The two Scripture passages for this sermon:
2 Kings 5:1–3, 7–15c
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy."
….When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me." But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel."
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean."
But Naaman became angry and went away, 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! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage.
But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "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?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
In both of these Old Testament and Gospel readings people are healed from leprosy. In both occasions the healing is, let’s be honest, rather strange. In the Old Testament, Namaan, the army commander from Aram, is asked to go wash himself in the Jordan River seven times. He’s not terribly happy about this – he could wash in his own river at home! - but he goes anyway ONLY because his servants reason with him (“how hard could this be, Namaan, give it a try!”) So he gives it a try, and lo and behold, Namaan is cleansed from his skin disease!
In the Gospel story, Jesus tells ten lepers to go show themselves to the priests to be clean. Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and they are in this odd region, being between Galilee and Samaria – not really totally in either land, but in the middle. A group of ten people who have a skin disease, called leprosy in the Bible, are hanging out together (there’s nothing quite like an affliction to create community). As a group they call out respectfully to Jesus, calling him “Master”, and asking Jesus to have mercy on them. That’s all they ask, “have mercy”.
The text doesn’t say that Jesus even approaches them. Instead, he tells them to go show themselves to the priests. That’s it, just “go show themselves to the priests,” but he doesn’t say why or what will happen.
That’s about as odd as asking Namaan to go dip in the river. It’s odd because, as far as we know, the only purpose that lepers would have had to go show themselves to the priest is to be reinstated to their community when they are literally clean, free of disease – which they decidedly were NOT when they started on their journey to see the priests. Going to the priests would have meant that they were no longer unclean, but healthy, and ready to be back in their “normal” lives as “clean” followers of their God. And they weren’t that when they started their walk.
So all ten of these lepers had to have faith to begin with to even make the journey to see the priests – maybe not the faith to know that they were going to be cleansed as they walked, but faith enough to go and at least do what Jesus says to see what would happen. Kind of like Namaan dipping in the river.
It’s the one guy, the individual who steps away from the pack, who gets particular notice. At some point before they get to the priests, this one guy returns to Jesus and receives the very special words, “your faith has made you well.” Not just clean, but “well.”
Washing in a river seven times, going before priests when you’re unclean – these are not “normal” healing techniques. And what’s more, these aren’t “normal” people for the Israelites to see healed. Namaan was from Aram, the leader of the army of a conquering nation. He received mercy from Israel’s prophet Elisha, when Elisha told Namaan to go wash in the Jordan. Namaan, after his healing, pledges allegiance to the God of Israel. He radically changes his religious devotion – a pretty big deal for a guy in his position.
Luke refers to this story of Namaan. Luke tells us in chapter 4 that at the time of Elisha the prophet there were lots of lepers in Israel, but only Namaan was healed. Isn’t that interesting? The only one healed during this amazing prophet’s time, in all of Israel, we’re told, is not an Israelite at all, and in fact is the army commander of an opposing people group.
Those words of Luke, and the actual story of Namaan that we find in 2 Kings, are a backdrop to the story of Jesus’ encounter with the ten lepers.
A lot of folks assume that the other nine lepers, the ones who didn’t turn around to thank Jesus, were Israelite. But we don’t actually know that. This region was in between Samaria and Galilee, so the group could’ve been much more diverse than we imagine. Regardless, at least one of them was a Samaritan.
Just like with Namaan, our attention is brought to the fact that this guy, the one who turns back, is not an Israelite. He’s a Samaritan. He is not one of the chosen ones, one of the people who is to bring light to the nations. He’s an outsider, a “foreigner”, as Jesus calls him. But he’s healed, and he “gets” the magnitude of that.
Samaria is an interesting place. We know there is animosity between these two people groups in the Bible. At times in the 1st century they were physically attacking one another. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is such a shock because the Samaritan is the only one in the story who has kindness on an Israelite!
The last time Samaria was mentioned in Luke, Jesus and his disciples had been refused hospitality by a Samaritan town. As a result of this rejection, the disciples wanted to command fire to rain down on them and destroy the whole town in revenge (Lk 9:52-53). Not exactly good blood there. So what was it between the Samaritans and the Israelites? What was this rift all about?
Religion. The rift was about religion, not surprisingly. The Samaritans claim that their faith is essentially the true faith of Moses. They’re not some pagan sect, they worship the same God. Moses is their only prophet, and they only have the five books of the Old Testament as their Scripture. To them, it’s the Israelites who have distorted the true faith.
