Monday, October 09, 2017

Syrian Lepers are People Too!

25But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; 26but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." (Luke 4:25-27)

Jesus caused an uproar at the beginning of His ministry when He spoke at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. So incensed were the Jews that they forcefully led Jesus to a cliff outside of town for the purpose of murdering Him.

It all started out so promising! When He began to speak at at the synagogue in Nazareth, as recorded earlier in Luke 4, Jesus stated that He had come to fulfill the Messianic prophesy of Isaiah. Luke wrote:

21And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." 22So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, "Is this not Joseph's son?" (Luke 4:21-22)

This would appear to indicate that when Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, and then proceeded to teach, and the Jews were not outraged; indeed they marveled at his eloquence. However when he spoke of Zarephath and Naaman (he should have given a trigger warning!), which to us may same as incidental rabbit trails,  the Jews became filled with wrath and dragged Him from the synagogue.

Why is this?

Let’s take a quick look at one of these Old Testament stories: Naaman the Syrian leper (2 Kings 5:1-19).

Naaman was a sworn enemy of Israel and a commander in the army of the King of Syria, in whom he found great favor. Naaman had taken a Jewish wife; a young woman captured during a raid into Israel.

Naaman was also a leper. His Jewish bride told him of a Samarian prophet who could heal his leprosy. With the king’s blessing, Naaman took letters of introduction and silver, gold, and clothing as gifts and journeyed to Israel. Eventually Naaman met Elisha, who instructed him to wash seven times in the Jordan. Naaman, after some persuasion, did so and was cleansed. He vowed to worship the God of Israel from that day forward. Elisha refused the gifts offered by Naman.

What incited the anger of those listening to Jesus teach? After all this was a well known story to the Jews in the synagogue.

What angered the Jews was the coupling of this story to Jesus’ Messianic proclamation. The message was clear:
  1. He was the Messiah, He came to free the captives (c.f. Luke 4:18-19). 
  2. This salvation would be for the Gentiles and Jews alike, and not for the Jews universally, for there were ‘many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’
  3. Salvation would be by the grace of a Sovereign God, for Naaman’s cleansing was not a reward for anything he had done, but a gift to an unlikely and unworthy recipient. To make it absolutely clear that works were not involved, even Naaman’s offering was refused. (In an interesting twist, some of Naaman’s money and clothing was surreptitiously accepted by Elisha’s servant Gehazi, who ended up getting Naaman’s leprosy as a punishment for his greed. Awesome!)

The Jews didn’t mind hearing Jesus claim that He was the Messiah. They wanted someone, anyone to free them from Roman tyranny. Yet when He taught the He had come not to free a nation from occupation but to free His people, including Gentiles, from their uncleanliness, they wanted to kill him. It is an interesting “mini gospel encapsulation” contained in just a few passages from Luke 4.

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