18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2019
– Kings 5:1-15, Luke 17:11-19
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –
Naaman was a great general in the Assyrian army that conquered the northern tribes of Israel and vanquished them to other parts the empire. Naaman’s conquest of Israel is said to have been caused by God, most likely because of Israel’s sins against God. But neither Naaman nor the rest of Assyria worshipped Israel’s God.
Now Naaman, though great, suffered from leprosy, a contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves, causing discoloration and lumps on the skin and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities. Now through the Hebrew slave of Naaman’s wife, the general was informed that a cure could be found at the hands of a prophet in Israel – Elisha, not to be confused with Elijah, his mentor and commonly regarded as the greatest of Old Testament prophets.
Now it was insulting enough for Naaman to seek a cure among the people he had conquered and enslaved. But when, to his humiliating surprise, he was actually cured, his eyes were opened to the realization that it was the God of the people he had enslaved that now enslaved him. This discovery so radically disrupted his world view and foundation of being that while he outwardly maintained the public persona of his king’s confidant and adherent to his nation’s god, inwardly and secretly his true community was among the oppressed of his land.
This story also provides a foretaste to baptism, for by immersing himself in the Jordan, he was unknowingly performing the Jewish rite of purification, not only curing his body, but awakening his soul to new life in God. In other words, when God shows up, we wake up.
The occasion of Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers occurs in the same region where Naaman was cleansed centuries before. However, the story indicates that of the ten lepers who were cured, one of them was a Samaritan, whom Jesus referred to as a foreigner. The other nine Jews, upon doing as Jesus instructed by presenting themselves to their priests, would have most likely undergone a mikveh or ritual bathing as a means of cleansing and purification from their disease which was regarded as a sin condition. But unlike Naaman whose cleansing required water, the lepers were cleansed by Jesus without it. We are told that they were cured as they went on their way to present themselves to the priests.
We are also told that “Misery loves company,” for in their common condition of estrangement from the rest of the world they shared the same plight, yet in their cure their differences stood out. Jews and Samaritans were forbidden from associating with one another, so the Samaritan could not present himself before a Jewish priest. But neither could he return to his temple on Mount Gerizim having been cured by the hands of a Jew. And Jesus, on the other hand, had sullied himself by associating with lepers and a Samaritan. The only place left for either of them to go was each other.
There’s a song often sung at revivals written by Nokseng, a 19th century native of India who, upon denouncing his former faith and professing Christ, was executed alongside his family. His words most likely echoed those of the Samaritan: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back.”
When God shows up as one who welcomes us with open arms, despite our previous conditions, we wake up in the warmth of that embrace craving the newness of life only God can offer in Christ.
In the Sacrament of Baptism, as in the Sacrament of Communion, Martin Luther believed that our fallen state of sin prevented us from knowing and appreciating this awareness of new life without God’s intervening grace. Other Protestant and Catholic reformers contended with Luther that even in our fallen state, God had not rendered us incapable of knowing and seeking the essence from which we came.
My point is this: whether you believe God’s grace is intervening or ever-present; whether you believe baptism is necessary for salvation or an outward and visible sign of a spiritual cleansing that has already occurred, let’s not get so mired in the muck of divisive dogma that we fail to notice the essential ingredient undergirding it all – God shows up!
So, wake up and smell the fragrance of new life in every soul craving the food and sustenance that only Christ can offer, that heals our wounds, cures our diseases, and restores us as children of one family and household of God. Amen.