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OCTOBER 10, 2010: TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

II Kings 5:14-17
II Timothy 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19

Though today’s gospel leper-healing narrative is well-known, our II Kings leper-healing account could be more theologically significant.

Luke’s passage needs little explanation. Ten lepers ask Jesus for pity; all are healed, but only one returns to thank him and everyone remembers the thankful one is a hated Samaritan.

Scripture scholars disagree about this story’s origins. Some think the narrative began as an actual miracle story; others contend it has roots in a parable Jesus once told about gratitude, which, in the process of being orally transmitted, was transformed into a miracle story. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over which opinion is correct. The reason Luke included it in his gospel is clear: most of us are experts in petitioning God for favors, but we’re not very good at thanking God when the favors are granted.

Because Elisha’s cure of Naaman’s leprosy is more nuanced, there are several points we should explore.

Naaman’s not only a Gentile; he’s also a Syrian army commander, the leader of a military force which often threatens Israel’s security. The Israelite king hesitates even to permit him to enter the country, fearing the Syrians will interpret the prophet’s possible inability to heal their commander’s leprosy as an insult, a provocation to begin hostilities against his people.

Though, as we hear in today’s passage, Yahweh, Elisha’s God, is able to change the leper’s flesh into “the flesh of a little child,” Naaman almost dead-ends the healing process when he initially rejects the prophet’s command to bathe seven times in the Jordan. He’s expecting a much more dramatic prophetic gesture to bring about his cure. It’s degrading for a person of his stature to engage in such a “common” action, the actions in which Yahweh normally works in our lives.

We must also note Elisha’s refusal to accept even the smallest gift from Naaman. The reason is simple. Elisha doesn’t regard himself as being the person who healed Naaman. Yahweh’s the healer; the prophet’s just Yahweh’s agent. If Elisha accepts a “stipend” for doing this holy thing, he, not God, will be looked upon as the healer. (Reading on a little further, we find out what horrible thing happens to Gehazi, the prophet’s servant, who eventually tricks Naaman into giving him a gift.)

But perhaps the most interesting part of the passage is the Syrian’s request for “two mule-loads of earth” to take back to Damascus. This strange request makes perfect sense to the original readers. At this point in salvation history, Yahweh’s not yet looked upon as a universal god. Like all gods of the period, the God of Israel is territorial. Yahweh’s power extends only to Israel’s borders. If Naaman now wants “to offer holocausts and sacrifices” to Yahweh, he’ll have to do it on Israelite dirt. Yahweh has no obligation (or power) to respond to prayers uttered on any other soil.

We immediately realize how far our theology of God’s presence has evolved when we hear our II Timothy reading. The Pauline disciple responsible for this writing quotes from an early Christian hymn. “If we have died with him we shall rise with him . . . If we are faithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” We’re no longer concerned with the geographic places in which God is present; now we’re speaking about the people in whom God is present. The author’s “unchained word of God” constantly leads us down paths Naaman and Elisha know nothing about; to go beyond the faith borders we create for ourselves.

But on the other hand, Naaman and Elisha would be amazed to discover there are representatives of certain religions who actually accept stipends and “stole fees” today. Obviously they’ve never heard of Gehazi.