Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1–3, 7–15c
2 Timothy 2:8–15
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and most merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
You wouldn’t expect to find a Samaritan in the company nine Jews in 1st Century Palestine. As pointed out in my remarks on the gospel, there was little love between these peoples who had been fighting a one thousand year old feud over which of them was the true Israel. There is no war quite as bloody, barbaric and long lasting as those fought between brothers. The horrific brutality of Christians to Jews in Europe; the years of bloodshed between Irish Catholics and Irish protestants and the ongoing violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims all serve to illustrate the point.
There are events in the lives of people, however, that can eclipse even the most deep seated prejudices. Leprosy is one of them. Biblical scholars, historians and endocrinologists all agree that, in most cases, the skin diseases diagnosed as leprosy in the ancient world most likely were not the dreaded “Hanson’s Disease” we have come to know by that name. Still, perception is everything. If the community deems you a leper, a danger to the community, a person whose presence is intolerable, then your life in that community is over. Like a convicted sexual predator, you are banned to the outskirts of civil society, branded with a name that makes you an object of loathing and dread. You are forced to live a marginal existence. When life as you know it is threatened with extinction or radically altered, all the things you once thought of as important lose their significance. The label “Jew” or “Samaritan” no longer has any meaning once you have been thoroughly excluded from participation in either society. And if the man or woman living in the hovel next to you can offer some comfort and companionship, then who cares whether s/he once was a member of a group that your group hated-before it started hating you?
Fifteen years ago the vacation I was taking with my family in Washington State took an unexpected turn when my wife lost consciousness and was taken by helicopter to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. I can remember as if it were yesterday the second morning into my wife’s coma. I recall how I sat at her bedside not knowing whether she would awake and, if she ever did, whether she would ever see, speak or even be able to perceive my presence. At that time, I understood with a clarity I never had before just how trivial were all the worries, cares, concerns and ambitions that drove me. I would gladly have thrown away every dime I ever made to have just one more minute with my beloved-if only to say a proper good-by. I could see so clearly how much of my life had been wasted and how much I stood to lose.
At that moment, the social, political and theological issues that always got me so worked up were revealed as trivial. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that the one person who had the time to sit with me and pray happened to be a Mormon. He took the time to be with me when no other chaplain or local minister of any faith (including my own Lutheran denomination) could be bothered. So also, I doubt the lepers in our gospel cared one wit that Jesus was being pursued by the civil authorities, that he had been branded a false teacher by the religious establishment or that he had a reputation for associating with the wrong sort of people. Nor do I believe it mattered much to the Samaritan that Jesus happened to be a Jew. Jesus was someone they all instinctively knew would receive them. That was enough.
All ten lepers were the recipients of Jesus’ miraculous healing. We know that the Samaritan returned to Jesus to give thanks. I can understand that. I can remember with equal clarity the morning my wife came out of her coma, the elation I felt at hearing her voice and seeing the light back in her eyes. I remember the walk I took outside UWMC after she had drifted off to sleep. I strolled along the canal between Lakes Washington and Union. A rain shower had just passed and there was a spectacular rainbow over Husky Stadium. I didn’t need the rainbow to tell me that I had been the recipient of a miracle, but it was a nice touch.
I don’t want to take anything away from the fine medical care my wife received from the doctors and nurses at UWMC to whom I give credit for my wife’s recovery. Miracles do not equate with magic. It is not as though God intervenes to suspend the workings of the natural world in order to produce an otherwise inexplicable outcome. It is more the case that, because God is always working in, with and under the processes of the natural world, events occur that are unexpected, surprising and life-giving. I don’t know, nor do I need to know where human agency ends and divine agency begins. I suspect that there probably is no neat line of demarcation. In any event, I know that I was the recipient of a miracle, an undeserved gift that has lasted longer than I ever dared hope. I have resolved to live in the thankfulness of that moment, to recognize that each new day of my marriage is another undeserved extension of a life that might well have ended. I have resolved to keep in view the things that matter, and that has made these latter years of my life the sweetest.
Then, too, I can also relate to the nine lepers who did not return to give thanks. It is hard to maintain indefinitely the wonder, awe and gratitude one experiences in the presence of a miracle. It doesn’t take long for all the old anxieties, hostilities and doubts to worm their way back into your brain. If anyone ever had reason to trust God, it has to be me, but I still find myself worrying about all the things I once learned do not matter. I still catch myself worrying about money, health, work, the future-all those things that I know are in the hands of a God who loves me with an everlasting love. Furthermore, once the threat of death or loss has been removed, it is easy to forget how fragile you are, how deeply dependent you are on God’s grace and how precious is every single moment that you go on living. It is easy simply to slip back into the old ways of thinking, planning and acting-as though no miracle had ever occurred.
