Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the 2nd Book of Kings where Naaman followed Elisha’s instructions to immerse himself seven times in the Jordan River. When he did he was cured of leprosy. Naaman then attempted to pay Elisha for his cure. Naaman then promised to no longer sacrifice to any other god and worship only God. In Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus approached by ten lepers who asked for healing. Jesus told them to show themselves to the priests (who could declare them cured). On the way they were cured and were declared so by the priests. Of the ten, only one returned to thank Jesus. Jesus asked about the location of the other nine, but told the one: “Stand up and go on your way. Your faith as saved you.”
Anyone with a casual relationship with the Bible knows about leprosy (now known as Hanson’s Disease). Today we recognize that it’s a bacterial infection that can be cured with several doses of antibiotics, but at the time it was seen as a curse from God and those who suffered from this disease were ordered not to go near anyone else. The ten lepers who approached Jesus called from a long way off because they knew they were forbidden to approach anyone. To be fair, their lack of understanding of bacterial infection informed their fear.
And while we don’t fear Hanson’s Disease anymore, we continue to fear diseases we don’t understand. In the Middle Ages Bubonic Plague killed fully 30% of the European population. We later learned that it was caused by fleas that rode in on the backs of rats. In the early 1980s we learned that gay men in San Francisco and New York suffered from diseases that attacked only those with compromised immune disease. At first we called it GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) and only later did we settled on AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
And while leprosy commands a fair amount of the Gospels that wasn’t the message most of us were told. When I was a child I heard about this Gospel a lot. I was told, and even warned about, thank you notes. At Christmas and my birthday I regularly received envelopes of money from grandparents and one of my uncles (who ironically died last month). I was instructed that I should save this money for my college education, but (more to the point) I should not let the sun go down on my obligation to write them a thank you note.
And when this reading came up I was told that Jesus was behind my obligation. After all, Jesus was approached by ten lepers and cured all of them, but only one returned to thank him. Only one wrote him a thank you note.
As an adult I’ve found great amusement with this interpretation. My younger sister has two sons that I love dearly. When they were growing up I often sent them presents for Christmas and birthdays. Sometimes they wrote back to thank me and sometimes they didn’t.
My generosity to them didn’t depend on their response. I love them and wanted to do well by them and their response to me was my sister’s burden, not mine. But if you read Dear Abby or other advice columnists, they say that if you don’t get thanked, you shouldn’t be generous.
But that’s not what Jesus did. Presumably if Jesus had the power to cure leprosy he had the power to withdraw his cure. While he noticed that only one came back to recognize Jesus’ power, he didn’t take Dear Abby’s advice and withdraw their cures.
I believe this leads to a deeper truth of who will be saved. Nearly from our first days we’ve asked what it takes to be saved. Some claim it’s what we do (feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, etc.) and others claim it’s what we believe (accepting Jesus as our personal lord and savior).
But what if it’s larger? What if Jesus’ redemption isn’t for some, but for all? What if salvation isn’t reserved for those who do well or believe well, but for everyone?
As I thought about this I began to focus on “the whole world.” The phrase “the whole world” appears time and again in Scripture. When we think about the whole world we think of our planet: the North Pole, the South Pole, and the Western Hemisphere, the Eastern Hemisphere.
In Genesis 7 we read about Noah’s Ark. We learn that the flood encompassed the whole world. Did the flood include New Zealand, Hawaii, and all the world we know that they didn’t? A few years ago I heard an evangelical Christian argue that he had “scientific proof” that it did. As proof he claimed that while there have been localized floods (think about Hurricane Katrina), there has not been a worldwide flood. I don’t think it’s scientific proof and I don’t think localized flooding means our entire world was flooded.
Noah’s Ark doesn’t give us the only reference to the whole world. The second chapter of Luke’s Gospel describes the order from Caesar Augustus to order a census of “the whole world.” Clearly there wasn’t a census of the whole world, only the part of the world that was controlled by the Roman Empire.
But what if God does think of our whole world? What if Jesus’ salvation isn’t for only those who do well or believe well?
Most of us Christians believe we’ll be saved. We do well and believe well. But does out salvation suffer if salvation is offered to everyone? Is Heaven a finite place where our place shrinks because our share decreases by the number of people who populate it? Is Heaven on Zillow?
I hope not. I hope God’s generosity means that there is room for all of us. I hope Heaven includes both Democrats and Republicans. I hope it includes all people, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, immigration status, and work ethic.
We no longer fear leprosy but we still fear what we don’t know and that fear often translates into prejudicee. Let’s make our prejudices history. Let’s celebrate that all ten lepers were saved if only one recognized Jesus’ role.
And let’s be that one.