We in America don’t have a lot of experience with lepers and leprosy in our daily lives. Most of us only know what we’ve heard in Bible stories.
One memory of our Sunday School understanding of lepers and leprosy kept popping in my head while I was preparing this message. It’s a story told fondly by my first husband’s older brother Walter. He and his wife had five children in four years, three boys and twin girls. Every Sunday they piled into their nine-passenger van and went to Sunday School and church. As Walter told the story, one night on a long ride home from some event, the kids were tired but still playful. The youngest son, about six at the time, said, “lets close our eyes and pretend we’re blind.” And his brother replied, “No, lets pretend we’re lepers and go around saying, ‘unclean, unclean.’ “
It was a family joke for a while. When there was a lull in the party, or the home team was losing at the ballpark or we were stuck in a boring lecture — or sermon — one of us would turn to the other and say, “Lets pretend we’re lepers and go around saying, ‘unclean, unclean.’ “
We modern Americans may feel very removed from the concept of lepers, but the concept of some people being unclean — that is, unacceptable in society — is still with us. And it’s no joke.
The writers of the Old Testament — the scripture that Jesus and the gospel writers were familiar with — often used leprosy as a symbol of punishment from God. For instance, when Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses, she came down with leprosy, which was only healed after Aaron pleaded with Moses, who pleaded with God. And in the chapter in Second Kings after the passage we read today, when Elisha finds out one of his servants tried to get some of Naaman’s gold by pretending he spoke for the prophet, Elisha curses him and the servant gets … leprosy.
In many of today’s versions of the bible you’ll find footnotes that say that the biblical version of leprosy referred to a variety of skin diseases. Archeological pathologists say they have found no physical evidence in the Middle East during the time scripture was being written of the flesh-eating malady that today we call leprosy.
Why then, were lepers quarantined, forced out of their homes and away from their families, declared unfit for human society and especially barred from entering the temple for worship, just because their skin was itchy and flaky? John Pilch, one of my favorite bible commentators, explains. It has to do with what he calls boundaries, which I might further define as borders or divisions. Our skin is our boundary between us and everything else, just as a nation’s border is its boundary between itself and other nations, whether they are friendly or hostile.
The purity laws of Leviticus were an attempt to describe and maintain safe and secure boundaries, Pilch observes. He says, “A society concerned with maintaining safe and secure body boundaries is also concerned with safe and secure societal or geographical boundaries. Rules governing the physical body replicate rules governing the social or geographical body.”
As I understand Pilch’s explanation, the social body, would include not only rules about who was fit to be in the company of others, but who was fit to be married to whom. The geographic body, of course, includes boundaries of where people live.
And Pilch says the reason for all these laws is “to ensure that Israel would remain “holy as the Lord is holy,” a recurring theme in Leviticus.”
Throughout scripture and throughout history and today, many people try to please God by being “good” or “pure.” “Goodness” can take many forms, including loving your neighbor or loving the stranger. But “purity” very often is concerned with setting up and obeying boundaries, especially boundaries that establish an In crowd and cast out anyone who doesn’t fit.
I think the purity approach is based on fear — fear of a vengeful and jealous God as well as fear of anyone unlike ourselves. This is a destructive fear.
It explains, to me, why some religious leaders and politicians today are so bent on controlling other people’s bodies, especially women’s, and other people’s relationships, especially marriage. They see it as a struggle for their own souls as well as for their nation.
And it is a struggle, only not in the way they expect. They’re like Naaman, expecting the prophet to say some holy words and wave his hand, make it all better and accept some gold for his troubles.
But God doesn’t want adherence to purity rules set up by people, even if they think they mean well. God wants obedience and trust.
These purity issues all come together in our two stories. If you’ve ever heard a sermon on the Good Samaritan — and I know you have — you know that the people of Judea hated the Samaritans and vice versa. That all began during the Babylonian exile, when the leaders and property owners of Hebrew society were dragged off to Babylon as captives and the shepherds and farmers and day laborers were left behind to work for the Babylonians. The folks left behind intermarried with non-Hebrews. They crossed the purity boundaries and married outside their group. They became known as … Samaritans.
So we have lepers who are outcasts because their skin boundaries are literally flaking and disintegrating. And we have outcasts who are Samaritans, descendants of folks who violated marriage boundaries. And we have outcasts who are foreigners, like Naaman.
Naaman was also an enemy general who had attacked Israel — crossing another boundary — and who had taken captives, including a young girl who was made a slave who served Naaman’s wife.
But Naaman also had a claim as part of the In Crowd. According to the world’s understanding at that time, Naaman and the two kings of Aram and Israel are the powerful ones, the In Crowd. But Naaman’s servants, both the captive slave girl and the servant who went with Naaman to Israel, know more about how to solve Naaman’s problem. They both know the power is God’s, through Elisha. I have to wonder why the slave girl bothered to tell Naaman about the prophet. What was in it for her? I’m guessing she was well treated, or maybe Naaman would be so grateful he would set her free. Or maybe she gets her reward elsewhere.
