No Qualifications Required
Sometimes the Lectionary seems out of touch with modern reality. Here we are with our 21st Century future, worrying about climate change, trade and refugee issues not to mention the US eyeballing Iran, yet today the Church wants us to focus first on an Old Testament reading about problems of a man from the distant past with a disease that no longer matters for most people. Then in our Gospel, we hear of ordinary disciples being called to go out on a mission to a world which could hardly be more different to our world today.
When we dig a little deeper I want to suggest we find two very different stories with themes that say a good deal to our realities. The clear message in both accounts is that help is available in the ordinary, and it even turns out some of the key actors turn out to be the people of no obvious significance being required to step up and get involved with uncomfortable realities. If we can bring ourselves to the point where we allow what we read to affect our own attitudes, both stories might even become a little too close for comfort.
True, that is not a given. Every week, stories and hopefully inspirational messages are offered in the context of Church services, yet it is the truly exceptional congregation who acts as if the messages are expected to influence the recipients. Church members may indeed have been baptized at some stage in their Christian life, but if behaviour is our guide, we would have to say that for a majority it is expected that they will 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 we often 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 specialization. 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 and personal worries 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.
Now we turn to our texts… In the Old Testament we have a distraught Naaman, the commander of the Aramean Army, out of the area we now know as Damascus, now facing what he believed to be an attenuated death sentence of leprosy and showing himself desperate for a cure.
Perhaps there we might remember that for the kingdoms in that part of the world of that time, anyone believed to have contracted leprosy would be rejected by their fearful local communities. Even 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 (who we might suspect to be 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 Elisha’s 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 already chosen his 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 specialization 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 to 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.
Are we called to go out in faith? Maybe not if we want the call to come from a physical encounter with Jesus. On the other hand, what if the call is from those where we find the face of Christ in the form of those in trouble?
I know much recent attention in the media has been on watching the US President assemble his reasons for persuading the rest of us to understand why Iran is the enemy the free world. But if we are truly bearers of Christ’s message, what if the answer is not in directing overwhelming force to deserved pariahs, but rather in offering friendship and the lifting of sanctions? Yes I know the standard line of proving the justice and truth with threats and the promise of destruction. The main pariahs today are not the lepers, they are the suffering in pariah states denied embargoed drugs. If faith was merely dependent on listening to the Bible and singing hymns on Sunday it may not make sense to care. But given the present realities… and what Jesus taught, does intolerance directed to non Christians really give us the right to call ourselves Christian?
If faith is primarily about trusting ourselves to adopt a positive attitude to caring for the world of creation and reaching out to neighbours including those who dont share our faith, if the main task is reaching out to those who need our concern, and entrusting ourselves to such a spirit supported mission, then it might even be putting too much emphasis on what happens in Church on Sunday is of secondary importance to the living out of mission itself.
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 to do the same, I would have to say that the uncertain path often turns out to be energizing and even exciting rather than one of being defeated and depressed by the expected impossibilities.
I am all for continually probing the Bible text for more inspiration but don’t forget sooner or later we have to put aside gaining more insight and act on what we are now inspired to do. 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. If the faith is no longer speaking to our day to day realities we might even ask why have the faith in the first place?
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 is its implications is that we too are living in most uncertain times.
It goes without saying we are not Naaman – and nor is Jesus calling us to be one of his first century seventy. On the other hand our faith is not 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.