Our first lesson and our gospel story for today are both about God’s dramatic healing for people with the dread disease of leprosy. Leprosy, or Hanson’s Disease, was widespread especially among the poor and malnourished until a treatment was found. Now that there is a cure, most, but not all, leper colonies have closed and people are no longer forced to walk through the streets calling out “unclean, unclean.” Before modern diagnostic tools other, less dangerous, skin diseases were also called leprosy and people were ostracized until they cleared up. Leprosy still exists. Author Debie Thomas tells the story of a family trip to her parents’ homeland, India, when she was seven years old. After two weeks in India she had grown accustomed to seeing beggars – exhausted women with malnourished babies, men who were blind or lame, and pot-bellied children who stared at their Western clothing. Her parents gave whatever cash they could spare in order to ease their suffering in some small way.
But one day at a train station they saw two figures sitting hunched over in a corner. Their faces were distorted, their fingers were half missing and their feet were stumps. She didn’t understand what was wrong, she was frightened of them. Her father explained that sadly they suffered from leprosy. She was frightened of their disease, but what was even more frightening to her, even at the young age of seven, was their isolation. She understood that the figures huddled together in the shadows were separated from the rest of all the many, diverse people crowding the station that day. They were completely untouchable, mainly because people don’t understand that leprosy is not as highly contagious as once thought.
So it was for the lepers Jesus encountered as he traveled with his disciples through a region that served as border land between Samaria and Galilee. Once the Jews and Samaritans had been one people, but around the time of the return of the people from the Babylonian exile, those who had remained behind in Samaria had adopted different beliefs about what was holy and had built a temple on Mt. Tabor because the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The returning exiles did not consider them to be Jewish. By the time of Jesus the two groups were hostile to one another and avoided social contact, at times violence broke out between them. In our story Jesus and the disciples are wandering in this territory which separated the two, a no man’s land that could sometimes be dangerous, and they encounter ten lepers.
Lepers were forced to live on the margins of society, compelled to cry out “unclean, unclean” whenever people approached them. They were probably in varying stages of the disease, from having withered skin and numbed limbs, to being distorted like the lepers that Debie saw, missing all or parts of fingers, toes and feet. In their seclusion they band together for safety. And it turns out that there is solidarity in their ostracism from society – the lepers are apparently both Jews and Samaritans. All the customs and arguments that separate the two in normal society are broken down; leprosy serves as a common thread that draws them together.
It is clear that they have heard of the healing power that Jesus possesses and they call out to him “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus does not hesitate, he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. In those days that was the way to be declared cured of leprosy, to go and have the priests examine you and certify you as being clean. The lepers take Jesus at his word, and as they go to the priests, they are healed. Jesus has not just cured a disease; he has restored them to full participation in society. Instead of being outcast and untouchable, they are able to resume their former lives with their families and friends. The change in their lives will be dramatic, just as the descent into illness was, but this time instead of despair they will experience the joy of reclaiming all the social and spiritual ties the disease stole from them.
Yet one leper is different. When he realized that he had been healed, he turned back to Jesus, loudly praising God. He was able to see something that the other nine lepers somehow missed. He understood the miracle of the gift that Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, had given to him, a Samaritan. The gulf of enmity between two peoples had been bridged with the gift of healing and the response of thanks and praise.
So, too, in our first lesson a gulf is bridged, one between the people of Israel and their enemy from the kingdom of Aram; in present day Syria. Naaman was a powerful man, an advisor to the king and commander of the army, so important that the king will help him to seek out healing. He will have to be isolated because of his disease, but probably in some sort of guest house, he will not have to wander about begging and crying “unclean, unclean.” But in spite of his power and influence, it is a slave girl from Israel who offers him hope. She tells him there is a famous prophet in Samaria – this is before there was such great enmity between Israel and Samaria – who can cure him. So the king of Aram sends a letter to the king of Israel, who thinks it is some sort of trick. But when the prophet Elisha heard about it, he asks the king, “Why are you getting so upset? Just send the man to me so he can be healed.”
Naaman arrives with his horses and chariots, which must have caused quite a stir in the village where Elisha was living. He expected the prophet to come out and take personal charge of his healing, using some sort of elaborate ritual. But Elisha sends a messenger to tell him to go and wash seven times in the river Jordan. This is extremely insulting to Naaman, he is not used to being treated in what seems to him to be a dismissive way. He is ready to turn around and go home. Again, it is his servants who push him towards a cure. They basically say “what do you have to lose? If the prophet had made a big deal you would have welcomed it. Why not try the simple cure he has offered.” To give him credit, once again Naaman is not too proud to refuse the advice of servants, and he is healed. His response is much the same as that of the Samaritan leper centuries later, he is grateful and returns to thank Elisha, declaring that now he has faith that the God of Israel is the one true God.
Naaman has discovered that real power does not lie in royal courts, military prowess, political influence, or great wealth. Real power lies with the God whom Elisha serves. Naaman recognizes that truth and acknowledges this God as the only true God: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Throughout Scripture, the same God works in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, to bring life where hope has been lost. And in doing so, God turns worldly expectations and worldly systems upside down. God shows no partiality, but offers healing to those who are from different countries and ethnicities as well as those who are ostracized by society. That is the biblical witness about real power, which holds true throughout human history and is ultimately manifested in the healing power of Jesus.
In both stories God heals people suffering from a dreaded and isolating disease, in spite of the fact that both have enemy or outsider status. Naaman does not worship the God of Israel before his healing; the Samaritan leper has no idea of who Jesus truly is. Both are healed from afar without being touched. Both return to the source of their healing, and both are sent o their way with a command to “Go.” The command to get up and go comes with a promise; that their faith has made them well. Throughout human history, first through the prophets and then through Jesus, God empowers people to step across boundaries, share mercy with outsiders, pay attention to things worthy of praise and move forward into the future with the assurance that there is more to God’s story than meets the eye. Our response should be to emulate Naaman and the leper, recognizing that our hope is in God and giving thanks for God’s impartial and unconditional grace. Amen.