Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
The gospel today from Luke and also our first reading from the second book of Kings in the Old Testament are both about healing. Healing is a big subject, and it is certainly prominent in the life and ministry of Jesus. Let’s look at these two readings. The story from the Old Testament is about an army commander called Naaman. He was in charge of the King of Aram’s military. Just like any other human being, despite being such a mighty warrior, he nevertheless had vulnerability. In his case, it was physical – leprosy – a severe skin disease that in Biblical times was a real social stigma. All the more impressive then that he managed to achieve such a high-ranking position.
An Israelite girl who had been taken prisoner by the Arameans knew that there was a prophet in Samaria who could cure Naaman. So the King of Aram wrote to the King of Israel to have Naaman cured. After some initial misunderstanding, eventually the message got through to Elisha, the prophet in question. We need to remember that Naaman and Elisha were on opposite sides, in terms of national hostilities. So when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, Elisha doesn’t go out to meet him face to face. Instead he sends a messenger. Naaman takes objection to the message. For Naaman is told to wash in the Jordan river seven times, and then he will be cured. This is too much for Naaman’s pride. He makes various protestations. After some helpful intervention and advice from his servants, however, in the end Naaman agrees to Elisha’s strange demands. He immerses himself seven times in the Jordan, and his flesh is completely restored. And more than that, he comes to realise that Elisha’s God is indeed God – the only God.
It’s a curious story, and may seem somewhat far-fetched to our modern ears. But if we follow the story closely, we can discover a thread of truth in it that can be relevant to any age. In this story Naaman is physically healed. His leprous skin is restored completely. He is cured of his disease. But healing is not always about physical cure. Often healing cam come about within, without necessarily any outward, physical cure – but rather inner healing, at an emotional and spiritual level. And emotional and spiritual healing can be just as real and effective even though it is not visible. Yes, Naaman does receive physical healing, but I think it can be seen from the story that he also receives healing at other levels than the physical. He was a man who had achieved much, and he was also no doubt a very proud man. He was used to giving orders, not receiving them. And when we are proud, and in control, doing well, successful and all seems to be going well, then sometimes the only way God can really get through to us is through our weakness, our vulnerability.
And that is what God did with Naaman. God reached out to Naaman through Naaman’s greatest vulnerability – his leprosy, or whatever skin condition it was that afflicted him. And Naaman is humbled. The man who daily gave orders to his servants finds himself in the embarrassing position of his servants giving wise advice to him. They make the point that if Naaman had been asked to do something difficult, would he not have done it? But to wash in the Jordan seven times was easy, so why not do it? Naaman is left speechless, and humbly does as he is told.
Sometimes in life demands will be made of us, whether through other people or whether simply through circumstances, that may seem futile and unnecessary, and at best a waste of time. At such times we really do need to exercise our imaginations as well as our intellect. Might it be that this demand being made of us, senseless as it appears, will actually lead to something better, which we cannot see at the moment? In Naaman’s example, it certainly did. But he had in the end to act in obedience and trust. He had to let go of his protestations and attempt the seemingly foolish and impossible. And in so doing he was restored, not just physically, but also emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. He became a whole person, whereas before his pride had separated him off from his true nature.
In the gospel story from Luke at first the ten lepers do better than Naaman. Although keeping themselves at a distance as was expected of them because of their “uncleanness”, they called out to Jesus to have mercy on them. They recognised that Jesus could help them. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. According to practices as set out in the book of Leviticus, if someone contracted some kind of skin disease, then that person had to go to a priest, who would examine him and pronounce as to whether or not he had leprosy, and therefore as to whether or not the person was ceremonially unclean. Naaman had protested at Elisha’s command given to him. The ten lepers of the gospel however do not protest. They dutifully, obediently go off to see the priests. Remarkably, as they are on their way and before they reach the priests, they are all healed. But only one of them, a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus. And they had a lot to thank Jesus for – not only their physical cure, but also their restoration in society. For as lepers they had been stigmatised as social outcasts. Now they were released from such social stigma. The story makes us wonder what are the social stigma patterns today? Even in today’s society, there still seems to be a certain stigma attached to people suffering from mental health issues. And often what is at the bottom of such stigma is fear – fear of the unknown, and fear that it could happen to us. Jesus came to release us from such fears, and replace such fears with compassion and love.
Jesus says to the thankful Samaritan that his faith had made him well. Stories like this have sometimes been used to argue that when sick people don’t get physically healed, then it is because they don’t have enough faith. But such arguments are not helpful, and can even be damaging. At the end of the day, healing – whether physical, or emotional and spiritual – is a mystery. God alone knows the intricacies of how and why healing takes place. And God alone knows why some are physically cured, while others are not. It is not for us to pass judgement. God alone can see the full picture of anyone’s life, its complete meaning and purpose.
There is a sentence from my Community’s Rule of Life which I think is particularly powerful:
“Jesus Christ’s greatest work was done as he hung helpless, nailed and bound to the cross”.
What is true for Jesus can be true also for us. It may be that we are most helpful to others at times when we are feeling quite helpless and out of control of events ourselves. We simply don’t know. But what we can be sure of as Christians is that God always desires our wholeness at every level. Christ came to this earth to restore us – to restore our relationships with ourselves and others and most of all with God. Of that we can be confident. And our part is to participate in that ongoing work of healing, wholeness, forgiveness and love that is at the heart of God, and revealed to us in the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. May God in Christ enable each one of us to further the work of the Kingdom of God in bringing the gospel message of healing and wholeness to a very needy world.