Two of our readings concern leprosy, when what now is more technically called ‘Hansen’s disease’ was incurable. It was much feared because of the disfigurement and disability it brought and was also known to be contagious. Since they did not have accurate ways to diagnose it, much of what was called ‘leprosy’ could turn out to be other conditions. This background explains the extensive regulations we find in the Old Testament on dealing with all skin diseases. One effective way of reducing contagion was isolation of those affected – something that was still practiced into the 20th century.
2 Kings 5:14-17
This reading comes from the ‘Elisha Cycle’, a series of stories of the prophecies and miracles of the prophet who was chosen to succeed Elijah. Often a short reading like this one seems something of a ‘teaser’ for us to read the full account in order to appreciate all the implications. The story of Naaman is in 2 Kings 5:1-19. It’s a little gem with characters simply but effectively portrayed. The cast is two kings, a victorious general, a famous prophet, but the healing depends on two ‘ordinary’ servants, who were not even remembered by name.
Naaman was the commander of the army of the king of Aram, and ‘though a mighty warrior’, suffered from leprosy. A young Israelite slave girl in Naaman’s household had been taken prisoner by the Arameans. Knowing of her master’s problem, she told them of the prophet in her homeland who would be able to cure him. Naaman seeks him out but when the commander arrives at the home of Elisha, the prophet sends out word for him to wash seven times in the Jordan river. Naaman expected some dramatic ceremony and is angry and he goes off protesting there are better rivers in Damascus His servant intervenes and persuades him just to do this ‘simple thing’. Our reading takes up the story after the Jordan bathing was successful.
Naaman now cured is now convinced of the power of the Hebrew’s God, and returns to reward Elisha. Elisha refuses to take the offering, insisting that it was not his power but God who produced the miracle. That convinces Naaman to begin worshiping this power deity. Asking to take earth home with him is based on the beliefs of that time that all gods had their own territory and were to be worshipped there. Naaman believing in Elisha’s God and intending now to worship the Lord of Israel feels it will be necessary to have some soil from that country on which he can position himself to pray.
This psalm with joy over ‘wonders’ worked by God fits well with the healing stories, but also stresses the extent of God’s reign beyond the borders of Israel. Both Naaman the Aramean and the Samaritan in the Gospel are early examples that the power of God extends to all the world.
2 Timothy 2:8-13
We again hear from this Letter of an anonymous writer who uses the name and example of St Paul to bring his teachings into the writer’s own time. The ‘saying you can rely on’ seems to be a quotation that his readers would have recognized and its poetic style suggests that it may have been a hymn. After the first statement of the Good News, the author gives them guidance for their Christian life with emphasis on holding on to their faith in the midst of temptations or threats from the world around them. The statement that God’s faithfulness is part of His nature as the conclusion to the saying hints that even if someone has ‘disowned God’, there is the possibility of forgiveness. As in the time of the early church, there are now places in our world where clinging to Christianity can bring death but it may be that one could also ‘disown’ Jesus by failing to live as he taught.
We are reminded at the opening of this event, of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem which Luke uses as a way to gather various stories which he presents as happening along the way. Modern scholars with access to maps note the oddity of the geographic location in the Greek text. It may be an example of Luke’s vague ideas of Palestinian geography, but for him the point of the journey is theological and his concern is not the exact route Jesus took through the land.
The ten lepers who had been kept apart from the general populace have apparently gathered together for mutual support despite the historic animosity between Jews and Samaritans. There is no indication of how they in their isolation had learned of Jesus healing others, but, clearly, they know enough to be hopeful that he can do something miraculous for them. The healing is not immediately apparent. He gives them a simple command to follow. His instructions are based on the regulations detailed in Leviticus 14:2-9 for a priest to certify that their renewed healthy condition would allow them to re-join the community. They obey more readily than Naaman, and all ten are ‘cleansed’ – that word instead of ‘healed’ indicates the ‘ritual purity’ which they have recovered.
Since a special concern of Luke’s gospel is the spread of the Jesus’ message beyond the borders of Israel, noting that it is a Samaritan who comes back and bows before Jesus is a hint of that future. Jesus’ with some irony points out that those supposedly closer to the Law do not share its spirit.
Jesus’ questions when the one healed leper returns also stress everyone’s need to express gratitude for God’s blessings. In response to the grateful man, Jesus tells him his faith has ‘saved’ him. The Greek word used can mean both healing and salvation. Here while all ten were healed, only one took the next step and placed his faith in Jesus as Saviour. Jesus’ expresses his unhappiness that his healing action has for the nine not been acknowledged as a sign that he is bringing the Kingdom of God to all. In the words of the second reading, it is as if they ‘disowned’ him in his offering of love.
The alternative opening prayer with words of ‘pilgrimage’ remind us that we are on a ‘journey’ to God through life, following Jesus’ journey, as he and the Spirit lead us on.
Father in heaven, the hand of your loving kindness powerfully yet gently guides all the moments of our day. Go before us in our pilgrimage of life, anticipate our needs and prevent our falling. Send your Spirit to unite us in faith, that sharing in your service, we may rejoice in your presence.