Trinity 17 – Naaman & the ten other lepers

Trinity 17

Sunday 13 October 2019

2 Kings 5:1-3. 7-15c & Luke 17:11-19

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

I don’t want to embarrass anyone here this morning, but hands up if you have leprosy. 

That’s good.

Both of our readings this morning involve the curing of leprosy, one by Elisha and 10 by Jesus, and we are going to be looking at the very different attitudes and responses of those who were healed.  But I was interested to read that the curing and possible eradication of leprosy has been a modern, medical, good news story.  Although there are currently 173,000 with leprosy worldwide (about half of those in India) this is down from 5.2 million in the 1980s and the World Health Organisation believes that we are on the brink of having a leprosy-free world.  It is now curable and preventable and may soon disappear altogether.  And we should give thanks to all the scientists and doctors and aid workers who have spent their lives making that happen. 

But if life was different even in the 1980s for the millions who had leprosy then, imagine how different it was 2000 years ago at the time of Jesus, and 2500 years ago at the time of Naaman. 

To be a leper at that time and in that part of the world was a terrible fate.  Not only was it a disfiguring, disabling condition with no known cure but it was also believed to be highly contagious which means that those who suffered from it were exiled from society.  They weren’t put into nice quarantine units in hospital but they were kicked out to go and live in the wilderness, far from those they knew and the lives they had built.  That doesn’t mean that they always lived alone, as we have seen today that these outcasts may have formed together into little bands, which one of the writers calls ‘a small company of misery.’   

So, the lepers were doomed to live a painful life until they died, and they were also socially isolated from all their families and friends and from normal society.

But that is not all.

The Hebrew Scriptures are very keen on all forms of cleanliness, and there are lots of scriptures about the physical and ritual cleansing of people and objects, often prior to worship.

However, those who were not capable of being cleansed, ie those with incurable skin conditions, were considered to also be spiritually unclean and therefore far from God, and certainly unable to worship in the temple or synagogue.  So they were spiritually isolated from God and worship.

But that is not all.

If you think about Job, and his terrible sores, a very good proportion of the book of Job involves his so-called Comforters telling Job that he must somehow be to blame for his condition even though he, and the reader, knows that he is entirely blameless.

So, the lepers were not only socially and spiritually isolated, but they were also blamed for their own condition.  They must have some secret sin, it was commonly believed, which is manifesting itself as leprosy, and so they must deserve their isolation on every level.  ‘Don’t do that, you’ll go blind, or get leprosy.”

But that is not all.

In the gospel story Jesus is passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee and, therefore and perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the lepers that Jesus encountered was a Samaritan.  Jesus called him a foreigner but, in that part of the world, he was no more foreign, as we would understand that word, than Jesus himself.  The foreignness of the Samaritan was not about place but about culture.   

At our remove in time and place it is easy to underestimate the deep division between Jewish and Samaritan culture, and to lessen it’s importance.  But the gap was huge, Jew and Samaritan did not interact and that is why the story of the Good Samaritan was intended to be so shocking at the time.

As a Jewish man, and someone who regularly visited both synagogue and temple, Jesus operated in an entirely different social, religious and cultural sphere from this group of lepers.

To put this in modern terms, imagine this, for a moment: 

You are walking down The Strand in London, at about six o’clock on a Saturday evening, in winter.  It is dark and it is getting cold and you are thinking about getting the train back to Tonbridge and thence to your warm home and you are looking forward to church in the morning.  OK, that may be a stretch, but bear with me.

In the doorways of nearly every shop you pass is someone either begging, or sleeping or trying to sleep.  In some of the doorways there are two or three sitting together, sharing a bottle and talking.  You can hear that they are not speaking English.  They are foreigners, they are homeless, they may be unwell in various ways, if it is cold night some of them may not even wake up in the morning. 

You are Jesus and they are the lepers, that is the gap we are looking at.

The small company of misery that was the band of ten lepers had obviously heard that Jesus was due to pass their way, and he reputation for healing must also have proceeded him.  The lepers were ready to ask for his help and, for all the reasons we have considered, they must have been desperate for any help.  A miraculous healing was literally their only hope of returning to normal life. However, unlike the woman who was brave enough to get close to Jesus and touch the hem of his cloak, this group knew the rules and the limits.  We are told that they stood ‘at a distance’ and had to shout their request to him:

“Jesus master, have pity on us”

This is really the prayer of the humble and the desperate.  It echoes the prayer of the repentant tax collector, in the very next chapter of Luke.

God, be merciful to me a sinner:”

And both of which are the origin of the Jesus prayer from Eastern Orthodoxy.

Before looking at what Jesus did in response to their most humble of prayers it is worth thinking about what he did not do.  He did not call them closer, he did not pray over them, he did nothing elaborate at all.

This should put us in mind of the healing of Naaman in the Old Testament reading.  He was not an outcast from society at all, but was a great commander of an army.  However, when it was discovered that he had leprosy his wife’s servant, who was from Israel, said that he should go and see the prophet Elisha in, yes, Samaria.  When he got there Elisha told him to wash himself in the river Jordan seven times.  Of course the Jordan is also the river in which John baptised many years later to wash away people’s sins.  However Naaman was furious that healing ceremony was not more elaborate – he wanted hands to be waved around and God’s name to be called on and for something just a bit more impressive to happen.  But, eventually he did what he was told, he was cleansed of his condition and, importantly, he, a foreigner, went back back to express his thanks to Elisha.

So, Jesus did not offer any elaborate healing or Princess Diana-like hugging to the group of lepers.  He simply said “Go and show yourselves to the priests’ and, as they went, they were cleansed of their disease. 

One of them, the Samaritan, the so-called foreigner, when he noticed he was healed, turned back.  Language is always important in the bible.  In Greek to turn back or to turn around is called ‘metanoia’ and, again in the Orthodox Church, to perform a metanoia is to perform an act of repentance and prostration before God.  It is not just a physical turning around it is a change of one’s whole attitude before God.

And that is exactly what this Samaritan and former leper does.  Before his healing he was shouting loudly for mercy but now he is shouting loudly and praising God.  And then he does what he was not able to do before, he comes close to Jesus and prostrates himself at his feet, a full metanoia indeed, and he thanks Jesus for healing him. 

A wonderful image at which to pause for a moment.  An outcast amongst outcasts has been made whole and his response is to turn his life around, to praise God and to thank Jesus.  Hallelujah!

Then Jesus remarks on the fact that only one out of ten who were healed have returned to give thanks.

As I mentioned on Facebook it is interesting that even if you are Jesus 90% can still be ungrateful, so if we are ever tempted to think that ministry can be thankless then we know that Jesus went before us in that as in everything else. 

Where did the other nine go?  Being charitable they may have been doing what Jesus told them to do, which was to go and see the priests in order to certify being clean.  Or they may have wanted to rush straight home to celebrate their healing with the families they thought they would never see again.  Whilst this is eminently understandable on a human level perhaps we are being reminded of the cost of being a disciple. 

Whatever they were doing Jesus says to the one thankful and prostrate Samaritan:

“Rise and go, your faith has made you well.”

On the face of it this is a mysterious thing to say because, surely, all ten were made well.  However, I am told by Greek scholars, that the verb used for ‘well’ in this context can also mean ‘saved.’

It can therefore be suggested that whilst all ten were physically healed, because of their humble prayer and Jesus’ grace, that only the Samaritan was also made spiritually clean, was saved, because of his metanoia, his praise, his thanks and, to coin the phrase, his attitude of gratitude. 

None of us here have leprosy, as we established earlier. 

However, I am going to suggest, that each and every person here needs some kind of healing in their lives.  I ate a whole packet of Heroes whilst writing this sermon and I know I need healing from that.  None of us in our own power and strength is able to approach the goodness of God with our heads held high, but we ought to stand far off and recognise that the healing which Jesus offers is the only way we have to draw close to God.  And so we pray our prayers of confession and intercession not as simply as words tripping off the tongue but truly from the heart of those in need of help.  And when we have prayed we do not simply leave the building rejoicing in our new-found cleanliness but, rather, we draw ever closer to God, we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, the thanksgiving, and we give thanks that if he dwells in us and we dwell in him then we are saved and made well beyond any physical cleansing.

And to that I hope we can all say: