Today’s Scripture readings seem to be about healing—specifically, healing from leprosy. At least, that’s what most people focus on. And yet, the lessons that these stories teach—both the story of Naaman the Syrian and the Samaritan leper—have a relevance on a far more fundamental level. Both stories address the nature of faith and the role that faith plays in daily life.
The story of Naaman is one of my favorites. The king of Syria sent the top general of his army, Naaman, to the king of Israel to be cured from his leprosy. The Israelite king became angry because he thought the Syrian king was asking the impossible of him just to pick a fight. But the prophet Elisha stepped up and volunteered to handle the situation. When Naaman came to Elisha, the prophet told him to wash seven times in the Jordan river. This time, it was Naaman’s turn to become angry. He assumed that Elisha would ask some great task of him and, in turn would perform some sort of religious or magical ritual to cure him. He thought Elisha’s request was ridiculous. He had to be reminded that he would have done anything that Eisha had demanded, no matter how difficult, to be freed from his disease. So, why was he refusing to do something easy? Naaman did what he was asked to do, and the results are what we see in today’s first reading. Simple surrender to Elisha’s request produced prodigious results.
Now, on to today’s gospel reading. Some scripture scholars believe that this story—unique to Luke’s gospel—is not so much a miracle story, but a parable. It’s missing any reactions from the crowds or Jesus’s disciples that miracles often produced. Also, the story ends with a pithy statement meant to convey a message. Either way, it’s not the miracle, but the message that’s important. A group of lepers keeps their distance from Jesus but then call out to him for help. At that time, people identified as lepers couldn’t come near other people and, in fact, had to ring a bell and shout out, “Unclean!” whenever they were approached. They couldn’t live with their families, nor could they work for a living. They survived by scrounging for food and seeking handouts of alms. They called out to Jesus for pity. Were they asking for healing or a handout. We’ll never know.
Luke places this story somewhere along the boarder between Galilee and Samaria. Although Galileans were regarded as hicks, they were still considered to be Jews in good standing. The Samaritans, however, were the remnants of the people left behind when the Assyrians conquered and destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel. They were a combination of Israelite survivors and of the peoples from a variety of other conquered nations whom the Assyrians had settled there deliberately to intermarry and destroy their Hebrew bloodline. In addition, as heirs of the religion of the Kingdom of Israel, they rejected the worship of Yahweh in the temple in Jerusalem, capital city of the Kingdom of Judah. Samaria had its own sanctuaries, holy places, priests, and sacrificial rituals. For all these reasons, the Jews considered the Samaritans to be both foreigners and heretics. In Judah and Galilee, they were outcasts.
Yet, the curse of leprosy made outcasts of all its victims. For this reason, it’s not surprising that the group confronting Jesus should contain a mixture of both Jews and Samaritans. As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Leprosy certainly qualifies as “misery.” That brings us to the question, what was leprosy, and why send lepers to the priests? According to the Law of Moses, it fell to the priests to diagnose the disease or to declare a person cured. If you read Leviticus Chapter 13, you’ll see that the symptoms are spelled out in considerable detail. What you’ll also see is that the symptoms they describe are not specific to what we call “leprosy” (or Hansen’s disease) today. In Jesus’s time, there was no cure for genuine leprosy, yet people were often declared “cured” of it. Therefore, whatever natural cures happened at that time had to be from diseases other than true leprosy—like the “heartbreak of psoriasis.”
In fact, the point of the gospel story was not so much that Jesus had the power to cure. Rather, it was a story about the lepers’ faith and that God doesn’t discriminate in answering prayer. Neither Naaman the Syrian nor the Samaritan leper was a Jew in good standing. In fact, in an earlier passage in Luke’s gospel [4:27], Jesus explicitly states that “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed…” So, God’s mercy extends to all. However, there are some basic requirements.
First and foremost is faith. The lepers came to Elisha the prophet and to Jesus with the faith that God would work through them on their behalf. Their faith, and therefore their prayer, came out of desperation. Just like us, when all else fails, try God. You see, as long as people remain in denial, they never get to the point of desperation. The lepers in today’s readings had no such doubts. They accepted their situation. They found themselves out of options. They came to Elisha and they came to Jesus humbled and without illusion or pretense. There were no excuses and no bargaining. They came as they were and humbly begged for help. Acceptance of who we are and our need for help is the first step.
Not only that, they did what they were asked to do. Even though Naaman hemmed and hawed at first, he eventually came around and followed Elisha’s instructions. All of them, in the end, surrendered to the power that they understood to be greater than themselves. Asking for help from a power greater than themselves and surrendering to it is the second step. Both Naaman and the Samaritan leper reached this point and it led them to the care they needed and then to the third step, which is gratitude. When we live in acceptance and surrender to the God who has the power to save us, gratitude becomes our way of life.
Faith is so much more than merely believing that God exists. True faith begins with acceptance that we’re powerless without God’s help—his grace—and the humility to ask for it. Faith cries out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” Then faith surrenders to the will of the God who loves us, wholly confident in his loving care. That’s what faith looks like. And the barometer of that faith—that tells us it’s for real and not just lip service—is our gratitude…our eucharist.