Monday, October 3, 2016

Leprosy: A Social Disease

Even if your congregation doesn't read the Track 2 lesson from 2 Kings 5 in Sunday worship, it's worth reading it before considering the healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17. We all know that leprosy was a cause for exclusion. Among the stories that I learned as a child, the vivid description that my Sunday school teacher used to explain how lepers would walk down the other side of the street all by themselves crying out, "Unclean! Unclean!" remains particularly haunting. But the intersection of the stories of Naaman the Aramean general and the one Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks gives me a new way of thinking about the exclusionary nature of leprosy and the true healing that Jesus offers.

Naaman was a powerful man--a general of unparalleled accomplishments. Even though he was from a foreign kingdom, the Israelite historian recalls for us that his master, the King of Aram, gave Naaman a tremendous amount of wealth to take with him in order to buy his healing. Those details are omitted in the lectionary reading but are worth noting (see 2 Kings 5). That his master cared so much for Naaman's wellbeing gives the reader a clear sense that the only thing keeping Naaman from being a true hero was his leprosy. "If only I didn't have this terrible disease..." we can imagine Naaman thinking to himself. It was the burden that no impressive military or political conquest could shake.

The healing itself (particularly Naaman's stubbornness) is entertaining, but the deep and true conversion at the end of the story seems to be the real point. "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel," the foreign general declares. That's the perfect Israelite statement of faith. Again, the lectionary omits it, but the convicted, converted general's request is that he could take "two mule-loads of earth" with him so that, when he is back in Aram, he can stay connected with the one true God and worship only him. He begs forgiveness from the prophet for going into the temple of his master's god Rimmon, admitting that, although he will be compelled to go through the motions of worship in that place, his heart belongs only to the God of Israel. Pretty amazing, huh?

Other than the leprosy connection, what does that have to do with the healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17? Everything. While walking between Galilee and Samaria, Jesus was approached by ten lepers. He orders all of them to go and show themselves to the priests so that they could be verified as cured and clean and reenter society. As they walked, they were healed, and one of the ten turned around and came to Jesus, threw himself down at his feet, and thanked him. Jesus remarked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" And then Jesus said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." I'll write about the connection between "made you well" and "saved you" later, but, for now, note that some sort of secondary healing was offered to the Samaritan.

We don't know what happened to the other nine, but we can assume that they were verified as clean and were allowed to resume normal life as a part of their community. But, other than to note their thanklessness, Luke isn't focused on them. He wants us to see that a Samaritan (of all people) comes back to Jesus and identifies the true source of his healing. And Jesus offers him true and lasting inclusion. The leper isn't just healed from his disease; he's brought into the fold of God's people through Jesus Christ.

For me, that changes the nature of the healing itself. There are three levels of exclusion and healing that are offered in this text. First, all ten lepers were excluded from society because of their illness, and all ten presumably were readmitted because of their healing. The Samaritan was doubly excluded because of his ancestry, and the welcome Jesus offered him grants him an admission that he otherwise could not have received--leper or not. But the third sense of inclusion is the most powerful. The Samaritan leper, because he has received both forms of acceptance, is able to discover a third and is converted to the way of Jesus. Returning to Jesus, falling down at his feet, and thanking him means the Samaritan leper has identified Jesus as the one who is the true source of his healing and wholeness. He rises from that spot triply healed: from leprosy, from the Samaritan exclusion, and from not knowing what God is doing in the world through the Incarnate Word.

This is a conversion moment, and Naaman helps us see it. The mission of Jesus isn't simply to heal the lepers but to bring the true outcast into God's fold. If one of the non-Samaritan lepers had returned, that would have been nice, but it wouldn't have been the fullest expression of Jesus' work. It is too small a thing for God to reach out to those who already know him. This story is about really radical inclusion. Thankfulness, yes, but gratitude for unparalleled welcome.

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