I knew a little girl who misunderstood ‘leper’ in church as ‘leopard.’ The Bible had lots of stories about leopards. I was kind of sad when the mistake was corrected; the Bible must have seemed a lot less interesting all of a sudden.
If you’ve studied the Bible and heard sermons about it very often, you’ve probably heard plenty about what a bad deal it was to be a leper. You were totally outcast, an object of fear and loathing, and ritually unclean unless and until you got better. Which you usually didn’t.
We still know the deep fear associated with contagion. Several years back Europe was in full panic mode about what they called “bird flu.” It had broken out as close as Turkey and they were quarantining the continent. I happened to be on the very last flight they allowed from Turkey into Greece. When we got to the terminal, there was a television news crew waiting for us. I even saw a few face masks. So I’m just off the plane and there’s a Greek reporter gal with a microphone in my face and a camera on me, asking me how I’m feeling. I was SO tempted to say “I’m fine… [cough… ack… ugggh]… fine!”
You’ve also probably heard plenty about Samaritans, and how they and Jews were bitter enemies and had nothing to do with each other. Jesus’ own Apostles wanted to call down fire from heaven on them! So you kind of get a lump in your throat when a Bible story shows up about a Samaritan leper. To say he’s starting off with two strikes against him is a major understatement.
There’s a little detail here I just noticed for the first time, though. Jesus is walking the border between Jewish and Samaritan land. It says (we’re in Luke 17 here) that ten lepers came out to meet him. Later in the story it specifies about the one man that he was a Samaritan. Just from the way Luke tells the story, you get the impression that the group of lepers was a mix of Jews and Samaritans. And that makes sense. How do you get Jews and Samaritans to get along? Give them leprosy. How do you make cooperators and even friends out of bitter enemies? A shared suffering, a shared catastrophe.
Here’s a little tip for looking at every human being with Christian eyes of charity: there’s more than enough shared catastrophe to go around.
That could be a sermon of its own sometime, but today we’re going to back up to the first reading, from 2 Kings, long before Jesus was born. This is the end of the story of Naaman, and it’s easy to see why it’s paired up with the Gospel we heard. Naaman is in the very same position, not only having leprosy, but being one of an enemy people. In fact, he’s a general in the enemy army! There’s a Jewish girl in his house — she was taken prisoner in a raid and made his wife’s servant. She mentions to Mrs. Naaman that there was a prophet back home who could heal Naaman. So the girl tells the wife, and the wife tells Naaman, and there’s a few twists and turns but it all ends up with Naaman deciding to go check it out.
And that’s how Naaman the Aramean general came to be outside the house of Elisha the Prophet of Israel. Here’s what happened: Elisha sent out a messenger to tell Naaman to go wash seven times in the Jordan. This made Naaman angry for two reasons. First, that Elisha didn’t even come out to meet him in person. He sent a messenger, an envoy — a mediator, if you will. That’s not at all what Naaman had in mind. You can understand: he’s a big-shot, and he came all this way… he did not expect to deal with a middle-man. Second, the instructions seemed weird. Seven washings in the Jordan? Naaman thought that was ridiculous. He took one look at the Jordan and thought, you’ve got to be kidding. That dingy little thing? They had way better rivers back home! So Naaman walked
away. He’d been willing to give this a try, but he didn’t want to accept the healing through a mediator, and he found the offered means to be just plain weird. So he walked away. He still had his pride.
He also still had his leprosy.
Now freeze frame right here, because there are a lot people in this situation today. We all need healing from something. We all have hurts and weaknesses that we can’t fix by ourselves. We all need saving grace. So maybe one way or another we find ourselves at the door of the Church. People find themselves at the door of the Church because, like Naaman, they’ve heard there’s some kind of God thing going on in there and they’re willing to check it out.
And what do they find proposed to them by the Church? Seven washings in the Jordan: seven Sacraments. You know what the two main objections are to the seven Sacraments? One: that they’re mediated, and two: that they’re weird. For example: how many people have refused Confession because it involves some shabby fellow human being? “I shouldn’t have to go through a priest! I shouldn’t have to deal with some middle-man!” Another example: how many people are turned off by the Eucharist because it’s not what they expected? “Bread and wine become the Real Presence of Jesus? You’ve got to be kidding.” So they walk away. We come to God for healing, but like Naaman we have our own idea of what that healing should look like, and how it should happen. And when we’re offered something that isn’t what we expected, some of us turn away. People look at the Church the same way Namaan looked at the Jordan River: “You want me to get into that? I’m not impressed. Thanks, but no thanks.”
