Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Healing? What Healing?

Some biblical scholars like to argue that Luke was written primarily for a Gentile audience. For sure, those experts know a lot more about the bible than I do. Luke's gospel account is not only the most Gentile-sympathetic but was also explicitly dedicated to "Theophilus," a Greek name meaning "Lover of God." If it is a Gentile book for Gentile readers, perhaps it should surprise us that Luke knows and shares more about the Hebrew scriptures than any other gospel writer. His intimate knowledge of Israel's story is reflected in the songs of Zechariah, Mary, Simeon. He demonstrates how the prophecies of Isaiah are fulfilled in Jesus' life and ministry more clearly than any other gospel writer. And, in Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 17:11-19), Luke again conveys an appreciation for the stories of Hebrew scripture that is unrivaled.

In the area between Samaria and Galilee, ten lepers approach Jesus. Notice that Luke tells us how they kept their distance. They called out to Jesus, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" That's a cry that could have come from across the road. Imagine the ten waving their arms to get his attention and begging from afar for his healing mercy. Jesus' reply made no attempt to bridge that distance: "Go show yourselves to the priests." He didn't approach them. He didn't ask their names. He didn't look into their eyes. He didn't touch them. He didn't wave his hand over the leprous spots and pray a special incantation. He just said go.

Luke wants us to discount the healing itself. There's no drama here. The act of the lepers being made clean is almost inconsequential in Luke's telling of the story: "And as they went, they were made clean." That's it. Why so little attention on the healing act? Because Jesus making the lepers clean isn't the focus of the story. Imagine how misguided a sermon on this passage would be if the thesis of the preacher's address was "Jesus has the power to heal lepers--even from a distance." We all know that's not the point of the story. The point Luke is making is that Jesus, as God's Son, is the source of salvation--the one to whom the truly faithful should return. And that sounds a whole lot like the story of Naaman the leprous Aramean general from Sunday's Track 2 lesson (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c).

Naaman and his company of horses and chariots and military might come to Elisha's house, halting (what a great word!) at his door. Rather than come out and see the mighty general himself, Elisha sends word by a messenger, "Tell Naaman to go dip himself in the Jordan River seven times." That's it. Naaman travelled all the way from Aram in a military parade to find healing from the prophet of a to-him foreign god, and the prophet wouldn't even lift a finger to help. Naaman grumbled, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy." But the true healing that Elisha and the Lord were offering wasn't simply the removal of a leprous spot. The focus of Naaman's story is his conversion. And Elisha knew that, in order for Naaman to make the connection between Israel's God and true healing, any magical trace to be stripped from the healing miracle. And it worked. Naaman returned to the prophet's house, proclaiming, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel."

What do a Samaritan leper and Naaman the Aramean general have in common? Upon discovering their healing, they return and praise God, identifying correctly the source of their salvation. The rest of 2 Kings 5 makes the connection even clearer. Naaman asked for two mule-loads of earth from Israel to be brought back with him to Aram so that he could worship (i.e. fall down and prostrate himself) the one true God even when back in his homeland. Luke draws us into that same tension. The one out of ten who returns and prostrates himself at Jesus feet shows us that Luke wants us to see Jesus as the source of real healing--true salvation. The Greek word for "be made well" or "be healed" is the same as for "be saved." When Jesus says to the leper, "Your faith has made you well," he's also saying, "Your faith has saved you." In other words, "All ten might have been cleansed (different word) from their leprosy, but your faith has become your salvation."

Still think Luke was written for a Gentile audience? That might be true, but Luke's message becomes clearer the more Jewish we think.

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