2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; and Luke 17:11-19
A couple of canoers were traveling down the Pembina River in Manitoba, Canada. After a few hours, they fell into just watching the scenery pass them by…trees… flowers…the occasional turtle… Eventually, they came upon some people picking berries. One of the canoers looked up and, realizing what had happened, shouted to them, “Oh no! Are we in the United States?”
The canoers, in fact, had unintentionally crossed the 49th parallel—that invisible line that separates Canada from the United States—and ended up near Walhalla, North Dakota. This might sound like something that should have happened back in the pioneer days of the 1800s. Actually, it was around the mid-1990s. The landscape simply hadn’t changed much from the river’s point of view, and the latitude line wasn’t marked with a major fence or signpost. It was simply an arbitrary point—like the difference between walking through Nebraska or Iowa—lots of corn and fields. Without those human-made signposts, not much would distinguish the two.
This notion speaks very clearly to our lessons for this week. Throughout the readings, boundaries are being crossed, and eventually, no one knows who is ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ of them. Our reading from 2 Kings is particularly complex with these outsider/insider relationships. We encounter so many social implications that there is not really a distinct line to separate for sure who is in or out at any point in the text.
Here we have Naaman, a commander of the Aramean army, which would make him an insider there, whom God has given victory, making him even more of an insider to the Biblical audience. However, he has leprosy, a disease which automatically makes him a social outsider anywhere. The army captures an Israelite girl and has her work for Naaman’s wife, so she would be a double outsider there—a female and a foreigner in Aram. But then we find out that she knows of a prophet in Israel who could cure Naaman, which makes her an insider with her privileged and possibly life-saving knowledge. Naaman goes to Israel, where he would be an outsider, with a letter and some treasure from the king of Aram, indicating his superior status as an insider. The king of Israel is really upset, thinking the more powerful kingdom of Aram is picking a fight with him, to which he is a powerless outsider. However, Elisha steps in, an insider for sure, and has Naaman sent to him. Naaman arrives in all sorts of grandeur—chariot, servants, etc—but Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him. Naaman is treated as an outsider where he thinks he should be an insider, which makes him mad, and he leaves. His servants, outsiders, advise him to listen to the prophet. He finally does, recognizing his outsider position, and is made well. He returns to acknowledge Elisha as a prophet and God as the One true God.
Whew. Did anyone follow that? Just when we think we have it figured out, the story takes a strange turn and shows us that we’re clearly wrong. That’s perhaps not so different from our world today. At church, I talk to this person and this person, and at work or school, it’s this person and this person—but not that person. Where do we draw lines? What do we value? What do we think we have figured out?
Naaman thought he had it figured out. He brought a letter from the King of Aram and a bit of treasure. Money and political power. However, it is going to take more than money to heal him of his condition. He is going to have to surrender his pride and his beliefs about ethnic and social boundaries.
Who is important in this text? Naaman and Elisha are the named characters, so that seems pretty obvious. What about the little girl who started it all…simply by expressing her faith? A female, a double outsider, is practically a non-person in this ancient time and place. If she had never voiced her belief in God and the truth that there was a prophet in Israel, Naaman would not have even known where to turn to be healed. He would likely have ended up a faceless, nameless leper swept into the void of history and time. However, because of this one true message of faith, this little Israelite maid changes the lives of many who hear her words—Naaman, his family, the Arameans under his command, and even us today.
It’s like that with the lepers in the gospel text as well. Ten are healed by Jesus, but only one recognizes the true miracle and returns to thank the source of the gift, of all gifts, in fact. This is another double outsider, a Samaritan and a leper, and this non-person of society sees the true message and changes our lives as we hear the story.
Who are the people we would usually ignore? Who are the outsiders or non-persons in our society? In our lives? Who do we hesitate to greet or welcome as an honored person and fail to recognize as a Child of God? How do we let go of our discomfort and let others in?
Naaman lets go of his hold on the social norms by listening to his servants. His wife demonstrates wisdom by letting go of her superior household status to listen to the Israelite maid. Naaman himself is an outsider in Israel—a foreigner—who acknowledges Elisha as a true prophet of the One God and is healed. Jesus has a reputation for overturning social norms and does so once again here—he includes the Samaritan as one of the lepers who is healed.
Faith is not just for one select group of people…as we’ve studied and grown as a faith community throughout the centuries of our history, we’ve begun to understand more fully what that means. In church ministry we’ve recently begun to break down boundaries of age, gender, race, political leanings, and ethnicity to open ourselves to and incorporate more and more of God’s people—allowing these people to serve as the Spirit moves and calls them. This is something to really celebrate. However, it makes us ask the question what’s been stopping us from going further? Maybe, like Naaman, we’re really the outsiders thinking we should be treated as insiders. Perhaps, like the lepers, we’re so stuck on being insiders and following the expectations of our usual routine that we miss the bigger picture.
The boundaries we still have—even the ones we’ve broken down, are human boundaries. God’s love does not recognize them. God heals all—Naaman, the foreigner. Jesus heals all—including the Samaritan. The stories show us that perhaps sometimes the outsider—the one to whom we would say “you don’t really need to come in,”—has the greater sense of gratitude and the purer heart for faith and worship. The rest of the people in the stories aren’t wrong, necessarily, the lepers do what Jesus tells them to by going to the priest, the kings and those in Israel aren’t criticized for not knowing, but it is the outsiders who are lifted up as going the extra mile, so to speak. They recognize the miracle and are so moved that they return to say “thank you” for the gift.
Who are the outsiders still in our society? Where are we failing to recognize the Spirit in them and the witness they bring? How do we reinforce the boundaries society has set up for us—political borders, racial discrimination, gender roles? Considering a simple question can test for this—When do ‘we’ use the word ‘they’? We can’t ignore differences, every bit of us is part of who we are. For example, I am a blue-eyed, brown-haired, left-handed American woman from North Dakota with ethnic roots in Germany, Norway, and Holland. Chances are, you are not, but who you are and who I am is informed and completed partly by these traits and should be celebrated. I have something unique to offer because of them, and so do you. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the differences that give the world such wonderful variety. However, we can dissolve the boundaries society would have us create based on those differences.
Our Psalm today ends with this verse, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.” Who may practice their reverence for God? Who has a good understanding if they practice it? Israelite or foreigner? Men or women? ALL. All those who practice it have a good understanding. There is no specific select group of people who are ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Once we start to recognize that, we might begin to see our church, our faith community, less like a building with walls and more like that river in Canada—the one where you can’t tell where that boundary line actually is—because it isn’t really there except in our minds.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those—ALL those—who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.” AMEN.