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The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

The Grateful Leper 

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...Alright, so with that said, what about the Old Testament passage for today? Well, this is one of my favorite stories from the Old Testament. It’s from 2 Kings 5. It’s the famous story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian, who also happened to be a leper. Now this is one of those times where if I was in charge of the lectionary, I would have included a lot more of the actual story. The lectionary only gives us verses 14-17. In other words, it gives us the ending of the story, but it doesn’t give us the context. And so it’s a little unfortunate, because we miss out on a lot. So let me just give you the background. I’m going to give you one key verse that I think is actually really crucial for understanding Luke’s Gospel in context.

So the story is this: Naaman is a commander of the Syrian army. So, he’s a Gentile. He’s not from the nation of Israel; he’s from the nation of Syria, who are enemies of the Israelites, the northern kingdom. But he also happens to be a leper, and he knows that there are prophets in Israel who can perform miracles. He’s told this actually by an Israelite concubine of his, a slave girl, who was captured in one of the wars. So he sends a message to the king of Israel, asking him if he could be cured of his leprosy. And what’s fascinating about this is how the king responds. In verse 7 it says this:

And when the king of Israel read [Naaman’s] letter, he rent his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?

So pause there. Notice what the king of Israel’s words presuppose. It presupposes that only God can cure leprosy. Other kinds of miracles can be performed, but when it comes to leprosy, that’s something that only God can do, because it’s completely impossible. Very important. Basically, what the king of Israel is saying is, “This guy is asking me to heal him of leprosy. Who does he think I am, God?” That’s the implication. Now what happens is Elisha the prophet hears about this, and he comes into the king and says, “Let the king know that there is a God in Israel who can do this. Give these instructions to Naaman. Tell him to go and wash seven times in the Jordan River, and when he’s done this, he’ll be cleansed.”

Now, when Naaman hears about this command, he’s actually kind of put off, because the Jordan River is basically like a glorified ditch, and he knows this and he says, “We have all kinds of wondrous rivers in my own land.” Think here about the Mesopotamian Valley, you’ve got the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which were actually considered to be divine because they gave life to the whole land. They’re considered sacred rivers. And so there are lots of rivers in the world that I could go to if I wanted to wash and be cleansed. And so one of his servants said to him, “Well, you know, look...if he had told you to do something difficult, you’d do it. If he tells you to do something humble and simple, why not try that also?” And that’s where the reading for today really picks up. So in verse 14 it says:

So [Naaman] went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him; and he said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will receive none.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. Then Na′aman said, “If not, I pray you, let there be given to your servant two mules’ burden of earth; for henceforth your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord.

Okay, so once you have the context in mind, you can actually see what this story’s about. It’s a story not just of the healing of a leper, it’s the story of the conversion of a Gentile, because as a result of his healing, he comes to recognize that there’s only one God—one true God—and that it’s the God of Israel, the God who has the power to heal him of his leprosy and make his skin clean again. And this God does this at the prompting of the prophet Elisha. Press pause there.

Remember who Elisha is? This is very important for understanding what’s going on. Elisha is the successor of the prophet Elijah. And if you remember, after Elijah is taken up into heaven on a chariot of fire, his successor Elisha is given a twofold portion of his spirit. This means that Elisha is actually more powerful than Elijah, his predecessor, and he performs greater miracles than Elijah. So what’s going on here then, is, in the Old Testament, in the scheme of things, Elisha, who is the prophet who heals Naaman, is considered, in a sense, the greatest miracle worker in the Old Testament. If you want an example of this, later in the book of Kings 13, after Elisha dies and is buried, someone is thrown into the grave with him and just touching his bones brings that man back from the dead. That’s how holy, that’s how powerful Elisha was.

Now the reason all of this matters is because if you fast forward to the New Testament, you’ll recall in the Gospels, Jesus identifies John the Baptist as Elijah. And yet, Jesus is like the successor to John the Baptist. Just as Elijah was the precursor of Elisha, so John the Baptist is the precursor of Jesus. So if John the Baptist is a new Elijah, then Jesus is a new Elisha. But He’s not just a new Elisha, He’s greater than Elisha. So whereas Elisha only healed one leper in the Old Testament, what does Jesus, the new Elisha, do? He heals ten lepers, all at once, and they don’t have to go down to the Jordan River and wash seven times. He does it instantaneously. All they have to do is obey his word and start heading toward the Temple and they’re all cleansed.

This story reveals two things about Jesus, this Old Testament reading, this great pairing with the New Testament today. First, Jesus is a new and greater Elisha. He’s performing miracles that are ten times—literally—greater than the Old Testament miracles. But even more than that...second, He’s also a Divine Savior. Because think about it, in the Old Testament, what did it say? Who can cure leprosy directly? It’s God, right? “Am I God, that I can heal this man of this leprosy?”

What did Jesus do in the New Testament? Unlike Elisha, He doesn’t have to send the man down to the river and wash and do all these different things. Jesus heals the man directly and immediately. And so there’s a—it’s just a hint—but there’s a hint of the revelation of Jesus’ Divinity. If you know the Old Testament, you know that only God can cure lepers, then it begs the question: Who is this Jesus who heals ten lepers at once? And the answer comes to you when the leper comes back to Him and falls prostrate before Him and gives Him thanks for what He has done...

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