11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
I received an email the other day that was a little surprising. Has anybody ever received an email from an exiled member of royalty? Well, I did this week. I had never heard of the guy before, but I received a very urgent message that he needed to get rid of his extra money and that he had heard that I could maybe use that extra money. He was willing to gives me $14mil. He’d transfer it to my bank account once he got some information from me, including my phone number, mailing address, social security number, bank routing information, and some earnest money in the form of a check for a mere $1000. What a deal! Send him $1000 and get $14 million. As you have probably guessed, by now, that I did not take him up on his very generous offer and, while I’m not $14 million richer, I also have not been the victim of identity theft and my bank account is still locked down tight. Why would I turn down such an offer? Well, even if I didn’t pick up on the numerous red flags (including the point where this supposed exiled monarch spelled my name wrong), I wouldn’t have done it. As the saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
This modern proverb is a common sense saying these days. We are naturally wary of diet plans that tell you that you can still eat whatever you want and lose weight, of email scams including exiled royalty wanting to give you money, and of smooth talking telemarketers trying to offer you a free trip to the Bahamas if you’ll apply for a low-interest business loan (by the way, I’ve heard all of these just in the last week). For this reason, I’ve always liked the story of Naaman. He has a modern sensibility and intuition that tells us that if something is easy, it is probably false. He seems to think of the world as transactional – the bigger the wish, the higher the price. This is the view that the author of 2 Timothy seems to have, too. Equal and opposite reaction sort of thinking.
So Naaman is torn in our Old Testament reading for today. He is a mighty warrior, yet is dealing with leprosy (which usually just means a contagious skin condition – probably not the modern, clinical leprosy). He hears that there is a prophet of Israel living in Samaria who could help him and, through a roundabout messaging service, Elisha responds by saying that all he has to do is to go wash in the Jordan River 7 times. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. No crazy sacrifices. No low-interest payment plan. Just take a bathe in the Jordan River. So he doesn’t do it at first! Seems too easy, too good to be true. But one of his servants asks him a question that we might want to ask ourselves in light of the grace we hear about in Luke. “If you had been commanded to do something difficult, you would have done that, right? So do what he says!” Well, he decides the servant has a point and does it. Afterward, with skin as smooth as a baby, he comes back, proclaiming that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” He comes back giving thanks.
Fast forward about 800 years to Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, by way of Samaria where Elisha was, and he runs across not 1, but 10 lepers. His response to them is not much different than Naaman, really. Instead of going to wash in the Jordan River to be ritually pure, these men are sent to the priests to go be ritually pure. On the way, the miracle happens – these 10 lepers are healed. This miraculous healing is cause for great celebration because, as lepers, they were marginalized by society – they weren’t able to be with their families, worship with their community, essentially cut off and quarantined because they might spread their disease, making others unclean. On the way, their faith healed them. On their way, they were made new, they were granted a new lease on life, and they were given a chance to be part of the community again.
It seems that nine of them saw it and, after being ritually purified, they want to their families to celebrate. And who could blame them? That’s probably what I would do. In the mindset of the ancient Hebrew culture, this healing would have been a sign of God’s covenant with Israel, that they followed the commands and paid the price for their healing by doing what they were commanded to do. But one man, a Samaritan, someone who was hated by the Jews and who would still have been considered unclean after all of this, came back. He seemed to realize that this was no work of his. He seems to understand that his healing is not a price paid, but a gift received. He came back and thanked Jesus, he bowed at his feet, and then he went away, surely, rejoicing at what he had seen and experienced.
Despite knowing this story and knowing the examples of both Naaman and the leper who returned, I can’t help but wonder if sometimes we end up being like the other 9 lepers. It’s really easy to wonder and question whether the gift is enough. It’s really easy to think that it there must be a catch, that there must be some fine print that we aren’t aware of. There’s just so much to do, there’s just so much in this world and in our lives that need fixing that surely there has to be a catch. It feels too good to be true. So we can make our faith as much about us doing the right thing as it is about Jesus being the only thing. We can make our faith as much about us doing the right thing as it is about Jesus being the only thing.
But the fact of the matter is that the gift of grace we receive by faith in Christ Jesus cannot be added to or subtracted from. “Your faith has made you well” we hear Jesus say to the leper and that is exactly what we hear in our confession and forgiveness. We recognize our need for grace and mercy, we understand that we all have habits and hang ups which hurt others and ourselves, and we can work on them. But I’m here to tell you that none of that self-help, habit breaking can make you any more loved, can get you any closer to God, than you are right here and right now.
Worship is about reminding ourselves of that. Worship is about coming back, like the Samaritan leper and Naaman, to give thanks for the grace we’ve received and to proclaim that it is by no other way than this free gift that we are healed. Heaven knows that there’s plenty to do – there are plenty of people who need to hear the gospel, there are plenty of wrongs that need to be righted, there are plenty of conflicts in need of peace. But in coming to worship, in coming to the waters of baptism like Naaman, in coming to the body and blood of Christ, in returning to give thanks, we realize that it is only through active, moving faith that any of this can happen. It is only through radical trust and the divine gift that the world and all humanity is healed.
It turns out that the modern proverbs aren’t entirely bulletproof. While I do still believe that, most of the time, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is, maybe I need to be aware of times when that doesn’t hold true. I won’t be giving my bank information to an exiled prince but I will be looking for grace. Keep your eyes peeled this week, keep your ears open, because this free gift of loving grace is all around us and experienced in so many different ways – in the healing an illness, the reconciling of relationships, in the breaking of bread, the drinking of wine, the water of baptism, and in the sharing of peace. We come today to give thanks that sometimes something that seems too good to be true is actually the truest thing of all. Amen.