Like a lot of other people, over the last week or so I have been suffering from a cold. If you haven’t had it you probably will – it seems to be doing the rounds fairly comprehensively. Of course it’s a fairly trivial illness,but I’d just as soon not have had it, thank you very much, and if someone could have waved a magic wand and made it go away I would have been very happy to let them. For those with serious or long term illness and disability life it is even harder, of course, and the longing to feel better is many, many times more intense.
No one likes being ill; we would all feel there was something really wrong with anyone who enjoyed it.
If we feel like this now about disease, just wanting it to be taken away. we can only imagine what it might have felt like to be ill in centuries gone by. Until very recently there were no treatments for many diseases, and very little in the way of pain relief either. You might get better. You might not. But you would certainly suffer along the way.There was very little that could be done about it, so anything that seemed to offer the slightest hope would be something to grasp at.
The people in our Old Testament and Gospel readings today were suffering the double whammy of leprosy. The term used in the Bible actually covered a whole range of skin diseases, so we don’t know what the diagnosis would be today, but in Bible times the prospects for them were grim. Not only did they suffer the physical symptoms of their disease, but also the social and spiritual isolation that came with it. No one knew what caused leprosy, so sufferers were often made to live apart from others, not just because people thought they might catch the disease but also because there was a widespread belief that it was a punishment from God, something they had deserved in some way, brought on themselves through their own sins.
It is no wonder that Naaman, whom we met in the Old Testament reading, was so desperate for a cure. How could he command the army of his king, the king of Aram, if he was an outcast? When the little Israelite slave girl he had captured in a raid on Israel blurts out to his wife that there is a prophet in Israel who could cure him, he leaps at the chance. His king is just as keen, sending the king of Israel treasures to persuade him to allow Naaman to seek Elisha’s help.
This presents the king of Israel with an awkward dilemma though. Aram is a mighty nation, the dominant force in the region, but they are Israel’s enemies. If the king of Israel says yes, he will be giving succour to the enemy. If he says no, he will risk bringing their wrath down on the nation. And what if Elisha can’t actually come up with the goods…? It seems like a no win situation to him, but Elisha sees the person not the politics. If Naaman needs healing, let him come and ask for it.
But although the diplomatic complexities have been sorted out, it soon becomes clear that the psychological complexities are even worse.. Naaman wants to be healed. He really wants to be healed. He wants it so much that he would give anything to be healed, do anything to be healed – engage in some complicated ritual, go through some costly procedure, take all the time and energy it might take. But when he gets near Elisha’s house he finds himself met by a servant with a message that all he needs to do is bathe seven times in the rather muddy trickle that was the River Jordan. As his servants eventually point out, there is something to be said for the simple approach – why makes something difficult if it doesn’t need to be? But I think we can understand why he is so offended by Elisha’s prescription. Somehow it seems to him to trivialise both him and his disease. What was the point of coming all this way and abasing himself to do so if it was going to be as simple as a dip in a river?
But of course it was the journey – psychological and physical – which brought him the healing he really needed, a re-evaluation of his life, a reorientation of his spirit. That was the costly and difficult thing – complex rituals and great financial outlay were one thing, acknowledging his need and his vulnerability, putting down that image of the great and mighty leader was quite another, but it was this which was vital in leading him to see beyond the narrow militaristic nationalism he had lived by to the God that was both Elisha’s and his.
He came for the healing of a skin disease, an illness that was literally skin deep. He went home with healing that reached to the root of his being.
In the Gospel too, a sick person receives more than he bargained for. It is important to note that this isn’t a story about saying thank you – important though that is. Of course the one leper who comes back to Jesus is grateful to him, but that isn’t what Jesus singles out for comment. What he actually says is that this one – and he was a Samaritan, adds Jesus – has come back to give praise to God. The others have done just as Jesus told them. They have gone to show themselves to the priest. That was the way in which those with leprosy were declared officially to be cured from their diseases and allowed to associate with others again. They are clearly overjoyed and relieved, but all they are concerned to do is to go back to the lives that they had before they got ill. The Samaritan, though, realises that there is more to this than simply the immediate relief of finally being rid of this awful disease. He saw that in Jesus God was doing something entirely new, and that through his healing God had called him to a whole new way of life, not just to go back to the life he had.
There are actually three different Greek words used in this passage to talk about healing. The first one, which describes the moment when all ten lepers realise they have been cured is katharizo – we get our word “catharsis” from it. As this translation suggests it literally means to be “made clean”. The visible signs of the leprosy have gone, the symptoms have cleared up. This was all that mattered if they wanted to be reintegrated into their society.
The Samaritan though, sees that he is more than made clean – he is “healed”. The word is “iathe” – it is a word linked to the word for doctor – “iatros”. It is not just the symptoms that have gone, but the disease itself. Something fundamental has changed in him, even if he isn’t quite sure what.
But when Jesus speaks to him he goes even further than this. “Your faith has made you well”, Jesus says to him, and the word he uses is sozo which is more usually translated as “saved”. This man’s life has been turned around. He has found a new purpose, a new direction through his encounter with this man who was prepared to come to him where he was, on the margins of society among the unloved and rejected.
The message of both these stories is the same, and it isn’t too difficult to see what it is.
When something is wrong in our lives, whether it is a physical disease or some other trouble that has befallen us, it is entirely natural that all we want is for the problem to go away, for the pain to stop. It is entirely understandable that we look for the quickest fix we can find. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But sometimes in our longing simply to feel better on the surface we miss the deeper healing we really need, the changes that might help us in the future to deal better with trouble and pain. Naaman was desperate for a cure for his skin disease, but actually what was going on in his soul needed attention just as much, if not more, and in the end gave him healing that went much more than skin deep. The Samaritan, like the other lepers, wanted relief from his suffering, but he recognised that in Jesus he had found far more than that, someone who could make him “well” at the core of his being.
I don’t believe that God sends illness to test us, and I don’t think that it helps much when people are suffering to exhort them to look for the blessing in it. In fact I think it can just add insult to injury. But I do believe that God is with us in every part of life, every circumstance, both good and bad, and that means that in everything that happens we can hear his voice if our ears are open to it. It can be just as much a struggle for us as it was for these sufferers from Bible times to hear the deeper messages that come to us in times of trouble though. We might need to hear that we should slow down and look after ourselves better, but that goes against our need to be needed and to look busy. We might need to think again about what we are doing with our lives instead of just pressing on regardless in the same old pathways, but it’s hard work to get out of the ruts we are stuck in. We might need to face up to something we’ve been hiding from – like Naaman we might struggle with the idea that we too are vulnerable, mortal and needy.
Whatever the messages we need to hear, if they come from God they will be worth paying attention to, because they will bring us healing that is more than skin deep, not just taking away the superficial signs of what ails us, but turning us around, as they did to Naaman and the Samaritan leper. They will enable us to see the loving presence of God whatever is happening to us, and that is what will make us truly “well”, in sickness and health, in life and in death.