Prophets and apostles bring healing and a time of decision for villages along the way.
II Kings 5:1-14
The Prophetic reading continues with the stories of Elisha. Of all the traditions in the Jewish scriptures, those most like the healing miracles of Jesus are the Elisha stories (e.g., the stories in II Kings 4). The miracles of Moses are always woven into the series of Israel’s trials in the wilderness or the plagues in Egypt, and the miracles of Elijah are mostly subordinated to his reenactment of the sacred history as a prophetic revolution. But with Elisha, there are miracle stories just for the sake of good miracles – or sometimes not so good miracles (e.g., II Kings 2:23-24). The story of Naaman the leper comes to us in such a collection of Elisha’s miracles.
The story is well told (with considerable humor at the expense of royal and noble egos). Naaman, top general for the victorious forces of Aram, has a scaly skin-disease he can’t get rid of (to which the indefinite generic term “leprosy” is applied). An Israelite girl captured as a slave and working for Naaman’s wife lets word drop about Elisha the miracle healer in Samaria, capital of the kingdom of Israel. Naaman gets his king’s endorsement and goes to Samaria. A letter to the King of Israel throws that gentleman into a fit of paranoia because his current overlord demands that he heal leprosy – as if he were God!
Hearing of his king’s panic, Elisha sends word to pass the problem on to him. Accordingly, Naaman appears at Elisha’s residence, only to receive a curt message, “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored…” Such treatment is a gross insult to Naaman, and we hear an excellent speech expressing indignation at the affront to his noble dignity and the insult to the fine rivers of Damascus compared to the muddy Jordan. When he has left in a fury, his more pragmatic-minded servant says, “If he had asked you to do something really difficult wouldn’t you have done it?” Naaman didn’t get this far without some good sense, so he goes and washes in the Jordan and is healed. (Bless the sharp-eared Levites who kept this story going for us!)
The Psalm reading is a thanksgiving for deliverance from death – or as it might be construed from the near-death of severe disease. Should we play with the idea that Naaman, the recovered leper and Secretary of Defense for Damascus, might have uttered such a psalm?
The Naaman story goes on beyond the above reading. It tells how Naaman returned to Elisha and made a glowing confession of the great God of Israel. “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel,” and he takes two mule-loads of earth from Israel to Damascus to set up an altar to the Lord of Israel (II Kings 5:15-17, NRSV). At that altar it is perfectly credible that Naaman could have said,
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
(verses 2-3, NRSV)
Naaman might also have previously said, “I shall never be moved,” for when he was in his original power God had established him “as a strong mountain” (verse 7). Then, however, the divine face was turned away: “you hid your face and I was dismayed.” That is, the proud Naaman was brought low by the onset of his leprosy and finally, learning humility with Elisha’s help, came to accept the true source of healing, which would turn his mourning into dancing (verse 11).
Because he has not died or been banished to a leper colony, Naaman can say, “my soul may praise you and not be silent, O Lord my God…” (verse 12).
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
The Epistle reading includes the last words of Paul’s letter dictated to the Galatians and a postscript written with his own hand.
The last words of the dictated part (verses 7-10) are an assurance that God will reward perseverance in doing good by giving a good harvest. Living “toward the flesh” will be rewarded with “corruption,” that is, only decayed flesh. Living “toward the Spirit” will be rewarded with “eternal life,” that is, a life as free from boundaries and burdens as is the wind (the spirit). Doing good will have its “opportunity,” its “right time” (kairos, verse 10), and those living by the Spirit will discern the times and realize the opportunities for “the good of all.”
Paul’s own postscript (verses 11-18) is a bit rough and ready. It is mainly a quick punch at his opponents in the Galatian churches who are promoting circumcision: “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh [pun certainly intended] that try to compel you to be circumcised…” (verse 12, NRSV). He includes a personal note that he has nothing to boast of except being crucified with Christ to the world, then he makes the final declaration repeating the hammer-blow of the whole letter: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”
So Paul hopes to keep his non-Jewish Christians free from literalistic conformities that cause them to “bite and devour one another” (5:15).
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
The story of Naaman had to do with God’s grace to a non-Israelite officer, and Paul’s concern for the Galatians was that they not be discriminated against for not conforming to Jewish law. At first sight the Gospel reading does not seem to have to do with non-Jewish people. But Luke has significantly complicated the missions of disciples that Jesus sends out. Luke has the same sending out of the Twelve on a mission in Galilee that Mark and Matthew report (Luke’s version of the Twelve is in 9:1-6, paralleling Mark 6:6-13 and Matthew 10:1-16). Matthew has Jesus confine this mission of the Twelve exclusively to Israelites; no one from the nations and no Samaritans were to be approached (Matthew 10:5-6).
Luke, however, also has a second mission of disciples, the one described in our passage. This second mission has Jesus send out, not twelve disciples, but seventy. (Some texts make it seventy-two.) The instructions given to the seventy partly repeat what was said to the Twelve earlier, but some other instructions to the seventy are more elaborate. (These additional instructions are mostly from the Q document, common to Luke and Matthew.)
Luke places this second mission at the beginning of the “journey” that began in 9:51. These seventy disciples are sent “on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (verse 1, NRSV). They seem to be an advance guard, a softening up force, preparing people for the real show still to come. The narrative in Luke, however, does not seem to follow up this line. We do not have a village-to-village circuit carried out by Jesus, such as might have organized events in Luke chapters 10-19. Nevertheless, Luke intends us to understand that the villages sooner or later were to encounter these pairs of vagrant preachers and to be told that “the Kingdom of God has come near to you” (verse 9).
Certainly Luke and the churches he wrote for understood that these instructions from Jesus were to guide missionary work long after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In that case, Jesus sent out two missions, one to Israel and one to villages far and wide. The second mission has seventy disciples (actually, apostles, “ones sent,” the verb used in 10:1), which is the number of “the nations” (Gentiles) descended from Noah listed in Genesis 10. Thus, symbolically there is an apostle for every nation, almost certainly no accident in a writer who also gave us the preaching to the nations at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21).
The journey of Jesus toward Jerusalem begins with a mission of apostles, sent potentially to all the nations of the earth. As these apostles come to a village it is that place’s time of judgment; the people there may hear and offer hospitality to the mendicant messengers of the Lord, or they may reject the message and have the dust of their streets witness to their condemnation.
Our reading concludes with the return of the apostles and Jesus’ rejoicing at the fall of Satan because of them. We seem to be leaping pretty far ahead, anticipating a success that is in fact only yet hinted at. But when the Gospel was written, Luke already knew about many years of work among the nations by such apostles as these, and he would begin to tell about them in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles.