A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 9 October 2022
The two stories that we’re offered today, one from the Old Testament and the other in our Gospel reading, sit well alongside each other. There are obvious similarities, with both stories concerned with people suffering from leprosy. But the resonances go deeper than that.
The first story was about Naaman, a commander of the army of the king of Aram. Naaman was a successful man who came with all his horses and chariots to the entrance of Elisha’s house, looking to be healed of his leprosy.
It’s a wonderful story and too much of it has been omitted from our reading today.
For instance, in some of the verses that have been left out, we learn of the size of the present that Naaman brings with him – 10 talents of silver, 6000 shekels of gold and 10 sets of garments. What on earth is Elisha going to do with all that stuff?
In fact he does nothing – he turns it down.
But when Naaman leaves, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, rushes after him, inventing some cock and bull story in order to get something out of Naaman for himself. Of course, Elisha knows exactly what Gehazi has been up to and confronts him on his return.
So I do encourage you to read the whole passage at home in that fifth chapter of the second book of Kings. It’s well worth doing to appreciate the whole story.
The part of the story we heard about was when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house. You can picture the scene, this powerful man with all his retinue turning up at Elisha’s front door, but instead of bowing and scraping in front of him Elisha doesn’t even come out to meet him. He sends someone else out with a simple command that Naaman should go and wash in the Jordan seven times to be healed.
Naaman is outraged.
Let’s hear again what he has to say for himself:
‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’
There are echoes here of all sorts of characters that we’ve come across in life. Powerful people, used to getting their own way, people who enjoy being treated with the respect they think they deserve. But under all that bluff and bluster, Naaman’s a very vulnerable man – he’s got leprosy.
Help for Naaman comes from some surprising places.
Not from the kings in the story, neither the king of Israel nor the king of Aram with all their power and wealth can ultimately help him. Instead help comes from somewhere quite unexpected.
First, we heard of a young captive girl from the land of Israel who serves Naaman’s wife. At the beginning of the story, she’s the one who suggests that Naaman should go to the prophet in Samaria – she’s quietly confident that Elisha can cure Naaman of his leprosy.
And later on in the story, when in anger Naaman has turned his back on Elisha, we then hear of Naaman’s servants suggesting to him that if the prophet had commanded him to do something difficult then he would have done it, so why not obey when he’s asked to do something simple?
Stop being such an idiot!
Crucial on both occasions is the fact that it’s the servants who get alongside Naaman. Masters inhabit the same world as he does, they’re rivals. Servants on the other hand are marginal, powerless people who know about vulnerability because they’re vulnerable themselves. So without any loss of face on Naaman’s part, they can tell him to stop behaving like a fool. And they do. And he does.
By listening to his servants and doing the simple thing that Elisha has suggested, Naaman experiences God’s transforming power. We heard how ‘his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean’.
It’s a deeply moving story with lots to reflect on.
What about today’s Gospel reading?
In this story it isn’t a servant but another marginal person, a Samaritan, an outsider who, when he experiences the transforming power of Christ in his life, responds wholeheartedly.
The other nine lepers are dutiful, obedient, doing exactly as they’ve been told by going to show themselves to the priests.
But at the end it isn’t the dutiful ones, the obedient ones that are commended, but the Samaritan. When he sees that he’s been healed, he immediately goes back to Christ – and his response is extravagant.
No simple handshake – no note sent through the post to say a polite ‘thank you’ – instead he praises God with a loud voice, prostrates himself at Christ’s feet and thanks him from the bottom of his heart.
He’s a Samaritan not an Anglican.
It’s another wonderful story with lots to reflect on.
Both stories tell of God’s transforming power at work in broken and fragile lives.
In both, the ones who know about this are not the rich and powerful, the dutiful and obedient – but those who are themselves vulnerable, powerless and outsiders.
And this points us to the strange work of God in Christ.
Yes, we call him Master and Lord and rightly so, but we need to be wary of thinking of Christ as another Master like Naaman, another powerful person only bigger and more powerful than anyone else we know.
It’s more disconcerting than that.
God comes to us in Christ as a servant, as an outsider, as someone who in the world’s eyes is weak, powerless and vulnerable.
God comes to us like this in Christ, to meet us in our weakness, to come alongside us with all our vulnerability, to offer us the transforming power of his love.
Thanks be to God.