by Linda McMillan
There is a border area between our imagination and the way things really are.
Leprosy is complicated. I am sure it started out simply enough, but by the third century, the laws of leprosy were regarded as “the most abstruse and complicated of laws.”* Contracting leprosy could mean becoming an outcast like the people in today’s reading from Luke, but those were only the worst cases. Others suffered from scales and itching and, like Naaman in today’s reading from 1 Kings, were able to mix in polite society and maybe even become famous and work for the king.
You may remember some people with leprosy from the Bible. There’s Miriam, Moses’s sister, who contracted leprosy and only had to live outside the camp for seven days. In 2 Kings, there were four lepers who lived outside Samaria, perhaps near where Jesus healed the ten who had leprosy in today’s reading from Luke. And, who can forget the tragic story of the mighty King Uzziah, struck with leprosy and made an outcast in the prime of his life. In today’s readings, Elisha will heal Naaman, but later on, Elisha’s own servant will contract leprosy too.
Naaman was a pretty big man around town. He wasn’t king, but he was the king’s right-hand man. He was a great general, and he was probably rich, he might even have been one of those guys who we call “Untouchable.” He was above it all. Of course, when leprosy strikes, he may actually become untouchable. The Bible doesn’t say what kind of leprosy Naaman had. Whatever it was, though, it was not so severe that it kept Naaman from becoming a great general, but it was bad enough that he was willing to travel to Israel and part with a good bit of treasure to have it fixed. Like a lot of problems, it may have started out small. As the disease progressed, Naaman would have become increasing interested in a remedy.
When he heard that there was a prophet in Israel who could heal him, Naaman didn’t hesitate. Right away, he went to his boss — the king — and explained why he’d need some time off work. The king wanted to keep Naaman in good health so he loaded up some gold, some silver, and ten changes of clothes for Naaman to take as an offering and sent him off with an impressive retinue.
It is not a short trip from Aram to Israel. I don’t know how long it would take if you were accompanied by horses and chariots, but it provided plenty of time for Naaman to think about what it might be like to be healed. Great men tend to imagine great things, after all, and Naaman no doubt imagined a marvelous scene in which the prophet would wave his arms, and chant a magical incantation. Maybe there would be fire or even incense. A man’s imagination can get carried away. In this moment of greatness — great healing, great spirituality, great men — Naaman would be the center of attention. God, the prophet, and his whole retinue would be looking at him. The world would stop for one sacred moment and focus on nothing but Naaman.
Except that it didn’t happen like that. After arriving in Israel, some mishegoss with the king, and a final trip to Samaria, Naaman and his parade of treasure finally arrived at the home of Elisha the prophet where they received a perfunctory message that Naaman should go and wash in the Jordan River seven times and his flesh would be made clean. The prophet didn’t even come out of his house. It was not what Naaman had imagined.
There is a border area between our imagination and the way things really are, isn’t there? We imagine ourselves to be a certain kind of person, but really we are not quite like that. (It’s not just you, by the way. We are all that way.) Naaman surely didn’t imagine that he was the kind of man who would be reduced to washing in a muddy river. He was a great man, after all. He should do some great deed, or at least be the center of a great liturgy!
Oh, Elisha could have called forth signs and wonders, even angel songs to accompany Naaman’s healing, but he didn’t. Elisha knew that signs and wonders are never enough. Naaman’s healing came from knowing that it was God, and God alone, who had done it. Naaman was so disappointed in the lack of fanfare that he almost missed being healed entirely. His slave had to convince him that, even though it was humiliating and risky, he should give it a try.
In our reading from Luke today, Jesus was in a border area too. He was between Samaria and Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem, when in the distance he saw ten people who had leprosy. They recognized him and cried out for mercy, and he cleansed them of their disease. These people who had been cast out, made untouchable, were now well. They could be restored to their places in society.
That sounds just great, doesn’t it? It is natural for us to want to make this about other people, about society or even the church. But, what if it’s more personal? What if the leprosy is something inside us?
What is it that you try to keep out? It is those things which we find unacceptable in ourselves which we want to cast out like a leper. We want to make untouchable the wound that will not heal, the failure from which we never really recovered, the relationship that remains broken inside of us. Or, maybe we convince ourselves that we are healed of some past wound, but the truth is that it’s still so tender. Or, we try to believe that something will get better, or that it’s not so bad, when we know that it’s really broken. Over the years it’s easy to cast one thing and then another out of our lives and into a spiritual borderland where we never go… and are never healed.
Be like Naaman, though. Venture out. Go to the border area of your life and call out for Jesus. There might not be signs and wonders, and you probably won’t hear angels singing. But, listen closely. Hear it? The gentle flow of a muddy river.
Linda McMillan is a native Texan. She lives in Shanghai, China. Linda lives vicariously through the lives of the people she meets every week in the Bible.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Miriam contracting leprosy is in Numbers 12
The story of the four lepers who lived outside of Samaria is in 2 Kings 7.
The story of King Uzziah is in 2 Chronicles 26
For the story of how Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, contracted leprosy, keep reading! It starts in 2 Kings 5.
Naaman took ten talents of silver, sixteen shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes. One talent of silver weighed ninety-one pounds, so that’s 910 pounds of silver. There are about three shekels in one troy ounce, so there were about 166 pounds of gold. (From Strong’s Concordance)
Actually, leprosy is still very serious. Today, though, we understand how it is transmitted and how to treat it. It is now very rare and easily curable. That makes is a much different disease than whatever Naaman and the ten people in the border area confronted.