Were There No Lepers in Israel?

Were There No Lepers in Israel?

Rev. Stephen Hollaway

2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 4:22-30,

February 14, 2021


What was Jesus thinking? It was his first sermon in his hometown synagogue, to people who still thought of him as “that carpenter’s boy.” Didn’t he want to make a good first impression? Instead, he touches the third rail of theology, which is nationalism. Today is the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, when we celebrate the revelation of God to the whole world—to foreigners like the three Magi—which is why the lectionary turns to the story of Naaman which gets Jesus in trouble.

If Jesus had taken a preaching class—like the ones that Rob Hoch used to teach—he would have been given the advice not to say anything controversial for the first year in a new pulpit, until he had gained their trust. They say not to come off sounding all righteous fresh out of seminary, telling old folks that what they’ve believed their whole lives was wrong. Most preachers are like Senators who don’t want to offend their base, the ones who voted them in. Most preachers want to be liked and are drawn to the role because they tend to be conventional. Not Jesus.

Jesus didn’t care if he was liked. He was not conventional. He was not afraid of losing his job. He only cared what his heavenly Father thought of him, and that Father was the God of the prophets. Jesus said “You are blessed when people insult you and persecute you and say bad things about you. Rejoice, be glad, because they did the same thing to the prophets.”

Jesus began his Nazareth gig well enough, reading from Isaiah and then indicating that his own ministry would be along the lines Isaiah described, oriented to the poor, the blind, and the imprisoned. Then he speaks directly to his former neighbors in a tone that is not all that appreciative. “I know you’re going to ask me, ‘Why don’t you do miracles here like you did other places?’ I understand that it’s hard for you to see a hometown kid as a prophet. You’re not sure I have that kind of authority. But I didn’t come here to put on a show for you to prove I’m a prophet.”

That’s the personal chip Jesus has on his shoulder, but then he turns to upsetting what they think about God. God shows no preference for people from Israel, his “home” country. Let me give you two examples, he says. In Elijah’s day, there were many needy widows in Israel, but the scriptures never tell us that Elijah was sent to them. Instead, God sent Elijah to a Gentile widow in Zarephath, a Phoenician. In Elisha’s day, there were many people suffering from leprosy in Israel, but Elisha did not heal any of them. The only one he healed was Naaman, a Syrian and an enemy soldier.

Doesn’t that bother you? Your religion is Israel-First-ism. You start from the assumption that God loves our nation the best. But here’s the truth: God has no preference for Israel. God’s preference is for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.

The congregation acted as if Jesus had taken down the Israeli flag. Of course, there was no Israeli flag, but I know the reaction I got more than once when I tried removing the American flag from a Baptist sanctuary. The flag would conveniently have to be moved for Christmas decorations or for a wedding and I would “forget” to put it back for as long as I could. Inevitably a delegation from the American Legion would demand its return. Sometimes I would explain to them that I grew up in Japanese churches with no flags—where the thought of putting a Japanese flag in the sanctuary would have been outrageous. I tried to walk away before they said, “That’s different, because Japan isn’t a Christian country. America is founded on faith in God.”

In Jesus’ case, his questioning of Israel’s special place in God’s affections made his neighbors so mad that they mobbed him like the crowd pushing their way into the Capitol. Instead of Mike Pence, they wanted to hang Jesus. The wall of people forced him out of the center of town to a cliff. They planned to push him off to his death. Jesus could have had a very brief ministry. But Jesus being Jesus, he walked right through the middle of the crowd and went on his way. You can explain that by saying he had such personal authority that no one would actually touch him, or you can say that he had a supernatural cloaking device and escaped unseen. The next time we see Jesus, he’s preaching every Saturday in the Capernaum synagogue. I have to wonder if he tried a different sermon in his new location. They seemed to like him there.

The story of Naaman the Syrian is one of many miracle stories recorded about Elijah and Elisha (his disciple and successor). There are plenty of them that take place within the borders of Israel. A different preacher could have said, drawing from the previous chapter of 2 Kings, “There were many little boys who died in the nations around Israel, but Elisha didn’t bring any of them back from the dead. It was only the son of a rich Israelite lady of Shunem who was raised from the dead.” But Jesus decided to point out two miracles done for foreigners.

Jesus is going right at the prejudices of the people of Nazareth. Like most Americans, and many people of other nations, they thought their own country was the best. In Israel, the whole theological establishment enforced this view. Even though Israel had been conquered repeatedly and was currently occupied by the Roman Empire, it was a bedrock conviction that God loved them best. You know Americans who would never doubt that the USA is the greatest country on earth, or that America is specially blessed by God. Jesus is saying to us, “Not so fast.”