I have no doubt that the nine lepers who went on their merry way were already stressing about how they would re-establish themselves in society and how they would explain their healing to the priest. I expect they probably decided it would not be a good idea to mention Jesus’ role in the affair. After all, wasn’t Jesus being watched by the Roman authorities? Hadn’t the religious leaders declared him to be a false teacher? Wasn’t it common knowledge that Jesus kept unsavory company and that one of his disciples was actually a known terrorist? Best to keep quiet about him! Moreover, if the nine even noticed that their Samaritan companion was no longer with them, I am guessing they were relieved. If you want to get a certification of cleansing from a Jewish priest, the last thing you want is to have a filthy Samaritan trailing along behind you.
So with whom do I truly identify? The thankful Samaritan or the nine? If I am honest, I have to say that I identify with both. I struggle to live in gratitude, but often find myself slipping back into anxiety, resentment and envy. I don’t know whether my soul is reflected more in the one than in the nine. Maybe that is what we are supposed to be struggling with. Jesus’ parables typically do not answer the questions we ask. Instead, they prompt us to ask better questions. We are all recipients of the miracle of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. We have been given a life we had no right to expect and don’t deserve. So what are we going to do with it?
The movie Saving Private Ryan tells the story of a group of soldiers sent to save paratrooper Private James Ryan, the last son of a widowed mother. Ryan’s brothers were all killed in action during the Normandy invasion and Ryan was lost and missing in action. Through the efforts of these soldiers, all of whom die in the course of carrying out their mission, Ryan’s life is saved. The movie ends at some point in the future when Ryan returns to Normandy and visits the graves of his rescuers. As he stands before the headstones, he asks, “Was I worth it?” I think perhaps that is the only appropriate response there can be to a miracle, particularly the miracle of our baptism into Jesus Christ. Clearly, God has determined that we are worth the life of his Son. There is no need to earn such a miracle and no way whatsoever to repay it. We can only live such life as we are given, however long or short it may be, in holy gratitude, striving to make out of every minute something worth preserving for eternity.
Here’s a poem by Thomas Randolph about living gratefully.
He Lives Long Who Lives Well.
Wouldest thou live long? The only means are
‘Bove Galen’s diet, or Hippocrates’
Strive to live well; tread in the upright ways,
And rather count thy actions than thy days;
Then thou hast lived enough amongst us here,
For every day well spent I count a year.
Live will, and then, how soon soe’er thou die,
Thou art of age to claim eternity.
But he that outlives Nestor, and appears
To have passed the date of gray Methuselah’s years,
If he his life to sloth and sin doth give,
I say he only was-he did not live.
Thomas Randolph was born in 1605 at Newnham, Northamptonshire, near Daventry, England. He was admitted in 1618 as a King’s Scholar to the College of St. Peter, better known as Westminster School and then Trinity College, Cambridge in 1624 at the age of 18. He earned at both schools a reputation for English and Latin verse. He was awarded his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1628, then Master of Arts in 1631. Randolph died at 1635 at the age of just 29. You can find out more about Thomas Randolph at this link from Encyclopedia Britannica.
Unless you want everyone in the congregation wondering where the “letter” came from in this lesson and how the King of Israel got involved, you need to read the entire text rather than the gutted version given to us by the lectionary hacks. See II Kings 5:1-15.
This is one of the most engaging stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. It comes to us from a collection of episodes in the lives of Elijah and Elisha whose prophetic ministries were directed to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The story begins in the home of Naaman, a highly respected general and war hero in the army of Israel’s arch enemy, Syria (also known as Aram). Yet mighty and powerful as he is, Naaman cannot protect himself from disease, specifically leprosy. It should be noted that the biblical word for leprosy covered a multitude of skin diseases, not all of which were lethal or contagious. Nonetheless, they were treated as such in Israel and probably also in Syria. So the mighty Naaman is brought down not by the sword of his enemies but by a disease that likely renders him a social outcast.
It seems that something got lost in translation between the Israelite slave girl who spoke of Israel’s amazing prophet to Naaman’s wife; Naaman’s wife who then relayed this information to Naaman; Naaman’s request to his master the King of Syria for a letter of introduction to Israel’s king and the letter from Syria’s King to the King of Israel. Reading the letter from Syria, the King of Israel believes that he himself is being asked to heal Naaman’s leprosy. He knows, of course, that miracles are far above his pay grade and assumes that Syria is seeking a pretext for aggression. This whole misunderstanding nearly precipitates an international crisis. It strikes me that all of this could have been avoided if only Naaman had spoken to the slave girl himself and gotten his facts straight, but it does not appear that he did. Perhaps he felt that it was beneath the dignity of an officer and national hero to speak with “the help.”
Fortunately, Elisha hears of the looming threat of war and intercedes. He instructs the King of Israel to send Naaman to him. No doubt relieved, the King does just that. Now if Naaman was expecting a hero’s welcome, he was to be sorely disappointed. Elsha does not even come out to meet him. He sends his servant to deliver the instructions for healing: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan.” This insult is too much for Naaman to bear. What sort of prophet sends a servant to greet a decorated war hero? What possible good can it possibly do to wallow in the muddy waters of the Jordan River? Naaman leaves in a huff, but once again, the slaves save the day. They point out to their master that nothing is to be lost in heeding the prophet’s words. Certainly, if the prophet had demanded some exorbitant fee he would gladly have paid it to be rid of his leprosy. How much more when the price is only a bath! Their sound reasoning prevails. Naaman bathes in the Jordan seven times as instructed and his skin is as healthy and fresh as a child’s. Naaman returns to Elisha with thanksgiving and declares: “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” II Kings 5:15.
Naaman has learned a few things about this God of Israel. First, God heals the whole person. Naaman would have preferred to receive his healing without any further contact with the God of Israel. But the prophet makes clear to him that miracles are not magic. God acts through the dynamic of his word that engages the hearer, calling him or her into relationship with God’s self. Healing comes through faith active in obedience to that word. Second, Naaman learns that God’s wisdom and healing is not necessarily imparted through Kings and court prophets. Throughout this story God has used slaves to educate the mighty Naaman. One has to wonder whether that will make a difference in the way Naaman relates to his Israelite slave girl upon his return. Finally, Naaman learns humility. Bathing in the muddy Jordan, like conversing with servants, constituted a large piece of humble pie for a man accustomed to having his bathwater drawn from the pristine waters of Syria by slaves. Indeed, depending upon the time of year this story took place, Naaman might have been required to stoop or perhaps even lie down on the mucky river bottom to immerse himself. Yet that was precisely what he needed to cure the sickness he didn’t even know that he had: arrogance. If you read on in the story you will learn that Naaman specifically requested a load of dirt to take home from the land of Israel to remind him of the God he had learned to worship. Now he is only too glad for the muck he once spurned!
As was the case for last week’s psalm, this psalm is an acrostic poem, meaning that each strophe begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order. It is possible that this psalm is related to Psalm 112, also an acrostic poem. Whereas the theme of Psalm 111 is the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, Psalm 112speaks of the blessedness of the person who fears and trusts in the Lord. Given the acrostic form, most scholars date this psalm on the later side, after the Babylonian Exile.
The psalm makes clear that the greatness of God is made known in God’s works. Though the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, conquest of Canaan and the return from exile are not specifically referenced, they were doubtlessly in the mind of the psalmist as s/he proclaimed the redemption of God’s people. Vs. 9. The giving of the law appears to be the paramount act of salvation in the psalmist’s mind. The statutes of the Lord are “trustworthy…established forever and ever. Vs. 8. It was, after all, the Torah that preserved Israel’s identity throughout the long years of Babylonian captivity and kept alive the hope that finally inspired her return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.
The most memorable and familiar verse is the final one: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Vs. 10. Fear of God is a distasteful notion to us moderns who prefer a deity similar to a white, upper middle class, slightly left of center dad of the Ward Clever variety. But the Bible testifies to a God who is sometimes scary and not always very nice (though the lectionary folks do their best to shave off his rough edges with their incessant editing). Fear is usually the first emotion biblical characters express when face to face with God or one of God’s angelic messengers. So anyone who has no apprehension about encountering God is probably downright foolhardy.
Frankly, I think that if we feared God more, we might fear a lot of other things less. Worshipers of Israel’s God should know that instead of fretting over what the deficit will do to us if we commit ourselves to providing everyone with sufficient housing, food and medical care, we ought to be concerned about what God might do to us if we don’t. If the good people on Capital Hill believed that on the last day God will confront all nations and peoples through the eyes of everyone they could have clothed, fed, befriended and cared for, I think the current standoff would end in a New York minute. The fact that most of these folks self identify as Christians shows just how poor a job their churches have done by failing to teach them that what they do and the decisions they make matter-eternally so.