The slave girl and Elisha belong to the same In Crowd — followers of the one true God. They trust God and believe in God’s power. And they turn out to be right.
When he’s cured and the powerful prophet who cured him will take no payment, Naaman gets an inkling that he’s not so powerful after all. Elisha says, “don’t thank me. God cured you.” Elisha would not take credit, and God is not for sale. God is in charge.
Finally Naaman gets it. Acting like a man of his time, he asks for a little bit of the land of Israel to take back home with him, where he can worship the God of Israel, while standing on a bit of Israel’s ground. I guess it was his way of fuzzing the boundaries a little.
The point of the story of Naaman’s healing seems to be that God’s power can be understood even by a lowly slave girl and that even a successful general, seeking God’s mercy, must obey commands rather than give them. Naaman is grateful for this insight and vows to worship the God of Elisha for the rest of his life. I’m tempted to say he lived happily ever after. That glib, fairy tale ending fits, because such a hard-won knowledge of God could bring anyone contentment and happiness if he paid attention, whether he was a successful general … or a captive slave girl.
Jesus knew this story about Naaman and Elisha, and he mentions it in the only sermon he preached in his home town — insulting his fellow Nazarenes so much that they tried to throw him over a cliff. What was the insult? He reminded them that the only leper that Elisha ever healed was a foreigner, an outsider.
In this case, Jesus reminds his listeners that God is selective in who gets healed, and it’s not always who you might expect. God is in charge, and God decides who is in the In Group and who is not.
Now to the passage we read today about the ten lepers. More boundaries. Notice that Jesus and his disciples are walking “in the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Notice that the lepers are outside the towns, banished from both Galilean society and Samaritan society, and that one of the 10 is a hated Samaritan. Evidently their afflictions, both the leprosy and being cast out, bonded them together and trumped the division between them.
By calling out to Jesus, they show that they’ve heard of him and they hope he would heal them. Like Elisha, Jesus stands well away from the lepers and issues instructions across a distance.
Jesus does not say, OK, you’re healed. He also does not tell the lepers that to be healed they should do something, like jump in the Jordan. He says, merely, “go show yourselves to the priests.”
The only reason the lepers would show themselves to the priests is to show the maintainers of the purity laws that they no longer had leprosy and could be returned to the community. So by turning in that direction, all 10 lepers are demonstrating their trust that they would be healed. And then they are.
Only the Samaritan turns back to thank Jesus. Maybe that’s because the other nine could thank God in worship. They’re back in the In group and can go to the temple. But the Samaritan is still an outcast, a hated “foreigner,” descendant of violators of the purity laws against intermarriage.
So he goes back and thanks God through Jesus, while the others go to thank God through the priests.
Jesus manages to insult the priests as well as other supporters of the purity laws with his response to the Samaritan: “But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
One of the commentaries I read suggested that Jesus laughed when he said this. Read it as a jibe, a somewhat snarky comment directed at the priests and the pharisees who are so hung up on purity laws. I imagine Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” saying this line: “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
One of Jesus’s missions in his life was to tell the purifiers they were mistaken. It was good news for them as well as the outcasts, if they were able to understand it.
“Your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells the Samaritan. When Jesus uses the word faith, he’s not talking about belief; he’s talking about trust. As Naaman reluctantly trusted Elisha and did as he was told, the Samaritan trusted Jesus to treat him as a person, not an outcast.
This story is so consistent with the whole gospel. Jesus says, in nearly every parable and every healing encounter, that God does not recognize the purity divisions that human beings establish, even if they were set up to please God. Jesus heals on the sabbath. He heals blind and lame beggars. He heals a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years and he touches and heals a 12-year-old girl who was presumed dead. He heals the daughter of an annoying gentile woman who violates all kinds of boundaries to get his attention. He heals a paralytic man whose friends violate the boundaries of a person’s home by lowering the man from the roof into the room where Jesus is staying. He heals lepers. He heals Samaritans.
And to all these people, Jesus says, “Your faith — that is, your trust in God — has made you well.”
If we trust God we will not try to “purify” ourselves or others with rules that set up divisions between us. We will not try to create an In crowd of people we think God loves by drawing boundaries that make others outcasts.
If we trust God we will not accept those divisions set up by the purifiers among us. We will draw the circle wide, trusting that God accepts us all — lepers and healthy people, generals and slave girls, gay and straight, married in the faith and married out of the faith, married to a person of the opposite sex or married to a person of the same sex, born in the Middle East or born in St. Louis. God loves even the purifiers. I’ll bet God even loves Republicans.
These divisions between people are created by people. They are not God’s. If we trust God, we will listen to what Jesus says. And Jesus says, love one another as I have loved you.
Praise God. Amen.