Some of the people who marched on the Capitol January 6 were convinced they needed to save America for God. They were convinced that the other party is on the side of Satan and their party is on the side of God. They believe that God always intended to create a White Protestant republic based on the King James Version, property rights, and patriarchy. It’s not just QAnon that is a cancer on the party, as McConnell pointed out; it is the whole delusion of Christian nationalism. And, I think Jesus would say, nationalism itself.

The point of the Naaman story is that God heals a foreigner who was also an enemy of the state of Israel. Syria—here called by the name Aram—was a regional power that bordered Israel. They had invaded Israel before and taken slaves. You would think that there was no love lost between Israel and Syria. But it doesn’t cross Elisha’s mind that he should refuse to heal this foreigner.

Naaman the warrior suffered from leprosy. The Hebrew word here does not mean the disease we know as leprosy or Hansen’s disease. It was a broad term covering all kinds of skin disorders. Naaman’s condition may well have been psoriasis which left white crusty patches all over his skin. Have you noticed how many drug commercials there are these days for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis? I wondered if there was an epidemic. No, but there are about 8 million people in the US who suffer from it.

Naaman was still able to function as a soldier. The main issue with this skin condition was social stigma. People in the ancient Near East had no idea of contagion. They weren’t worried about catching leprosy or giving it to someone. What they did worry about was ritual uncleanness, which was more like having a curse on you. When I was a kid, we used to worry about getting “cooties” from girls. It wasn’t about actual bugs or germs, but something more like getting their “juju.” Lepers had to warn people they were unclean because they would make people who touched them ritually unclean. For Jews, they were the human equivalent of pork or shrimp; they could contaminate you spiritually.

Naaman only found out about Elisha through am Israelite slave girl who served his wife. She must have cared about Naaman, because she wanted him to go see the prophet to get healed. The king of Syria really, really wanted his general to be healed, so he sent Naaman to the king of Israel with a letter of introduction and $300,000 worth of silver and $4 million in gold.

Unfortunately, the king of Syria’s letter said, “I want you to heal him of leprosy,” and the king of Israel freaked out. Why is he asking me to heal someone with leprosy? Am I God? He thought maybe this would be a pretext for another war. Fortunately, Elisha heard about the letter and said, “I think he meant me. Send the man to me.”

What follows is a story about a great man having to humble himself. When General Naaman gets to Elisha’s house, the prophet doesn’t come out to greet him and his parade of horses and chariots. He sends his servant with a message: “Wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River.” Naaman feels disrespected. He expected the prophet to come out to him and perform some kind of ceremony, waving his hand over the white patches and saying magic words. But all he does is send a servant to pass along some kind of folk remedy, rubbing muddy water on his skin. “I might as well go home to the rivers of Damascus.”

Once again it is a servant who wants to see Naaman healed. “Sir, if he had asked you something difficult—if he had given you the twelve labors of Hercules—you would have done them to be healed. Do something easy when he tells you to wash and be cured!” Isn’t that the way we are? If Jesus gave us a list of things to do, we’d try, but he tells us to be baptized in faith and it seems too simple. We have to humble ourselves to accept a gift. Naaman is persuaded and dips himself in the Jordan seven times—and sure enough, his skin becomes as smooth as the skin of a child.

Before long, this story must have gotten back to the old men sitting at the gates of the capital city. No doubt one of them said, “Why would this man of God want to help a foreigner? Were there no lepers in Israel to heal? We need to take care of our own people first.”

Americans say this as if it is a self-evident truth: You should always take care of your own country first, and only help foreigners if you have leftovers. The argument against admitting immigrants is that the foreigners will take goods and services that we could have for ourselves. At this very moment, it seems to be taken for granted that the U.S. needs to buy enough vaccines for all its citizens before it thinks about people in poor countries.

The young preacher Jesus picked up a subversive theme that runs through the Hebrew scriptures—the truth that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world, and that he loves all the people of the world. That truth is in tension with the Hebrew voices that claim Yahweh as their tribal God, always on their side. Later in Luke, Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but then tells a story of a foreigner who showed love to someone who despised him. The old way, Jesus says, is to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I am telling you to love your enemy.

What Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth of is the fact that God already loves the foreigners. God already loves your enemy. God is not a weapon for you to use against your enemy. Here at First and Franklin, we are often reminded that God loves the people of Cuba. God loves the sovereign nations in the Dakotas. God loves the victims of war in Yemen and Naaman’s own nation of Syria.

“America First” is merely selfishness on a national scale. It is a Christian heresy that misunderstands how interconnected all humans are and misunderstands what God requires. Our primary citizenship is, after all, in the kingdom of heaven, a realm made up of every nation, tribe, and tongue. On Valentine’s Day, and at the end of Epiphany, let us embrace a love as wide as God’s love for the world.