Today we have two very different stories with a common theme. The common message in both accounts is that help is available in the ordinary, with some of the key actors being people of no particular significance. The other common factor is that the help, whether it be in the form of a message, act of compassion or act of healing, it can only be proffered, but it does not follow that the help will be accepted or understood.
If we can bring ourselves to the point where we allow what we read to affect our own attitudes, both stories are also a little too close for comfort. True, that is not a given. Every week, stories and inspirational messages are offered in the context of Church services, yet it is the truly exceptional congregation who act as if the messages are expected to influence the recipients. Church members may indeed have been baptised at some stage in their Christian life, but if behaviour is our guide, we would have to say that for a majority, we tend to leave it to the full time professionals to do the significant works of faith. I have even heard some say, “well after all it is what we pay them to do”.
It has always struck me as a little odd that we talk of Christianity as being for all – but leave it to the Church leaders to choose and implement what needs saying and doing in the name of faith. Certainly we live in an age of specialisation. Managers manage, accountants keep the accounts, advertisers advertise and by the same token we appear to think the minister’s primary purpose is to cater for spiritual needs, or putting it more bluntly, all too often we may be thinking of the minister being a sales person with access to special gifts for what we think our faith has to offer.
In the Old Testament we have a distraught Naaman, the commander of the Aramean Army, out of the area we now know as Damascus, who was facing what he believed to be an attenuated death sentence of leprosy and showing himself desperate for a cure. Since as in many of the kingdoms in that part of the world of that time, anyone believed to have contracted leprosy was rejected by their fearful local communities. This meant for a military commander, learning of his leprosy would be the equivalent of a total disaster with extreme social consequences. To get access to his cure he finds himself in the unexpected position of first being forced to accept advice from what to him is a foreign Israelite slave girl, and further on her advice, having to go reluctantly cap in hand, first via his own king to a rather unhelpful unnamed Israelite King (probably King Johoram) and then to an Israelite prophet Elisha. Expecting a high profile, gracious reception which befits someone of his status, Naaman is horrified when Elisha won’t even meet him and to add to the insult, even worse, and via a servant, Elisha suggests a cure which for Naaman involves washing in a dirty river in a foreign country.
Since we must try to follow the text as the author intends it, we should at least be honest enough to allow that this healing may not have required what we might now describe as a miracle. The scholars tell us that in the absence of sophisticated diagnosis, he could in fact have been suffering any of a host of skin conditions which were collectively called leprosy. A note in the NRSV acknowledges that “leprosy” was “a term used for several skin diseases including the one now known as Hansen’s disease, and this footnote confirms the precise meaning (of the Hebrew word is) uncertain. Evidently, even household mould or mildew could be described by this word leprosy.
Perhaps it is only natural that the only two characters in the story to draw most readers’ attention are the significant leaders in their respective tribes, Naaman the Aramean commander and Elisha the Israelite prophet priest. In most commentaries the standard focus for this story is on Naaman himself, emphasizing he needed to humble himself totally before he could receive the help he most urgently needed. However if we have read the story thoughtfully, we might also have noticed that it is the insignificant figure of the slave girl who makes the real difference to the outcome. She was the one who suggested to Naaman that a prophet from her home country was believed to be able to offer help.
This is the one who should stir our conscience. Just as we ourselves are often in situations where we lack the courage to speak the truth which ought to be out in the open, and excuse ourselves on the grounds that we don’t have the status to speak up, the example of the slave girl reminds us that security of position is less important than what we hold dear as our values in life.
This reminder that status is not important for right action carries through to our story from Luke.
Jesus had his chosen inner circle of disciples it is true. Presumably these were the ones who were with him over the most extended part of his ministry and might therefore have been considered most worthy to send out as his emissaries. In today’s story from the gospel of Luke we find him asking for a commitment from a wider range of followers.
When we hear of this particular occasion where Jesus is sending out a large number of presumably untrained lay folk to prepare them for his arrival, it should cause us to question our notions of specialisation when it comes to faith.
Jesus sending out seventy of his followers to prepare the way is a story unique to Luke’s gospel yet it is also a key story to impart a helpful reminder that gospel is not the preserve of special people with special training. Jesus asked that those whom he sent should cure the sick. I am not convinced he was instructing them to be miracle workers. I know that healing in the new Testament is often portrayed as miracle yet I confess I have a strong suspicion that miracles were no more common in those days than they are today. Caring enough for those we encounter that they feel better, if not cured, does not require profound intellect so much as a profound expression of compassion. If it comes to that, it so happens I have encountered a sharing of compassion from those with intellectual disability, and I am quite convinced that any who adopt this attitude to his or her fellows is living the gospel. If faith was dependent on sound scholarship in theology this would not make sense and far fewer would be entitled to call themselves Christian. If on the other hand faith is primarily about trusting ourselves to adopt a positive attitude to caring for the world of creation and its inhabitants, and entrusting ourselves to such a spirit supported life, then the detail of theology is not so important.
As a personal aside I would like to suggest that moving in to challenging situations without being certain of one’s resources may seem an unpleasant prospect, but from my brief and tentative experiences, and from watching others seizing similar opportunities, I would have to say that the uncertain path often turns out to be energising and even exciting rather than one of being defeated and depressed by the expected impossibilities. Volunteers for the unknown seem to get more from life than those who cling to safe certainty. As a relative put it in a birthday card I received the other day, “Life should not be a journey to the grave, with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming Woo Hoo, what a ride”.
There is quite a lot of symbolism in the gospel message for today. The choice of the number seventy is interesting on two counts. First the number itself held special significance for the Jews. Moses had called seventy people to assist him shepherding the people of Israel through the desert. At the time of Jesus, 70 was the number of people on the Jewish council in Jerusalem. I have read that seventy was also believed at that time to be the number of gentile kingdoms in the world. Secondly the number Luke wrote is not certain. Because the gospel of Luke had been copied and recopied many times, and because from the style of Greek lettering, we know the oldest complete copy available to us was copied more than two hundred years after the first version had been composed we can never be certain that editing and mistakes had not changed the text. For example a number of versions of this passage claim the number sent out was seventy two while a majority of translations put the number at seventy.
Because there is plenty of evidence to show that gospel writers borrowed from different sources when assembling their versions of Jesus ministry , and further that they were comfortable to edit their material to shape the story for their different audiences, when an anecdote about Jesus only occurs in one gospel we cannot be certain how true it is to an actual event. Nevertheless Luke clearly thought it important and it seems to carry a message that applies both to the early church and the church today.
Older fragments of the New Testament writers continually surface and some scholars are of the view that what is now available brings us much closer to the original text but I would like to suggest that since the refinement of the text has been continuing for approaching two thousand years there comes a point where we have to live with what we have. Our quest for the original text is far less important than deciding whether or not the messages we find there are significant for the way we must choose to live.
The apocalyptic overtones of Luke’s story of the sending out of the seventy may possibly be interpreted as an argument against taking the safe path of a domesticated gospel. Luke, was writing at a time when the Jewish state was beginning to unravel and persecution of the Christians was beginning to mount, and Luke may have been wanting to prepare the new Christians for the task of living confidently in uncertain times. Even if Luke was in fact quoting the verbatim words of Jesus, he would still have had to choose which of Jesus’ many words he should quote. One of the reasons for taking this passage to consider its implications is that we too are living in most uncertain times.
It goes without saying we are not Naaman – and Jesus is not calling us to be one of the seventy, but nor is our faith likely to be altogether safe and domesticated in its call on our future. For all the differences in our prospective journeys, it remains to be seen whether status, security and self preservation will prevent us from accepting the genuine challenges that come our way.