October 13 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 8-15c; 2 Timothy 2:8-17a*; Luke 17:11-19
[*The Lectionary has 2:8-15, but I beg to differ; verse 17a is too important to leave out.]
Theme: A good range to choose from this week: our first lesson this morning on its own might suggest something about healing (physical, social and spiritual); humility; pre-conceived ideas; and thankfulness. Our epistle might add to the list something about the basics as in "Back to Basics", and the importance of good work habits in the service of God. And the gospel will chime in with "The Ins and Outs of Community". I'm going for something really clever: how about "Healing is Supposed to be Contagious".
Introduction. In the nicest possible way, I'm tempted to suggest that we don't really need an epistle reading or a gospel passage this morning; this wonderful story in our first lesson is enough to feast on for weeks, let alone a (reasonably) short sermon. It's all there in a story so brilliantly told that the author must surely be a direct ancestor of St Luke. In short, healing involves so much more than physical well-being. The epistle also contains a bit of a picture, which, on inspection, looks remarkably contemporary. It seems that already Christians are "wrangling over words" and even indulging "in profane chatter", and all this before synods had been invented. And in the gospel passage we have a community of people brought together by illness and about to be torn apart by healing. What are we to make of that?
Background. Over the last few weeks we have had a number of stories that have been variations on the theme of separation and exclusion, and what can and cannot be done to break down the walls (and gates) that divide. And we have been reminded that, while external walls and gates may be solid enough, they are usually only symptoms of our inner desires to shut out and exclude those we want nothing to do with. Or, as the Bible maddeningly refers to them, our neighbours.
In fact, the first story featured a son who decided to exclude himself from the family home, thereby excluding his father and the other members of the family from any further consideration – we might say, he chose to shut them out of his heart. Happily, he came to his senses in time. Then we had the Unjust Steward a.k.a. the Dishonest Manager whose lack of interest in earning interest for his master lead to the termination of his contract of employment, and the exclusion from his master's business. Finally, we had the frightening story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where the rich man's choice to exclude Lazarus from his heart led to a permanent breach between them of eternal significance.
Today we have further variations on that same theme. Take the gospel story first. Ten lepers have seemingly formed a small community of their own. Excluded by their leprosy from mainstream society, it is precisely their disease that has overcome their social and ethnic divisions. We might, perhaps, overlook that aspect of Jesus' astonishment that the one man who came back to thank him was a Samaritan, a foreigner; but equally astonishing is the fact that (we assume) the others (or, at least some of them) were not – they were Jews, who normally would have no social relationships with Samaritans. Would all ten, healed of their terrible affliction, remain friends after their healing?
The patterns of inclusion and exclusion are far more complex in our first lesson. Let's start with verse 1. We are first introduced to this great military commander; and we immediately form a picture of him in our minds, don't we? We can just see him painted in oils in all his military glory – black leather boots almost up to his knees, tight-fitting crimson jacket with an absurd number of highly polished gold buttons, with rows of medals hanging from their striped ribbons on his chest, those weird things that look rather like clothes' brushes on his shoulders, stripes of rank on his sleeves, and of course, an extraordinary hat of some extravagant design that only the military mind thinks is more likely to impress than to convulse with laughter. So here he is, this great man, this man in high favour with his king; surely Naaman has arrived; Naaman is the ultimate insider?
Well, yes and no. It depends on which society or country we're talking about. For he is not one of us (remembering that this is a Hebrew story) – he is the commander of a foreign army, the army of Israel's neighbour Aram, better known to us as Syria; and this is where the story takes a weird turn (even before we have finished with verse 1). For this great military icon is in high favour with his king because of his great success on the battlefield, a success, we are told, due to the divine intervention of the Lord, the Lord God of Israel, that is. Which side is God on, one might start to wonder, if one forgot that there are no national, ethnic or other borders or boundaries in the heart of God. God is not on any side because God does not believe there are any sides: to him there are only people.
One of whom, Naaman the great commander has leprosy. Notice how well the author allows us to share in the shock Naaman must have felt when he first became aware of his condition. More shocks and surprises are immediately set before us. Continuing the theme of God's refusal to recognise borders and boundaries, a healing process is set in motion that starts with a slave girl who was captured in Israel by a raiding party from – yes, Aram. Far from smouldering with anger and racial hatred towards her captors – far from secretly savouring the thought that her enemies' Big Chief has got the Big L – she it is who discretely points him in the right direction – where his healing will be effected by a Hebrew prophet with a slightly unorthodox approach to the medical arts.
But before that he has to clamber over a number of hurdles of his own making. He might have leprosy but he also has his pride. He is blowed if he is going to be treated in such an off-hand manner by this supposed holy man with the healing hands; and he is certainly not going to make a complete spectacle of himself doing a wet yo-yo impersonation in some skungy river in Israel in front of his own entourage. He would rather barricade himself within a wall of his own hubris than submit to that. This time it is his own servants who break down that barrier and make his healing possible.
Then comes an almighty crash as the largest barrier of all gives way. His paganism, his belief only in the gods of his own people, falls down and he sees the glorious truth that has been hidden from him until now: he "sees" there is only one God, the God of all peoples. And he does what he thinks is the right thing to do. He offers the gifts he has brought with him to Elisha. Even though they are refused, what started life as a bribe has become a thank-offering. Good things spread – goodness can be contagious. Sadly, so can wickedness; if we went further with the story we would find Gehazi, Elisha's servant, infected by greed and leprosy, in that order.
Kings. There is so much more in this wonderful story, which is really a parable about power and powerlessness. In addition to the use of servants (slaves) as the sources of helpful advice to this powerful military commander, we also have the wonderful spectacle outside Elisha's home. Naaman arrives with his horses and chariots, only to be met by Elisha's servant with a message from the prophet (verses 9 and 10). And notice that when this great man is healed of his leprosy he has the skin "o f young boy", hardly the image a military tough-guy would crave, perhaps.
Taking It Personally.
· Notice how many prejudices and preconceptions Naaman had to abandon in order to receive healing – relating to rank, class, ethnic or national identity, as well as his understanding of how a healer should exercise the gift of healing, and what is and what is not reasonable. Which of those would you own, and which would you disown?
· Do you have any sympathy for Naaman? Why?
· Is it any more credible to believe in healing by the laying on of hands or anointing with oil than by dipping seven times in a muddy river? How would you explain the difference to a sceptical friend?
· Ponder what changes in the relationship between Israel and Syria might have ensued from Naaman's healing? Perhaps Naaman would counsel against any further wars against Israel. Is healing intended to be contagious?
Timothy. Our first verse today gives us a new take on the idea that, vast Christian bookshops and libraries to the contrary, our faith is really pretty simple. We remember Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead and was a descendant of David. That's basically it. All the rest is interpretation and elaboration! Perhaps that's taking simplification too far; but "wrangling over words" is of no use to anyone and "ruins those who are listening". We must stick to the truth – the gospel truth, to coin a phrase. And look at the image he gives for the damage caused by wrongful language – it "will spread like gangrene", he warns. (That's why we need to keep this bit in the reading.) Leprosy, like barriers and gates can take many forms. Gossip, malicious talk, etc is contagious – it spreads by contact from person to person, from mouth to ear.
Taking It Personally.
· Read verse 8 again. Apart from his resurrection, and his descent from David, are there any other essential matters that you would put in a one-sentence long statement of your faith in Jesus?
· Are you tempted to wrangle over words (of Scripture)? "Well it all depends on what you mean by "heaven"/"hell"/"judgment"/"punishment"...
· Do you consider yourself a "worker for God"? In the context of the campaign for a "living wage", how might we apply that term to Christians working for God? (No, don't think stipend – think eternal life.)
Luke. I suspect this story is a little more complicated than it looks. After all, Jesus tells all ten to "go and show yourselves to the priests". All of them do so, but on the way all ten are "made clean". Notice the use of this phrase in verse 14. Usually this means "ritualistically clean". But the one who immediately turned back to Jesus could not be ritually clean, no matter the state of his skin (leprous or not) because he was a Samaritan. Notice that he found that he was "healed" (rather than "made clean") – verse 15. Notice, too, that he returned "praising God", rather than praising Jesus, the man with the gift of healing. At the end of the story, "the community of ten lepers" has become separated into nine healed Jews and one healed Samaritan. And Jesus is with the latter. Shades of Rich Man and Lazarus stuff here, surely. And yet, the uncomfortable fact remains that the nine who carried on the journey, presumably all the way to the priests, were doing Jesus' bidding. Perhaps there's something here about the New Covenant in Jesus and the Old represented by the priests. Did only this Samaritan have the spiritual insight to see in Jesus the new thing that God was doing in the world?
Taking It Personally.
· Read through the passage slowly, monitoring your feelings as you go. A good passage for lectio divina.
· Notice Luke's attention to geographic detail in verse 11. This is border country – life on the edge. What does this image give to this story?
· In verse 12 all ten "keep their distance" from Jesus. At the end one of them is close to Jesus and the other nine are going away from him to the priests. Does that get us anywhere?
· Do you need healing in any part of your life? Pray to Jesus for the healing you need.
· A good day to pray for all those still suffering from leprosy today, for those who work with them, for ongoing research into the treatment and causes of leprosy, and for the work of the Leprosy Mission.
· What are you "spreading" among your contacts? Is your faith catching?