Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost—PR 23—Year C; II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19. video
Oh, we’ve got some great stories today.
First, from II Kings, ol’ Namaan, the commander of the army of Aram, big and mighty and victorious, and by all the measures of his society, successful. He had all the status in the world, all the power, all the privilege, except for one little thing. Remember? (pause) That’s right, he suffered from leprosy, a skin disease that had a big ick factor, that made people turn away in fear and disgust, that made people keep their distance from you, a disease that isolated you back then, and as we saw in India in 2013, isolates you still. Big, powerful, privileged Namaan had leprosy.
Now, Namaan’s wife’s servant was a girl from Israel—she’d been taken captive in one of the raids by the Arameans—and she remembered that there was this prophet in Samaria who could cure him of his leprosy.
Namaan goes to the king of Aram, and the king of Aram sends Namaan off to the king of Israel with a letter asking the king of Israel to cure Namaan of his leprosy, and along with that letter, the king of Aram sent a boatload of stuff—ten talents of silver, six thousand shekals of gold, and ten sets of garments—a lot of stuff! When the king of Israel got the letter, he tore his clothes! He thought the king of Aram was trying to pick a fight with him. That king of Israel knew that he didn’t have the power to cure a man of leprosy.
We jump so quickly to the end of this story that we miss the error made at the very beginning. Anybody know what that error is? (pause) When the servant girl, who has no power by the way, tells her mistress that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure Namaan of his leprosy, both Namaan and the king of Aram assume it’s the king of Israel she’s talking about. And they set about to ply that king to do their bidding with the only currency that they know—silver, gold, and fine clothes—in other words, the trappings of power and prestige. Privilege assumes that it is privilege that will save you. But the king is not the prophet that the servant girl was talking about.
Back to the story. When the prophet Elisha gets wind that the king of Israel has torn his clothes, he sends words to the king to send Namaan on to him, so that Namaan can learn a thing or two about who prophets are and how healing works. So, Namaan is off to the prophet. He rolls up to Elisha’s house with all his horses and chariots—think stretch SUV-limousine, circa 850 BCE. Elisha is not wowed; he is not impressed. He sends a messenger out to tell Namaan to go wash in the Jordan seven times, and if Namaan does that simple thing, his flesh will be restored and he’ll be made clean.
So, what does Namaan do? Does he go directly to the Jordan? (pause) Of course he doesn’t go to the Jordan River. He does what any person armored up with their own importance does, he flies into a rage because the prophet himself has not deigned to honor him with his presence and besides, Aram has better rivers anyway, and he turns around and leaves. Given a choice between surrendering his self-understanding as a person of importance and actually getting healed, Namaan chooses the armor of his identity and position and status and privilege.
Now, his servants—again, those with no power—they appeal to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he did it; he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; [and] his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
The very things that we think will save us—our power, our privilege, our status, our position, our stuff, our identity, our self-understanding—these things that we think will save us, when we hold onto them for dear life, they can actually keep us from getting to the waters that will make us clean, and make us whole, and restore us to relationship with others, relationship that isn’t based upon our trappings, but is based upon our kinship as suffering brothers and sisters who are all in need of mercy and compassion and healing and community. Once Namaan lets go of his ego, he finds the healing he needs, and then he truly is ready to meet the prophet of Israel, not as one above, but as brother to brother.
Let’s jump over to the gospel of Luke. Jesus is passing through a border territory that runs between Galilee and Samaria, not a place you really want to be. And as he enters a village, ten lepers approach him. Oh, they keep their distance; they know the drill. Leprosy made you ritually unclean, and you don’t dare get close to someone who is clean lest you taint them, too. But they’re tired of being so isolated and despised, and they’ve heard of the things that Jesus can do, so they take a chance, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Unlike Namaan, they jump at the chance. Off they go, and as they went, they were made clean.
Now, one of them, when he saw that he was healed, he turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked a very reasonable question, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Oh, I love this! Twenty two years of working with scripture, and it still absolutely has the capacity to surprise me and show me something I’ve never seen before! Ten are cleansed—καθαρίζω—like cathartic—made clean, set free. One sees that he’s been healed—ἰάομαι—cured, made whole. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well—σῴζω—healed, saved, made whole—like in that big salvation sense—whole in every way, in every sense.
You can be cleansed, you can sense that you’ve been healed, but it’s a whole other thing to be made whole in the deepest parts of our being. Three different words, three different understandings, three different ways forward.
So, why is it that the foreigner, the Samaritan, why is it that he is the only one to turn back and thank Jesus? (pause) I think it’s because, for him, there was no privilege to re-inhabit. The other nine, they were Israelites, and as soon as they were made clean from their leprosy, they were good to go; they could slide right back into their privileged place in society. But the Samaritan had no hope of that. Samaritans were defacto despised in that culture, and when Jesus really wants to make a point about power and prestige, you can bet a Samaritan is going to be close at hand to show the blindness of those who hold the power.
The nine’s privilege blinds them to the wholeness they could know. They settle for getting back to what they lost as fast as they can. The Samaritan recognizes that, though he will never get status in that society, he gets so much more—he gets a wholeness that is deeper than whether he is clean or not clean. And the only response to that is gratitude. And Jesus recognizes the faith that is deep in this man, and he goes one step more—he tells the man that it is this identity, this trust, this faith that has made him well and whole in the deepest, richest sense of that word. This truly is what salvation looks like.
Our privilege can blind us just as it blinded the nine Israelites. We can settle for being made clean and getting our groove back and completely miss experiencing the deeper healing. It’s only when we relinquish our privilege that we can experience the kind of wholeness that the Samaritan experienced and which Jesus offers us.
There is a cost to gaining privilege, but there is an even greater cost to holding on to it. It can absolutely cut us off from the things that matter most, starting with our own healing, our own need to be whole, and engulfing our capacity to be in relationship with others. Namaan had to learn the cost of privilege, and the priceless gift that comes when you let it go. The Samaritan got there a little faster because he could recognize the gift from the get-go. The nine, they never did catch on. Getting clean was enough for them.
How do we experience privilege? Through the color of our skin? Our gender? Our sexual identity? Our education? Our economic status? Our religion? Where we grew up? Where we went to school? Where we live? A hundred other ways?
And what will it take for you and me to learn just how much our privilege is costing us? What will it take for us to see how our privilege blinds us to that for which we really long? When will get it through our thick heads and hard hearts that there is so much more that Jesus longs to give us if we can just let go?
Do you want to be made well, or just clean enough to get back in the game?
As is always the case, the choice is ours to make. Relinquish your privilege and discover the healing that truly makes us whole. Taste that wholeness, and privilege will never satisfy your soul again. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 9, 2016