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.
Who are today’s lepers? Who are the people for whom no one has any sympathy? The people none of us want living in our neighborhoods? The folks whose suffering we deem just and well deserved? While it is true (and unfortunate) that many people regard illegal residents, sexual minorities or particular racial groups as unwelcome and unwanted, thankfully these groups today have their advocates and supporters. We are a long way from full equality on all these fronts, but there is at the very least a struggle going on to achieve that goal. Nobody supported lepers in the first century or advocated for their well being. No one in that age (except Jesus) would so much as touch a leper. It didn’t matter that leprosy is not highly contagious or that most of the people classified and shunned as lepers actually had benign skin diseases that were altogether harmless. Once that dreaded label attached, your life in the community was over-until a priest declared you officially cured.
I think that the closest thing to a leper we have in our society today is the registered sex offender. You might object that, unlike the sex offender, lepers did nothing evil to merit their disease or the social isolation it earned them. But that is not how leprosy was viewed in the first century. Like blindness, paralysis and other debilitating diseases, leprosy was commonly understood as a punishment for sin. So pervasive was this notion that Jesus’ disciples presumptively asked him whether a man’s blindness from birth was the result of his own sin or the sin of his parents. John 9:2. It has to be somebody’s sin, right? Jesus rejected that notion altogether. Though he does not explain where the man’s blindness came from, he does let his disciples know that human suffering is for them an opportunity to manifest the glory of God through the exercise of compassion. John 9:3 Such compassion extends to all people-even lepers.
Our feelings about sex offenders are in many ways similar to the way Jesus’ contemporaries felt about lepers. Lepers were believed to pose a serious danger to the rest of the community. They were therefore feared and kept at a distance. It was assumed that such a terrible disease could only have come about as punishment for an equally terrible sin. Ignorance and fear coupled with a lack of compassion led to branding and ostracism. The same can be said of those folks on the registry of sexual offenders. We find their violent and exploitive acts repulsive. We see them as a threat to our communities and we regard their placement on the registry as both just and necessary. Pity is out of place.
While there is much that we don’t know about the perverse twists that surface in some individuals driving them to acts of sexual violence, a few things are clear. Violence is pervasive in our culture. The fact that nearly half the population of the United States believes that we need guns to preserve our freedom testifies to our acceptance of violence as a normal and necessary component of our lives. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but what little I have seen is enough to convince me that the portrayal of violence against women and children is becoming ever more common and increasingly graphic. The plot line from so many of these shows reinforces our societal creed: the only way to fight violence is with more violence. I don’t know whether shows like Hawaii Five O, Criminal Intent and CSI make us more violent, but they certainly demonstrate that we find violence enormously entertaining. Our civil discourse, whether in the halls of congress or in the barbershop, has degenerated into name calling, character assassination and accusation. Is it at all surprising that this tidal wave of anger and ill will infecting our common life spills over into our sexual expression as well? Maybe we hate and abhor the sexual predator so much because he reflects the beast within us all and the vortex into which it is sucking us.
Another thing we know about sexual predators: they have often been the victims of abuse themselves. No, that does not justify their acts, but it does help us understand the source of their deep seated anger and violent tendencies. It also forces us to ask ourselves whether the entire responsibility for their crimes rests with them. Is their evil not also the responsibility of the neighbors who heard the terrified cries of an abused child, but turned up the television set to drown them out figuring that it was none of their business? What about the pastors, teachers and coaches who noticed odd bruises and welts on a child but didn’t bother to investigate or inquire about them? Is there not a sense in which all of us share responsibility for the abuse such abused children ultimately commit?
It is not my purpose here to criticize the statute creating the sexual offender registry or suggest an alternative law. Clearly, the criminal justice system is in dire need of an overhaul. That issue is addressed in the ELCA’s recent statement, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. But my concern here goes beyond legislation and social policy. While we might debate what society ought to do about sexual violence, there can be no question about what Jesus requires of his church. Let us be perfectly clear that sexual predators are dangerous people and the crimes they commit wreak unspeakable sorrow and pain upon their victims. Laws protecting our most vulnerable citizens from sexual violence and harassment need to be enforced scrupulously and with rigor. But disciples of Jesus, and especially those of us who claim Martin Luther as our spiritual mentor, know that laws and penalties are not enough. Beneath the most heinous of labels society places on convicted criminals there are human beings. However marred and disfigured, these people bear the image of their Creator. I might not want to touch them, but Jesus does. That leaves me no choice.
I am not sure how one reaches out to touch the lepers on the sex offender registry. That is clearly a daunting challenge for church communities desiring to create a safe space for children and persons recovering from the trauma of past abuse. Obviously, we need to keep the safety of the most vulnerable people in our communities foremost in our minds as we minister to these folks. To borrow a phrase from the little known and seldom quoted New Testament Book of Jude: “on some, have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” Jude 23. Despite the obvious dangers involved, I think we need to show mercy, even if tempered by fear. It seems to me that we who follow Jesus have a particular obligation towards these people so hated and ostracized by the rest of society. If we don’t touch them, who will? And if no one touches them; if they remain hated and feared outsiders; if they are never offered forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption, then their hatred and loneliness will only increase making them more violent and more dangerous than ever.
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 112 speaks 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 15th.
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 publically 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. (For background on the Samaritans, see my post from Sunday, July 14th.) Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem-a fact that 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 is 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.