Grace and gratitude seem to be at the heart of the lectionary choices for this coming Sunday. But so do notions of who is in and who is out; what excludes us from community and what welcomes us in; who is an “alien,” and what does that mean in God’s economy of grace. I will focus on just two of the readings, the passages from Luke and 2 Kings.
In the passage from 2 Kings, a successful and powerful Syrian general is afflicted with “leprosy,” a traditional English translation for a variety of skin conditions, (and not what is today called Hansen’s disease). It’s striking that this foreigner has been given victory by the Lord, until you notice that the unnamed king of Israel is described, a few chapters back as only slightly better than his parents (Ahab and Jezebel), but still not great in terms of his faithfulness to God. An Israelite servant (slave) captured by Naaman’s army serves in his household, and commends him to the prophet in Samaria: “He would cure him of his leprosy,” she says.
The story is presented with numerous comedic touches, including the panic of the unnamed Israelite king, who seems to think he is on the hook to cure the impressive foreign general. The general himself stalks off from his first encounter with Elisha because the prophet’s cure (go wash in the Jordan seven times) is both too simple and too inconvenient (“what about a local river,” Naaman grumbles). More servants to the rescue: Why not just give it a try?
Naaman is cured, by the grace of a God he doesn’t worship (but whom, later verses tell us, he plans to worship from now on). He tries to shows his gratitude with a massive haul of treasure and fancy clothing (which the lectionary skips over).
The story is one of reversals: the wisdom of unnamed servants/ slaves; the cowardice of a king; the favor shown a foreigner (whom God uses for God’s purposes); the simplest cure of all: water.
In the passage from Luke, Jesus, in a region between Galilee and Samaria, continues on his journey towards Jerusalem. He is approached (cautiously) by ten lepers. This passage highlights something that seems to be missing in the 2 Kings tale: those afflicted with what scripture calls leprosy are excluded from community. (A seminary professor emphasized the cultural discomfort the scriptures show when the what seems like the body’s intended design “fails”: when things– like blood or pus– that are supposed to stay within the boundaries of the skin, come out. Caution ensues, as well as the concern of the religious elites.)
The lepers call out, acknowledging Jesus as “master” or “lord.” They beg for mercy. Jesus’ cure is even simpler than water: he tells them to present themselves to the priests (who can clear them for full participation in community/ religious life), and their disease is cured sometime between leaving Jesus and arriving in the presence of the priests.
Only one of the afflicted group, a Samaritan, returns to Jesus, and demonstrates and states his thanks. Jesus notes that only the foreigner among the group has returned with gratitude for the grace offered him, and sends him on his way, affirming his faith.
In this passage, there are more reversals: the wisdom of the outcast in approaching Jesus for help; the faithfulness of yet another outsider, a Samaritan; the bringing into community of those the community has given up on.
Psalm 111 (“Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart…” v.1) continues the themes of these two passages: it is a song of gratitude for grace given.
2 Timothy is a letter with gratitude woven throughout, but this particular passage pivots on grace (“if we are faithless, [Jesus Christ] remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself…” v. 13).
What in these readings calls to you this week? For many of us Stewardship season is here or coming soon; will gratitude be a focus for you this year?
What about the outsider status of the main characters of the Luke and 2 Kings passages? How are they/ might they be othered or ostracized, by virtue of their ethnicity, their religious contexts, and their disease?
Are you, perhaps, drawn to Naaman’s servants– wisdom from those whom the mighty might not consider wise?
We would love to hear from you in the comments. Blessings, my friends, on the preparation and the proclamation this week!
Pat has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007. She is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She was honored to be included in the RevGals authored, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.” Pat is a mother of two young adults (Ned and Joan) and happily partnered to Sherry. She loves swimming, reading, writing, and film. A native of the Jersey shore, and in love with the New England coastline, she misses the ocean every day.
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