Sr. Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, Th.D.
Few horror stories conjure up worse images than the biblical portrayal of leprosy. What is today known as Hansen's Disease is named after the Norwegian physician who in 1880 first identified the bacterium that caused the disease. It is a progressive neurological deterioration that with modern medicine is easily treated, but in ancient times was greatly to be feared. It begins as skin lesions that then attack the nerves and cause disfigurement. Even though today those who contract the disease and receive treatment do not need to be isolated, leprosaria still exist in many countries.
In biblical times, contracting the disease was a sentence of being uprooted from home and family to live for the rest of your life in separate dwellings with other lepers. Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 form part of the treatment of ritual uncleanness. They were probably written in the sixth or fifth centuries B.C. to set up regulations for temple worship. These long chapters treat in detail the various symptoms to be observed and what to do about them. In the absence of physicians, it is the priests who are to be the medical experts. In the absence of any kind of medical treatment, the concern is ritual uncleanness, and so exclusion from the worshiping community for the person who is proven after careful and prolonged examination to have the disease.
Our first reading today is a short excerpt from a good but long story. You really should read the whole thing in 2 Kings 5! Naaman is a general in the army of the Aramaeans (the next kingdom east of Israel), but has what is probably an early case of leprosy. A captured Israelite slave girl tells him about a healer in Israel who could do something about it. Trying to be politically correct, he gets his king to talk to her king about getting this healing to happen. The king of Israel thinks it's a setup to do him in because of course he can't heal leprosy, but word gets to Elisha the prophet who says: "Bring him on!" Naaman arrives with his entourage at Elisha's house, anticipating an impressive ceremony of healing. But Elisha doesn't even come out. He just sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the river. What a downer! Naaman thinks his own rivers are better to wash in, but one of his slaves persuades him. This is where our reading comes in. Of course, at the seventh time, his skin is not only restored as an adult, but becomes like that of a child. With appropriate gratitude, he offers gifts, which Elisha refuses.
But wait. There's more to the story that doesn't appear in today's reading. Gehazi, Elisha's wiley servant, gets greedy, runs after Naaman and tells him that Elisha changed his mind after all and will accept money because some visiting prophets have just arrived and he doesn't have the means to entertain them. Of course, Naaman gives him money, but Gehazi has no intention of turning it in to Elisha. Elisha finds out anyway, and in punishment redirects Naaman's leprosy to Gehazi, who goes away with skin "white as snow."
We don't like endings like that, that punish the wrongdoer directly, but it was the thinking of many good theologians at the time. You sin, you die — or at least live in misery forever after. We don't believe that calamity is a punishment for sin. Or do we? You have probably heard some of the outrageous statements made by certain religious leaders after catastrophe strikes, blaming people for the particular sins that they most want to denounce. The same tendency to blame others for what goes wrong in their lives is a temptation that we all find creeping up on us once in awhile.
Faith, healing, gratitude, and ambition, all in one story of Naaman the leper. Today's Gospel story echoes them all. Jesus is on his final journey to his destiny in Jerusalem, in border territory between Galilee and Samaria. He is approached by not one but ten lepers. We don't know how many were men and how many women, but it was probably a mixed gender group because leprosy was no respecter of gender. They must have heard that Jesus could do things like this, or they wouldn't have asked. They are a miserable group that has banded together outside the villages for mutual protection and companionship. They respectfully keep their distance from Jesus. Now Jews didn't like those dirty Samaritans and tried to avoid them whenever possible. But misery somehow dissolves boundaries, and with a common affliction uniting them, these leper Jews and Samaritans could get along with each other, and Jesus' compassion reaches out to them. But he respects the religious rules and tells them to go show themselves to the priests so they can be certified as healed.
Nine run off on their way to the temple to find some priests, caught up in their own new stories. They have their lives to live, and will not look back. Only one stops, turns around, and thinks beyond himself. He praises God and thanks Jesus. Wouldn't you know: he's a Samaritan, the last one you'd expect would have the smarts to do this. Jesus can't figure it out, either. Where are the other nine? He would like to have seen some of his fellow Jews doing the same thing. But he certainly appreciates the thanks anyway. In answer, he assures the healed Samaritan that his faith has "saved" him, which at a first level means that he has been healed. But there's a problem here: all ten were healed. All ten were saved in that sense. So how can this one Samaritan be any better off than he already was after Jesus healed him?
Some recent research suggests that those who suffer from depression and similar illnesses can find healing more easily when they have faith in God who loves them and is concerned about them. This Samaritan took the time and effort to have a personal relationship with Jesus that the other nine didn't have time for. By doing that, he experienced a new depth of the care and concern that Jesus was waiting to give. Naaman the Aramean general in his encounter with Elisha came to know and recognize the true God, the God of Israel. The Samaritan already knew the true God, but now comes a step further in coming to know Jesus.
The one who looks back in gratitude is healed at a deeper level because he believes and responds to the compassion and love of Jesus. In the United States, a special holiday time is set aside for Thanksgiving. Do we spend more of it thinking about cooking the turkey and getting to the TV for football than about relationship with God? The one praised God and thanked Jesus, which is really the same thing. Giving thanks is praise for the one from whom we have received. When we thank a person for a gift, we're saying "You're the best!" When we thank God, that's what we are saying.
Healing happens on many different levels. Physical healing may happen, or not. In so many cases, our bodies are at the mercy of natural forces that take their toll on them, and yet sometimes, seemingly miraculously, they recover. Science still knows very little about the intricate relationship between mind and body.
Spiritual healing is of another kind. It brings peace and renewed relationship, with or without physical healing. It brings reconciliation of what was not working in our relationships with one another and with God. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is meant just for that. There are also many other ways in which reconciliation can come into our lives, perhaps with family members we haven't spoken to for years, or with friends with whom we've had a falling out, or with God, when we think God has done something to us that we don't like. When that kind of reconciliation happens, we are healed at a profound level. With that one leper who came back, we can say "thank you" and start life in a new key. We can say to God: "You're the best!"