Rembrandt: Elisha refuses payment from Naaman
Our truncated first reading (2 Kings 5.14-17) robs us of most of the story of Naaman. A powerful, high-placed Syrian, he contracted leprosy and was distraught to discover this. To find healing he had to discover humility twice over. First, a chattering Hebrew slave girl in his wife’s apartment tells her about Elisha’s wonder-working powers. The great Naaman has to trust the word of a slave. Then when he goes on a long journey to seek Elisha, the prophet simply sends word that he should bathe in the Jordan. In today’s parlance, we would say that Naaman was expecting something considerably more high-tech. He wheels his horse around and rides away in a fury. Again, it is his servants who come to his rescue, pleading with him to give it a go. He does – and he is healed.
How often in our lives are we reluctant to try the more obvious and humble way? This is still so even in the world of health. People with blood pressure or breathing difficulties want a pill: they do not want to be told to lose weight or give up smoking. Similarly, we live in a world where like Naaman people want to be flattered rather than to be told the truth. Egos are massaged, expectations are managed.
One of the reason lepers feature so prominently in biblical stories is because their condition brought terrible isolation. This was the equivalent of infection control 3,000 years ago. Part of the healing was that they were restored to society. Hence that curious detail in the gospel (Luke 17.11-19) where the lepers, we are told ‘stood some way off’ and called out to Jesus. Hidden in this little detail there is a challenge to us. They were forbidden to come near other people. It must have been a very lonely existence, and Jesus in healing them brings them not only physical health but a sense of belonging. Once more they have a community and a family.
But to the one in ten who does turn back, Jesus gives something more. He says: 'Your faith has saved you.' The implication here is that the man is not only cured, but has found a wonderful new relationship with God. Your faith has saved you … the leper is you and me, knowing ourselves loved by God and accepted by God. Jesus offers this to all ten lepers, but only one of them is open to receiving it, just as in our country this day faith is offered to all, but only a few will open their hearts to receive the gift. What is it that keeps them away? In part, at least, it is a kind of pride. Like Naaman the Syrian, they don't want to be thought of as needing anything. In our mind's eye we see ourselves as strong, and thus as able to give to others. Yet all of us need advice, all of us need encouragement, all of us could do with being loved a little bit more and consoled in difficult times. This is what God offers us in Christ and in the Church. We have to have the humility to receive it. Let’s go back to that first reading. The powerful Syrian general has to listen to the advice of servants. And even as we receive the blessing of God we have to remember that God’s love extends beyond the conventional community of faith. Of all the lepers healed, it is, ironically the Samaritan – the despised heretic – who recognises the work of God.
Fr Terry is Parish Priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Brook Green, west London. His latest book: Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, on ICN's front page. To read Sr Gemma Simmonds' review on ICN see: www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=16114