So they feel they’ve actually held on to the true faith. They are trying to be faithful to the law of Moses. It’s the same scaffolding of faith as the Galileans, the Israelites. A big difference, though, is the “true” center of worship. For the Israelites true worship only happens in Jerusalem at the temple. For the Samaritans true worship happens at Mount Gerizim.
The Israelites believe that Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac on Mt Moriah, which is the temple mount in Jerusalem, and the Samaritans believe that the near-sacrifice happened on Mt Gerizim, which is their temple mount. If a Samaritan converted to Judaism they had to specifically renounce their belief that worship belonged at Mt Gerazim. It’s a big deal in their differences; the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 even refers to it.
So, as Dennis Hamm writes, this puts the Samaritan leper in our story in a bit of a bind. To go show themselves to the priests meant that these lepers had to go to their respective temples. There weren’t churches on every corner like there can be with Christianity. Priests were found at one spot: the temple. In this case, priests were in two spots: either in Jerusalem for the Israelites, or at Gerizim for the Samaritans. Regardless, it’s a LONG walk that would take a LONG time.
And what do you do as a Samaritan? Do you go to Jesus’ temple, which would be in Jerusalem, which your people say would be heretical, or do you go to your own temple? And where are your compatriots going?
So what does he do?
He turns around and goes to the unquestionable source of his healing – to where he has seen the work of God.
The question of what temple to go to is moot in the presence of Jesus, because clearly God resides here – with him! – and that is where he goes. He goes to Jesus. And he throws himself at Jesus’ feet to say thank you. And Jesus says “your faith has made you well.” Not just clean, but “well.” Not only clean, but “well”.
Do we blame the other ten for not turning back? No. They’re following directions, they’re obeying what Jesus told them to do. It’s just that this one guy turns around. He recognizes where he wanted to place his worship. This “foreigner.”
This word that Jesus uses of this Samaritan, “foreigner,” is only found here in the New Testament, it’s found in no other place in the New Testament. Where it IS found in Israel at the time of this story is in the dividing line in the Jewish temple.
The word is “allogenes”, and it’s written in stone in the temple in Jerusalem, marking the line between Gentile and Israelite. The “court of the Gentiles” was as close to the temple as the Gentiles could get, and that word “allogenes” denoted where they belonged. If they ventured into the Jewish-only area of the temple, closer to the inner sanctum of God, they could be put to death.
This barrier didn’t exist with Jesus. This foreigner recognizes who Jesus was and Jesus didn’t push him away, Jesus didn’t say, “foreigners can’t come to me,” instead he pronounced an even deeper cleansing: his faith had made him well. He and the other nine might have been cleansed from their diseases, but this guy, this one foreigner, recognized where the cleansing came from, and in so doing found a deeper healing, a more holistic healing, than the other nine.
“Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well,” Jesus says. Notice that he DOESN’T say, “Get up and go to Jerusalem to worship, because then you prove that your faith is on the right track and you are truly well.” Presumably Jesus doesn’t ask this man to stop being a Samaritan, to convert to the “right” belief of the Israelites. Even though the Jews and the Samaritans war about where they should worship this is not an issue for Jesus.
The Samaritan turned around to find his Savior. What temple did he need to go to? What does it matter when he had Jesus to go to?
This story of the ten lepers is about way more than giving thanks. But digging into it, we find that thanks is the only posture to take.
We find that we have a God who does not take stock in human divisions.
We find a God who lifts up the broken, whoever they may be.
We find a God who fully reinstates the so-called unclean, and draws them close, to Godself.
We find a God who honors faith, as little and as uninformed as that faith may be.
We find a God who draws us to Godself.
We, who most likely would be the “allogenes”, the foreigners who are kept out of the temple, we – you and me – are brought near to God simply because that is the heart of God.
To bring humankind close, to show Godself in suffering, to restore the broken and the brokenhearted, to make us “well.”
Where is God found? Where is worship found? In this man Jesus.
With the little, ill-formed, or odd faith that we may have.
POSTSCRIPT: So, I wonder: what if the Church, if the followers of Jesus had grabbed onto this posture of Jesus of not correcting people's belief, and instead affirmed inclinations to give thanks to Jesus? Would the world be a different place? I think it would. I think the entire face of the planet would be different. Colonialism would be gone, the majority of denominationalism would be gone, holy wars involving Christians would've been greatly decreased.
The leprous Samaritan had a belief system, and it didn't line up with Jesus,' but this didn't fuss Jesus. He doesn't even mention it. Could we live with the messiness of a faith group that didn't have to have perfectly aligned beliefs? I'd love to try, and I'd love to see it spark a revolution.