We may think that leprosy, known today as Hansen’s disease, is an ancient affliction that has been eradicated from today’s society. In fact, the current World Health Organization considers it one of the major health problems in developing countries. But what is called leprosy in the Bible may have been one of many skin ailments, from the dreaded disease to psoriasis or eczema. Such conditions were not only feared because of the possibility of contagion; they were also abhorred because of their oozing sores. Besides the hygienic reason for the quarantine imposed on all those who were so afflicted, there was also a religious stigma attached. Running sores kept people from participating in religious celebrations. They were therefore deemed unclean, unfit to be counted among a people who considered themselves “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex 19:6).
The stories we hear in today’s readings are more about the gratitude of the people cured than about the healings themselves. Naaman was not only an outcast because of his illness; he was also a non-Israelite. But he returned to thank Elisha for the cure and in gratitude transferred his allegiance to the God of Israel. This explains his request for some soil from Israel to take back to his own country. He would then be able to worship the God of Israel on some of the land of Israel. Similar details are found in the Gospel’s healing account. There we are told that only the despised Samaritan, also a foreigner, returned to Jesus to give thanks for having been cured.
The nationalities of the men who were cured are not insignificant to the stories of their healings. Both the author of 2 Kings and the Evangelist Luke wanted to make an important theological point about outsiders. One would presume that members of the chosen people would be grateful for God’s special care of them, but one would not expect the same gratitude from nonbelievers. But both Naaman and the Samaritan returned to the person responsible for their cure, eager to show how grateful they were. Furthermore, Naaman shifted his allegiance to the God of Israel, and the Samaritan was extolled by Jesus for his faith.
Faith is the theme proclaimed in the reading from 2 Timothy as well. Paul was imprisoned for his faith, but this did not deter him from proclaiming the salvation won by Christ Jesus. He taught that this salvation reconciles us with God. This is not unlike the healing from leprosy, which reincorporated the formerly afflicted men into their community. Paul further insisted that the claim he made was trustworthy. At issue was whether or not those who heard this claim would accept it.
The same claim is posed to us, and as always, it requires faith. But then it was faith that prompted Naaman to plunge himself into the waters of the Jordan river; and it was in faith that those who were cured went to present themselves to the priests, who alone could authenticate their healing. It seems that faith and healing go hand in hand, as do faith and reconciliation. It is also clear that where there is faith, God is not outdone in generosity.
The stories of these people with leprosy have several other implications for us today. First, they demonstrate the universal love of God for all peoples. Naaman was a dignitary of a nation that often posed a threat to Israel. The Samaritan belonged to another such nation. Both nations were despised as enemies. Yet God reached out and restored these men, and in response they somehow aligned themselves with God. In neither case did the men modify their national loyalties. Israelites may have continued to consider them adversaries of their nation, but they could no longer judge them to be enemies of God.
Second, leprosy was considered one of the most loathsome, if not the most loathsome of diseases. It was seen as the consequence of extraordinary sinfulness, and it rendered one ritually unclean. All righteous people shunned those afflicted with the disease lest they too contract the ritual impurity associated with it and be prevented from taking part in public worship. These men were healed without any admission of or repentance for sin. Thus were overturned the ritual taboo and religious shame associated with the disease. Clearly God looks beyond human mores and strictures in order to touch the heart as well as the body.
Finally, just as these stories reveal the unconditional, universal love of God, so also they show that grateful response to that love is also universal. In other words, salvation unfolds in the lives of people of integrity regardless of their ethnic or religious background. Not only were the men in the accounts not enemies of God; they were bound to God by relationships of faith. Their relationships were different from what the Israelites enjoyed, but they were genuine nonetheless. Once again we stand in awe before the mystery of God’s love.