Well, at least when it comes to the story of Naaman the leper, there’s a happy ending. When he got home he found some good friends who gave some good advice, which basically boils down to: “What’ve you got to lose?”
And something happened. The pride fell away. The resistance melted. Naaman reached a moment when he was ready to really face his own desperate need. Ready to admit that he needed healing, he needed help, he needed grace, and he was in no position to place conditions on it. He went back to Israel, and into the Jordan he went. And again. And again. And again and again and again and again and he came out clean.
A lot of us don’t experience the grace and healing of Jesus because, frankly, we just don’t want it enough. We’re still proud enough to reject the offered grace because it’s mediated through some shabby fellow human being, or because it takes a form that we didn’t expect. We want grace on our terms. Well, you can’t get grace on your terms. You have to come to that same moment as Naaman: ready to accept God’s grace on God’s terms.
Let’s look again at our Gospel hero, another foreign leper and his nine companions, who approach Jesus for healing. Did they know how desperate their need was? They sure did. They wanted it badly enough that they no longer cared that Jesus was a Jew, or that they were ritually unclean and outcast, or that others wouldn’t welcome them, or about anything at all other than getting Jesus’ attention and being healed. They couldn’t walk right up to him, for fear of contagion, so Luke says they were a long way off when they called out “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!”
Now picture the scene: Jesus was about to enter a town when they found Him. How close would lepers be allowed to approach a town? Not very! Like it says, they were a long way off. It wasn’t “Jesus!” It was — full inhale, hands-cupped-on-mouth, full-throated scream — “JEEEESUUUUUS!!!!!”
Now there's the moment! If you can get there... wow. When you want Jesus that badly, you’ll get Him.
How long has it been since you’ve been to Confession? What’s your reason? Go ahead and make your list of reasons, and you can stand their with Naaman pre-conversion and his reasons, and both of you staying sick. Or you could take some good advice, ask “what have I got to lose?”, and get your butt in the Jordan.
When you come to Communion, don’t walk up here like you’re in line to buy a stamp. You’re a sinner letting go of your pride, desperate for the grace you need, trusting that Jesus will give it to you… even if you feel like a hopeless case, even if you feel like an outcast, even if the people around Him make you feel unwelcome… none of that matters anymore because you need Him. And that’s when you’ll get Him.
Side note: If you’re separated from Communion, that can be solved. I wrote and rewrote follow-up paragraphs about this, and deleted them one after another… it’s something we need to talk about privately. But here’s the bottom line everyone should know: there is always a way. No one gets to say “The Church won’t let me receive Communion.” There is a way. You might have to choose between Communion and something else you really want, and it might be hard, but there is a way. There are no exceptions. For now we’ll leave it at that, ok? Come see me and we’ll talk about it.
But let’s expand that concept, because we all have things that can make us feel far away from Jesus. Maybe a habitual sin, maybe a psychological hangup, an old hurt that we can’t let go of, a doctrine we can’t understand, maybe just a little bit of that plain old pride… whatever it is, we can feel like Jesus is far off. I’m talking about whatever it is that makes you feel like there’s this distance between you and God. Learn from the lepers. When you want Him that badly, you’ll get Him. That’s a promise.
It all begins with the beautiful moment when you realize how desperately you need grace, and the
pride falls away, and the resistance melts, and no matter how sick and troubled your soul, no matter what anyone else thinks or whether they make you feel like an outsider, no matter how far away you are… all that hurt, all those obstacles, all that distance between you… none of it matters any more, none of it matters at all. “JEEEEESUUUUUS!!!!”
Then, you’ve got to accept the grace God offers the way God offers it… often mediated, maybe sometimes seeming strange, like Elisha sending Naaman for the sevenfold washing, like Jesus sending those lepers to the priests, like the sacramental life of the Church. Don’t stand there saying that’s not how you’d have done it, that’s not how you expect salvation.
Shut up and jump in the river.
And finally: be the one who comes back in gratitude. It isn’t enough to be healed if you don’t go on to develop that relationship, if you just get something you wanted and walk away and go on with your life. Jesus told all ten lepers “You are healed,” and they were. But when one returned in grateful relationship, only then and only to him did He say, “You are saved.”
Do you want to be saved? Do you want it enough to scream out His name, to let go of your pride, to jump in the river? And after all: what do you have to lose?