meet at the beginning of Luke’s gospel who come to praise and worship Jesus at his birth.
There are some people who are healed and restored in so many ways who can recognize that it is the love and power of God that is the source of their healing and open themselves to receive those blessings and those gifts, falling down on their knees in adoration. That is what thanksgiving is, what faith is – allowing ourselves to accept that we are vulnerable, fragile human beings that cannot go it alone, that we are able to open ourselves to the source of all life, the Creator, the great Lover and Healer of the whole world – the God known to us through Jesus.
Our stories today remind us that only the lowly and the godly can see how God works. The young, enslaved girl can see. The general’s slaves can see. The prophet can see. The healed leper can see. In other texts, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner can see. The crucified one, Jesus, above all, knows and embodies the way God works. Christ will break through our vulnerability, will reach out again and touch the world with healing no matter who you are. And when that happens, may you have eyes to see it and may you discover within yourself a caring heart that when shared in gratitude with others, will begin to change our world. That is the promise of our faith.