Trinity 19 10 Proper 23
2 Kings 5.1-15, Luke 17.11-19
I don’t know whether you are a fan of TV hospital dramas – Casualty, Holby City, House, ER and so on – I’m always quite happy to sit down at the end of a long day and watch them, and I know I’m not alone. They might not be Shakespeare, but they are very absorbing. It’s a popular genre with a long history. But why? Are we all just sadists, with an unhealthy taste for watching other people’s suffering - albeit fictional?
I hope that’s not so, but what is it then? Is it the medical detail we are looking for? I doubt that as well. Unless you are a doctor or a nurse, you probably aren’t sitting there thinking to yourself “Hmm, that’s an interesting surgical procedure…”
The truth is that it’s not the diseases or of the cures that we are really interested in, but the human dramas that are provoked by them. It doesn’t really matter to us what kind of fracture someone got when they fell off that ladder or what sort of plaster their leg is put in. What we really want to know is how this accident is going to change things for them and those around them. Perhaps there will be a reconciliation with a long lost child or they’ll make a new friend out of the stranger next door who helps them out. Perhaps a secret will come to light or a discovery be made. Perhaps families will be drawn together, or split apart. Sometimes there are happy endings, sometimes not, but the crisis interrupts their normal lives, and things change. That’s what fascinates us – those moments of change – because so often that is what we are hungry for, or fearful of, in our own lives too.
Our love for a good medical story, as I said, goes back a long way – perhaps some here remember Dr Finlay’s casebook or Emergency Ward 10 – but if we look at today’s Bible readings we can trace the line much further back than that, thousands of years back in fact. Both the Old Testament and Gospel readings contain stories that are squarely in this tradition. The people in them aren’t healed by pills or surgery, of course, but by the miraculous action of God. That may seem to make them very different from modern medical dramas, and perhaps very puzzling to us, but to the people who first told and heard these stories the whole world was miraculous. Life was God’s gift. Healing was in his hands. They wouldn’t have thought twice about the way these people were healed, any more than we ask technical questions about an episode of Casualty. These were stories – just like our modern ones – which were really about the people involved in them, about their hidden agendas and mixed motives, revelations and reconciliations.
The Old Testament story comes from the book of Kings. Naaman was the commander of the armies of Aram, which is at war with Israel. He was “a great man, in high favour with his master..” But he had contracted leprosy. It was a terrible blow, not just physically, but professionally. Lepers were often excluded from society in the ancient world, regarded with suspicion, kept at a distance. How can he lead an army now? And it must have seemed like a personal affront too. Naaman’s whole life revolved around being strong, and being seen to be strong, but now he’s weak, helpless and disfigured.
He’s desperate for a cure, and so is his king. So when his wife’s Israelite slave girl starts talking about a prophet in her country who could help, there is no hesitation. Naaman is sent off to the king of Israel to find a cure, with lots of gifts to smooth the way, and a letter of introduction.
Of course it was never going to be that easy, any more than it is in Casualty – there would be no story if it was. There is politics involved. The king of Israel’s heart sinks when he opens the letter. This is a no-win situation for him. If Naaman is cured, he’ll have strengthened an already powerful rival for power in the region. If Naaman isn’t cured, though, the king of Aram will see it as a deliberate snub, and all hell will break loose.
Fortunately for Naaman, Elisha hears of this in the nick of time, and sends a message – let Naaman come, he says. He takes the responsibility on himself.
But this turns out to be a mere hiccup in the story. The big problem is yet to come, and it is far more difficult for Naaman to deal with, because it lies within his own heart. Naaman is a great man, used to the red-carpet treatment, so he expects that his healing will be spectacular too, noble, befitting his status. When he gets to Elisha’s house, though, the prophet doesn’t even come out to greet him. He just sends a messenger, and the message he brings sounds like an insult to Naaman. Go down and wash in the river. That’s it?! Where are the prayers and incantations, the grand rituals? It isn’t even much of a river – just a muddy trickle. He might as well have stayed at home and bathed in a decent Aramean river. It feels to him like a deliberate insult. His illness has probably damaged his self-esteem anyway, but now it seems Elisha is determined to tear the last scraps of it away.
They say that pride goes before a fall, but in truth pride often comes after it too, preventing us from accepting the help we need. Sometimes people would rather die – quite literally – than feel the humiliation of losing face before others. Naaman has been so desperate for a cure, but just when it is within his grasp it looks as if he will turn away from it, simply because he feels it is beneath his dignity to take it. It is a very cheap cure, but that makes it too costly for Naaman. It is a very easy cure, but that makes it too difficult for him to face. A man of his status who has come all this way ought surely to get something far more sophisticated than this.
At the beginning of the story, it was a slave girl who said what needed to be said. Now again it is the servants who speak sense to Naaman. Perhaps if you are at the bottom of the pile, you are less inclined to worry about saving face. “It can’t hurt to give it a go…” they say, and Naaman, fortunately, is persuaded. When he comes up out of the water of the Jordan, he is healed, not just in body, but in spirit too. He comes back to Elisha to declare a new allegiance to Elisha’s God., a God whose love you can’t buy, which you don’t get because you deserve it, but because you need it, no matter who you are or where you’ve come from. He’s released from the anxious striving that has marked his life, that obsessive need to impress others, even when he was ill, and it changes him completly.
In the Gospel Jesus meets ten people with the same disease as Naaman - leprosy. “Have mercy on us!” they cry. So he does. Again, it is all very simple. “Go and show yourselves to the priests”, he says – it was the priests who certified that you were cured and said it was safe for you to rejoin your community. They head off, and as they go, they see that they are clean – the marks of the disease are gone.
At this point one of them - just one - turns back to thank Jesus and praise God. The others have hurried off, back to their old lives, so that everything can be as it was before this wretched disease struck them. But this tenth one realises that nothing can ever be as it was before. It’s not about getting the old life back, but about getting a whole new life with new values, new priorities and new relationships.
All ten are “made clean” according to the story – in the Greek it is the ordinary word for washing or purifying. It is important, but it is superficial and temporary. But it is only this one who is told that he has been “made well”. The Greek word is one that is often translated as “saved”, and it signifies something that is far more than skin deep. A lot of Christians talk about salvation as if it is simply about what happens to your soul after death, a ticket to heaven, to put it crudely. But that’s not what the Bible says about salvation at all. In the Bible salvation is usually far more to do with the here and now. It is about the healing of this world, the transforming of our inner attitudes and motivations, our relationships and our societies. It is about justice and love; things which bring heaven to earth for all of us, rather than something which lifts a chosen few to another realm when they die. It is about the kind of changes which enrich our lives now and change our vision. That’s what this tenth leper has found. That is what Naaman found. They were glad to be rid of their leprosy, but that wasn’t the most important thing that happened to them on the day they were healed. Just like the stories in Casualty, these aren’t stories about medical conditions being cured, whether by pills or by prayer, but about human lives and relationships being redeemed, restored, remade.
Both these men will die one day, as we all do. There comes a point where neither medicine nor miracles will be able to stop that natural process. True healing isn’t and can never be just about preventing or removing disease, staving off death. These stories remind us that the really important healing we all need is the healing which draws us closer to God and to one another, which enables us to love more deeply and live more fully.
Naaman’s pride almost prevented him finding that healing, even though it was right there in front of him. That tenth leper almost missed it too – settling for what he had before as his friends did. These stories, like our modern medical dramas, give us a chance to ask ourselves what healing we might really need, and what might stop us finding it. Perhaps they remind us too, that we don’t have to wait for a crisis to reach out to God and to one another to ask for that help.