Part of the joy of using a lectionary to determine the readings for any given Sunday is first that somebody else has done the work of selecting texts so… one less thing to think about. And second, that it causes us to consider texts together that we might never consider otherwise. The reading from Kings and from Luke are certainly an unlikely match. And yet the lectionary asks us to consider them together…
Looking at these two readings it’s a bit hard to imagine what the lectionary compilers had in mind. The common element seems to be leprosy. But that is hardly the basis for a sermon. How much is there to say, after all, about a painful and horrible skin condition? And once I had framed that question to myself, there was no stopping. So, I’ll apologize in advance…
The first thing to note is that much of what we think we know about leprosy is incorrect. We encounter leprosy a fair number of times in the Hebrew scripture. In the New Testament, it’s not as frequent. Of course, by the Middle Ages Leprosy seems to have come roaring back. Europe and the UK suffered with various and horrible illnesses. Colonies of leppers, clad mostly in rags, were an all-too-common thing. Leprosy was feared and medical knowledge was limited. How did leprosy spread? And more importantly, how could you avoid catching it? Leppers were shunned and isolated in Bible times and in the Middle Ages.
But curiously, they didn’t have the same disease. Leprosy, or as it’s now more properly known, Hansen’s Disease, was common in the Middle Ages. But at the time of the Book of Kings it did not exist in the Middle East. It was to be found in the far east, but not in the middle east…
Hansen’s Disease is a bacterial infection. It is communicable, but not easily so. And it is, with modern medicine, curable. Though the damage it can wreak on your body is not reversable.
Leprosy of the Biblical type is more of a spiritual disease. There may have been some infection of some sort, but any type of skin irritation or infection could be determined to be leprosy. But it was a spiritual matter, because it was assumed to be caused by sin, by violation of God’s law. It rendered its victims ritually unclean and that rendered them outcasts. Being ritually unclean was quite contagious, even if leprosy was not. For the outcast life was hard and the future was bleak, unless you could be cured.
When Saint Jerome was compiling his Vulgate Latin Translation of scripture, he made the choice to translate the Hebrew word for this disease into a Latin word: Leprosy. By Jerome’s time, Leprosy, Hansen’s Disease, was in fact to be found in Europe and the Middle East – presumably because trade with the Far East had imported the disease. But the leprosy of the Bible was still not Hansen’s disease and so Jerome has sent us down a centuries-long wrong path.
In Jesus’ time, and before, there was probably not a bacterial cause for Leprosy. And Leprosy was not confined to just living things… Your house could have Leprosy too. This was probably an issue with mold or mildew. But any patchy, blotchy, nasty-looking condition fell under the broad heading translated as Leprosy. And remember, leprosy was a spiritual problem – a matter of sin.
It’s interesting that in the reading from Kings, Naaman, Commander of the Aramean Army, is the one with Leprosy. And it is, at most, an inconvenience for him. The Arameans were heathen, so to speak. They did not have a ritual purity code like the Jews. So Naaman is not shunned or cast out. He goes about his life. The only person who seems concerned about his skin condition is a Jewish slave girl who serves Naaman’s wife. She knows the disease is a spiritual illness and she knows of a cure – the Prophet Elisha who lives in Samaria can cure the illness…
Off they go to Samaria to see this Prophet. And without even seeing Naaman, Elisha sends word that the problem is simple. All Naaman has to do is bathe seven times in the River Jordan. Now you might think that Naaman would be grateful and relieved… this treatment was neither arduous nor expensive.
But this upsets Naaman. He is rich and powerful, and this is a treatment that anybody could afford. It does not make him feel special. So, he pouts. Let’s leave him in the time out corner for now…
We fast forward to Jesus’ time and the encounter with ten lepers. These lepers were required to keep a distance and warn folks of their presence. Protecting ritual purity was of utmost importance and any contact with a leper rendered a person unclean.
This sort of quarantine would become far more dire in the Middle Ages. Lepers were required to be dressed a certain way and stay out of occupied places. They had to ring bells as they moved about to warn people of their presence.
By the Middle Ages, leprosy was no longer a spiritual disease, it was now a communicable disease… it was now Hansen’s Disease, which if untreated is both gruesome and deadly. And now Jerome’s slip of translation has added an additional layer of cruelty for the diseased person – they aren’t just diseased, they are cursed.
But in Jesus’ time it is still a spiritual problem. And so, Jesus cures the disease and sends to ten off to see the priests, the spiritual experts. It’s up to the priests to pronounce the ten cured, and until this happens, they are still unclean. Away they go.
And then an unexpected thing happens. One of them comes back to say thank you to Jesus. The other nine presumably go about their business and get on with their lives.
Luke’s telling of this story creates this odd scene where nine folks appear pretty ungrateful for having their lives given back to them. They were just doing what Jesus told them to do – go show themselves to the Priests… Is Jesus expressing regret at having healed the ungrateful nine? Why do we get to know that the one who came back was a Samaritan?
Well, we generally understand that Jews and Samaritans did not like each other. But it was the kind of dislike and distrust that can only happen between folks who are pretty close – like family members. Jews and Samaritans descended from the same ancestors. They had much of their scripture in common. They kept many of the same holy days. But Jews worshiped God who chose the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for his temple, while the Samaritans knew that God had chosen Mount Gerizim.
So, one of the subtle but vital messages of this story of ten leppers has to do with the location of the temple, at least in a Gospel sense. For neither the Temple in Jerusalem, nor the ruined temple on Mount Gerizim is the location.
Jesus is the location – the embodiment of God’s holy temple; and by baptism, so are we. This story in Luke hints very broadly that the Samaritans have made the switch, the healed Samaritan comes back to worship at the living temple – to praise and thank Jesus. The other nine? Not yet.
We left Naaman from the Book of Kings pouting a few paragraphs ago. He is the great and powerful leader, so its up to his various subordinates to talk sense into him. They observe that if Elisha’s instructions had been extremely complicated, surely Naaman would have been fine with that. He should be even more pleased with this simple direction. He should accept the grace that is on offer. And so, he does.
The only thing that stands between Naaman and God’s grace is his own ego. So, about the time I’m ready to write off the Books of Kings as ancient and irrelevant, Naaman is here to tell me otherwise.
And about the time my particular place or form of worship is the one most pleasing to God, these ten lepers are standing by to remind me that Jesus is the place and form of worship – the temple. And we all have a place in that temple because, in a powerful, mystical way, we are that temple.
But it’s not our temple that we share with God… It’s God’s temple that God shares with us… all of us… And with that in mind, how dare we do anything to make someone feel unwelcome or unequal in God’s holy temple.