leprosy

Grateful to the End

Luke 17:11-19

The lack of gratitude shown by nine of ten lepers remains astonishing. As I’m sure many of you know, lepers were complete outcasts, the walking dead of their day.

They could have been suffering any of a host of skin diseases. There was the modern-day leprosy, now known more formally as Hansen’s Disease, a bacterial infection that in Jesus’ day led to large lesions all over the body. Other skin diseases like eczema or psoriasis could get you labeled a leper, too.

And once you were diagnosed as such, you were to keep your distance from everyone else. The Mosaic law didn’t prescribe a precise distance, but some rabbis thought about 50 yards, half the length of a football field, to be acceptable.

That’s why lepers lived and traveled in groups. The only meaningful human contact they could have was with each other.

As we’ve seen in our gospel story today, one of these groups encountered Jesus, humbly cried out for healing, and received the sought blessing. The healing happened as the lepers made their way toward the priests who would declare them clean. But only one, seeing the healing, returned to thank his healer. Oddly enough, he was a Samaritan, a man considered by the Jews to be unholy simply because of his birth.

And just in case we wonder whether God really expects gratitude from us, God Among Us, God in Flesh, Jesus, commented rather directly on the situation. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Consider the healing they had received. It was more than just physical. They were restored in many other ways.

They were restored to family. Some of them may not have been able to draw closer than shouting distance to family for years. The close embrace of spouse and children likely was returned to at least some of these lepers. For the ones who did not have such relationships before going into exile, the promise of such happiness now was in their futures.

They were restored to community and all its benefits, including the ability to worship with others, earn a living, and benefit from the protection offered by the larger group.

They also were affirmed in a kind of righteousness many people would have assumed they lacked. One of the subtleties of the laws surrounding leprosy was that the isolation imposed on lepers had little to do with community fear of cross-infection. There’s a lot of evidence lepers weren’t always forced out right away—for example, people suspected of having leprosy might have been allowed to complete a scheduled marriage or stick around for the holy days before being formally inspected by a priest and declared unclean.

In other words, in Jesus’ non-scientific time, skin diseases were seen as being a direct result of sin. The sinner had been marked. If you were healed, you were seen as being back in God’s good graces.

Healing from such an affliction was a big deal, a life-changing event, one worthy of deep gratitude. In the grand sweep of Jesus’ ministry, though, the healing of the lepers was a relatively minor miracle.

We have all been healed in far greater ways. It is a healing offered to everyone and accepted by many. Here’s a classic Bible verse every Christian should know: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

Left to steep in sin, we would rot away to nothing, vanishing from the sight of God. Whatever hell is like, it is nothing but despair. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, however, we are rescued and restored.

From the moment we turn to Jesus and cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” we see our healing begin. As we walk through life, the lesions of eternal death fade. Even though we may face a temporal death, we know we are walking toward eternal life.

And yet, do we return to give appropriate thanks? Do we rush to the places where God expects to find us?

Are we in worship as often as we can? Surely an eternal healing requires a regular routine of thanks and praise.

Do we thank God by responding fully to the calls he has placed on us, calls to discipleship and service to others? Surely the gift of eternal life calls for extreme dedication of this worldly life to God’s mission.

It is easy to take our healing and simply walk back to life as it was before. It is easy, but it is not right.

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Why Healing Happens

2 Kings 5:1-14

I should begin with an explanation of what leprosy represents Biblically. It is so far from our modern-day experiences that it’s easy for us to miss what the great warrior Naaman was experiencing.

The Hebrew and Greek words we translate as “leprosy” actually encompassed a host of skin diseases, but I think we can safely assume the lepers we’re going to talk about today suffered from a crippling, disfiguring skin disease, one still happening in the world. (We don’t see it so much in modern nations because the disease is caused by bacteria, and antibiotics go a long way toward providing a cure.)

In the days before antibiotics, or in poor places that today don’t have easy access to advanced antibiotics, the disease was and is horrible. It causes skin sores, severe nerve damage, and eventually, muscle weakness. Ironically, it is not a painful disease—it actually deadens a person’s ability to sense pain. Lepers become disfigured in part because they’re continually injuring themselves without realizing it; their skin also can become dead looking, giving sufferers a passing resemblance to the zombies popular in recent movies.

Obviously, nobody wants leprosy, and perhaps that’s the cruelest part of the disease. If you have leprosy, nobody wants to be near you. Societies for centuries have forced lepers to live apart, isolating them from the people who fear them and keeping them from the loving touch of friends and family.

For some reason, Naaman had avoided this forced isolation, most likely because he was so tremendously valuable as a warrior and military commander for the kingdom of Aram. Still, he needed help, and his king wanted him to get help, too. (I wonder if Naaman’s appearance was starting to give the king and his court the willies.)

When an Israelite slave girl mentioned there was a prophet in her land who could heal such diseases, Naaman and his Aramean king jumped on the possibility. The king gave Naaman a letter to take to the Israelite king.

After some comic confusion—the Israelite king at first thought these war-prone Arameans were demanding that he provide the healing—Naaman finally heard from Elisha, the prophet spoken of by the servant girl. “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel,” Elisha said in a message to the king.

It is at this point in the story that we begin to see why healing happens. As I’ve mentioned in recent weeks, in our craving for physical healing for ourselves or loved ones, we forget that such healings are temporary events. As best we know, everyone who received healing in the Bible, Naaman included, later died. The healing itself did not ultimately avoid what seems inevitable, sickness and death.

So what do we really learn about healing from Naaman’s story? Why does healing happen?

In this story, healing shows us God is present in the world. In particular, people who don’t know God can often see God for the first time when miraculous healing occurs. In Naaman’s case, he first recognized there was a prophet present, despite Naaman’s initial display of arrogance. From there, he was able to develop an initial understanding of who the true God is, realizing there had to be power behind the prophet. (Read further in 2 Kings, and you can see how Naaman tried to respond.)

Jesus also healed lepers, but there is something even greater about God being revealed in those stories. Look at Mark 1:40-45. Here, we see a leper who came begging, saying to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus, we are told, was moved with either pity or compassion, depending on the English translation you use, and touched the man in order to heal him.

It’s particularly interesting to me that Jesus told the man not to tell others about the healing, instead instructing him to go to the priests to be declared clean. We can pretty easily see why as the story continues—Jesus’ ministry was actually frustrated by the former leper’s disobedient decision to “proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.” The crowds coming to Jesus swelled so quickly that he was forced into the countryside.

Based on Jesus’ words, I would conclude it was not yet time in his ministry for such signs of a divine presence. But Jesus, God among us, was so filled with compassion for one hurting person that he could not resist healing him, despite that act making the organized expansion of his ministry more difficult.

Don’t you like that image—God wanting events to transpire in an orderly way, but so filled with love for us, so moved by our pain, that he gets things out of order for our sakes?

We’re pointed toward the big picture of how salvation is happening. In Genesis, we see brokenness; because of sin, sickness and death are our lot. In Jesus, we see the solution, with the perfect, unbroken Savior dying on the cross for our sins. Then we are told a time will come when all will be set right, when all will be healed even from death, and healing will be permanent. This all seems to fit a neat, logical pattern, and the inherent promise at the end of the pattern is by itself enough of a gift that we should be eternally grateful.

And yet, despite all God has done to save us—despite the gift of eternity we’ve already been offered—God’s compassion for us still breaks through in the present. He still loves us so much that he gets things out of order for our sakes. And we find ourselves healed, often spiritually, but sometimes even physically.

Yes, it’s a mystery why some receive this temporary healing and others don’t. All we can do is accept these miracles as grace on top of grace, and acknowledge we do indeed worship a God of love.