For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September, 11th.
The Apostle has been encouraging Timothy “to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,” employing the images of a soldier serving his superiors faithfully and that of an athlete competing for a prize. II Timothy 2:1-7. Now he urges him to focus on the good news of Jesus and to “avoid disputing about words.” Vs. 14. In support of his encouragement, Paul cites a “sure saying” in verses 12-13 that might well be part of an early Christian hymn or creedal statement. The lack of parallelism in verses 12 and 13 is puzzling. In the prior verse, we are warned that if we deny Christ, he will deny us. Then in 13 we are told that if we are faithless, Christ nevertheless remains faithful. Though poetically inept, the sense is nevertheless coherent. Our denial of Christ before the watching world leaves Christ little choice but to deny us publicly as well. Nevertheless, even though our faithless conduct results in destroying our witness to Jesus and Jesus’ opportunity to support us in that witness, such faithlessness does extinguish Christ’s faithfulness to us. God remains true to God’s promises even when we are less than faithful to promises we have made to God. As Paul points out in Romans, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29.
Again, we get a sense of Paul’s concern that the gospel he has spent his life proclaiming be rightly understood and preserved for the next generation. He knows, of course, that it is not enough merely to transmit verbatim his own preaching. The word of truth must be “rightly handl[ed]” vs. 15. Timothy will confront new challenges that are impossible for his mentor to anticipate and so provide advice. He must therefore rely upon Timothy to speak the gospel in fresh and compelling ways that nevertheless preserve its integrity. As argued in last week’s post, this is a challenge for the church in every generation.
The thankful leper in our gospel lesson suffers from a double whammy. Not only is he a leper, but he is also a hated Samaritan. By the way, just who are the Samaritans? Where did they come from? Why were they so hated by the Jews? Those are all good questions. Let’s see if we can parse out some answers.
Recall that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., more than a century before Judah fell to the Babylonians. Though many Israelites were displaced as a result, a substantial number remained in the land. Recall also that at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., only the upper classes in Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem were carried away into exile. Thus, many and perhaps most of the people constituting the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah remained in Palestine and continued to worship there. Among them was an ethnic group claiming descent from the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi. These folks claimed to be a remnant of the Northern Kingdom which had its capital in Samaria (hence, the name “Samaritan”). They had their own temple on Mount Gerizim. This mountain is sacred to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as the location chosen by God for a holy temple. When some of the exiles from Judah (now properly called “Jews”) returned from Babylon to Palestine in order to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, they met with hostility and resistance from the Samaritans and other inhabitants of the land. Both Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews. As we have seen, Jesus’ decision to visit Jerusalem previously alienated him from the Samaritan population. Luke 9:51-56. Consequently, this Samaritan’s willingness to approach Jesus was already an act of faith.
Jesus commanded the ten lepers seeking his aid to “show themselves to the priest” who alone had the authority to declare them clean. Vs. 14. Upon receiving this declaration, they would presumably have presented the appropriate offering for their healing. Leviticus 14:1-20. The Samaritan, however, had no priest to whom he could go, unless we assume that he was headed for the Samaritan place of worship at Mt. Gerizim. It is unlikely that a priest of the Jewish temple establishment would have examined a Samaritan, much less declared him clean. Thus, once cleansed, he had nowhere to go in order to give thanks but to Jesus. That was also true for the nine presumably Jewish lepers, but they failed to recognize the one to whom thanks was due.
This text is used routinely at Thanksgiving worship to emphasize the need to give thanks; however, there is no indication that the nine lepers were unthankful. They may well have made an offering of thanksgiving at the Temple in Jerusalem. Their failure was thus not a lack of thankfulness, but a lack of perception. They were going to the wrong place to give thanks.
There is an obvious parallel between this text and our lesson from II Kings. Like the Samaritan, Naaman was both a leper and a foreigner hostile to Israel. Both men experienced the salvation of Israel’s God and became worshipers. Thus, God’s call and salvation extend beyond Israel to all peoples. Jesus made this very same point in his sermon at the synagogue of Nazareth in the initial chapters of Luke’s gospel. See Luke 4:16-30. This story therefore prefigures the mission to the gentiles Luke will take up more fully in the Book of Acts.