Summary: A sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, Series C
20th Sunday after Pentecost [Pr. 23] October 14, 2007 “Series C”
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, guide us through your Holy Spirit, that we might read your Word, digest its meaning, and understand its significance for our lives. Then, through the same power of your Spirit, enable us to embody your Word and make it our own, that our lives might reflect your saving grace, poured out for us through Christ’s death and resurrection. This we ask in Christ’s Holy name. Amen.
When I first read our Gospel lesson for this morning, I had to check to make sure I had the right lesson sheet. After all, the story of the healing of the ten lepers, where only one returns to give thanks and praise to Jesus for having been cured, is a text quite often associated with and read at Thanksgiving services.
In the context of Thanksgiving, this text provides the preacher with the opportunity to praise the few persons who still attend these Thanksgiving services, as being like the one leper who returned to thank Jesus. And at the same time, it provides opportunity to chastise those who don’t attend, as being like the nine others who did not return to give thanks, even though they were simply doing what Jesus told them to do.
But in the context of our lessons for this morning, this twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, we are given an opportunity to look at this text in a different light. And since our lectionary has chosen to place our Gospel lesson alongside the story of the healing of Naaman of leprosy in our first lesson, it practically begs us to compare the similarities and differences in these two stories. By so doing, I believe we can come to appreciate anew this story of Jesus healing the ten lepers.
First, the similarities. Both Naaman and the ten persons in our Gospel lesson suffer from what is described as the dreaded disease of leprosy. Of course, according to the various commentaries that I read, many skin diseases or abnormalities were, at that time, deemed to be leprosy. Yet this should not diminish our appreciation of the healing that takes place. Both Naaman and the ten persons in our Gospel lesson were considered to be incurable. In both cases, God’s grace and mercy extended beyond human expectation.
In addition, both Naaman and at least the one leper who was healed and returned to give thanks to Jesus, were foreigners – that is, they were not Israelites. Naaman was a commander in the Aramean army, a dreaded foe of Israel. And the one person who returned to give thanks to Jesus was a Samaritan, an outcast thought to be an enemy of Israel’s faith. The implication in both of these stories is that God’s grace and mercy extends beyond the boundaries of God’s chosen people. Our God is the God of the universe, not the sole God of Israel.
The last similarity that I would like to comment on is the fact that both Elisha and Jesus, according to Jewish law at that time, avoid contact with those who were deemed to have leprosy. Elisha sends a messenger to Naaman, telling him what he needed to do in order to be healed of his disease. And Luke makes a point of telling us that the ten lepers who pleaded with Jesus to have mercy on them, kept their distance from Jesus.
I share this similarity with you, not because it is an example of how we should maintain our distance from outsiders, or those who have been deemed to be unclean. In my opinion, we have erected enough barriers that separate us from truly caring for those who differ from us. Rather, I make this point because it leads into the differences in our two stories.
From a distance, Elisha sends his messenger to tell Naaman that if he would wash himself seven times in the muddy Jordan, he would be healed of his disease. Although Naaman balks at the idea, to the point where his servants have to convince him to give it a try, it is through his washing in the Jordan that he is healed.
This could easily lead to the conclusion that there is something curative about the muddy waters of the Jordan River. Except for the fact that our lesson makes it clear that the reason that Elisha challenged the king of Israel to send Naaman to him, was to reveal to Naaman that there was a prophet of God in Israel. Thus, the purpose of this healing story was not to project the thought that the Jordan River had curative powers, but to reveal that Elisha was a true prophet of God.