The Adventurous Lectionary – October 9, 2002– The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Healing was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and is the calling of Jesus’ followers. Jesus healed persons, body, mind, spirit, and relationships. His healings transformed cells, souls, and social location. Illness separates and changes our social and religious position: we are seen as outsiders and, in the case of Jesus’ time, ostracized and suspected of having a role in our illness or being a source of ritual uncleanliness. With its focus on two healing stories, this Sunday’s readings could be described by the phrase “the healing you need is right in front of you.”
While the passage from Jeremiah expresses hope in God’s presence in a time of crisis, I have chosen to focus on the healing of Naaman as more relevant to the needs of congregants. In an interdependent universe, revealing an omnipresent God, God’s healing presence abounds. The aim at healing, like the moral arc of history, is global, and present in varying degrees in every person and situation. God’s healing may be intense at times, but even intense healings, categorized as miracles, are grounded in the relational nature of life, and reflect a deeper naturalism rather than law-breaking supernaturalism. In a world that focuses on complex solutions in which often the side-effects outweigh the benefits, these scriptures suggest that
God’s pathway to healing is simple. What we need to be healthy and whole is right here. We are, as Gandhi says, the change we have been looking for. Although the causes – and cures – of disease and injustice may be multi-factorial or many-faceted, the first steps to transformation may be simple in nature. They involve seeking a healing companion and listening to their counsel.
Sickness and death are the great equalizers, touching rich and poor, and powerful and powerless alike. Naaman is a great leader, but alas he suffers from a painful and disfiguring skin disease. While leprosy is not life-threatening, it threatens his quality of life and seems to be incurable, like many of the chronic illnesses people face today. When Naaman comes to the prophet, Elisha chooses not to bow down to his power or wealth. He knows no sovereign but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He does something more important; he sends a messenger to the warrior outlining a simple cure.
Naaman is initially enraged by the prophet’s lack of respect for his position and the utter simplicity of the antidote. A man of his stature expects a fancy cure; perhaps a visit to an opulent spa or a complex nostrum, and all he gets is the counsel to dip seven times in the muddy old Jordan! He is ready to walk away, until a servant speaks up, “If he had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? Why don’t you try something simple – wash and be clean?” And so, he does, and he is cured immediately.
Healing comes in many forms, spiritual and medical, simple and complicated. Sometimes the solution – or at least the first steps to a solution – is right in front of us and easy to obtain. God wants us to have abundant life, but our own lifestyles and values get in the way. Healthy family life requires parental-spousal presence more than yearly trips to the Bahamas or Disney World. A good marriage involves faithful support and communication more than fancy dinners, getaways, and expensive jewelry. Good health involves an ongoing commitment to prayer, exercise, diet, rest, relationships, and healthy environments not joining an expensive health club. A healthy body politic involves a commit to voter accessibility, generosity, respect, listening, looking for common ground, and willingness to compromise for the sake of the whole. These and other responses aren’t esoteric. The healing we need – the health we need – is often right here, built into the nature of reality and our own being. We don’t need to concern ourselves with supernatural healings when God’s world is full of miracles, when nature itself, God’s nature, is the greatest healer.
The healing of the lepers, highlighted in Luke 17, points to the healing power of thanksgiving. Now, in both the healings of Naaman and the ten lepers, divine power and love is at work. God wants us to have abundant life. God wants to liberate us from painful illnesses that may lead to ostracism and judgment from others. In the case of the ten lepers, their skin disease has rendered them pariahs. They have no place in society – they are dead men walking. Jesus implicitly pronounces a healing by commanding them to show themselves – presumably as cured and now socially acceptable – to the priests. Off they go, hoping for healing. They had been joined by their disease, but their cure creates a wall of separation based on ethnic history and prejudice. The Samaritan is not welcome in a Jewish house of worship and has no place in Jewish rituals. Perhaps, he realizes that he is now alone and without community – even a community of sufferers – as he sees his skin returning to its healthy state. Joyful he returns to Jesus, praising God for the healing.
The other nine are simply doing what Jesus told them to do and should not be faulted by the preacher. They will no doubt present an offering to God as part of the religious ritual signifying a cure. In contrast, the outsider Samaritan leper has no one to go to except Jesus. He praises God and recognizes his utter dependence on God for his well-being. He has no status and yet Jesus treats him as a spiritual equal.
Your faith has made you well, Jesus proclaims. Even here, Jesus is not suggesting something supernaturally violating cause and effect relationships, nor is he implicitly blaming those who don’t get well, as certain popular Christians and new age healers suggest. Jesus is not an adherent of the prosperity gospel. We can say the following: yes, the man – like Naaman – is cured as a result of the interplay of divine grace and human response; faith and obedience to
God’s vision shapes our health and can be a factor in a cure. We can also say that wholeness is more than just a physical cure; it emerges from an intimate relationship to our healing God. Accordingly, even those who aren’t cured can be healed; they can experience peace in the midst of pain and presence in the midst of incurable illness. Dying persons can experience healing; physically well persons can remain alienated and spiritually alienated.
God wants us to be well. God works in our cells as well as our souls to bring wholeness to us and our world. Although physical healing is not ensured, those who practice the presence of God by seeing their bodies as God’s Temple and deepening their connection with God experience grace and discover the strength of God’s presence in their physical vulnerability. [For more on Jesus’ healings, see Bruce Epperly, “Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel,” (Energion), “God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness and the Healing Miracles of Jesus,” (Westminster/John Knox_ and “Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice” (Pilgrim).]
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, and FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION. He can be reached for seminars and talks at firstname.lastname@example.org.