When confronted by the Syrian commander, Naaman, the prophet Elisha sent a message in reply without ever meeting the warrior face to face. He knew full well that the man was suffering from leprosy, and his message instructed the leader to wash seven times in the Jordan River and he would be clean. Naaman was outraged, thinking the river was not a clean body of water compared to those of his homeland, and began to make his way there instead. His attendants urged him to do what the prophet said, and reluctantly, the commander followed the instructions and emerged from the Jordan as clean skinned as a baby.
Naaman returned to Elisha, and now that he was clean, could stand in the prophet’s presence. He gave thanks and offered gifts to Elisha, who would not receive them. He then pronounced his complete belief and faithfulness to the God of Israel and requested a load of soil from the place where he was cured. It was common in those days that the soil was associated with the god who reigned there, and by taking some earth, Naaman was making it possible to continue worshipping the Jewish God after he returned to Syria.
However, Gehazi, a servant of the prophet, contrived evil and determined to follow Naaman out of the area, that he might collect a reward. When he caught up with the commander, he lied about the need for silver coins and other goods by Elisha and his followers. Naaman honored the request, even giving more than was asked. Gehazi turned the wealth over to two other servants who carried it back to Samaria, where Gehazi took the stash and hid it in his house. He then lied again, this time to Elisha, telling him he had not gone anywhere nor sought reward. God’s wisdom was with the prophet and he told his servant that he knew what took place, and he cursed him to bear the disease of Naaman himself, and his descendants thereafter, and Gehazi was a leper for the rest of his days. This man had been the protégé of Elisha, just as the prophet had served Elijah before him, and would likely have been the next prophet in succession had it not been for this and an ongoing pattern of deceit and sinfulness.
In the time that Jesus ministered on earth, Israel was again divided. To go from the southern kingdom (Judah) to the north and into the land of Galilee, one had to pass through Samaria. For Jews this was never a pleasant trip, and they were more inclined to take the longer route following the Jordan River and avoiding Samaria altogether. The Samaritans were an even more mixed race by this time as the region had been conquered by Sargon II, the Assyrian, and eventually by the Babylonians, as well. It was a common practice to relocate the vanquished in order to prevent any uprisings.
The Samaritans were steadily converted by Jesus through a series of events. Perhaps the most promising of these was when Jesus stopped at Jacob’s Well. There he met a Samaritan woman and sat about to teach her many truths. He asked for a drink himself and invited her to drink of Him, the living water. When Jesus knew things about the woman that no one knew, she recognized Jesus as a great prophet, and talked to him about her faith. She told him how the Samaritans had always worshipped at the top of Mount Gerizim, where their beliefs said Abraham had gone to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But the Jews lorded it over the Samaritans and told them their worship was useless unless it was in Jerusalem. The Samaritan woman at the well became one of the first evangelists of Jesus Christ when she gathered the men of her city and proclaimed Jesus’ greatness. Because she said so, they followed her and met the Lord and listened to his stories. Then they proclaimed that it may have been the woman’s words that got them there, but it was Jesus who brought them to the true God.
Of course, Jesus also told the well-known story of the Good Samaritan, showing one of these people as someone who gave unconditionally. The story is a reinforcement of the Greatest Commandment: to love God completely and to show that love by caring for one another (John 4:1-26). In John’s eighth chapter, Jesus is Himself confronted by Jewish leaders who accused him of being a Samaritan in league with the devil. They insisted their lineage from Abraham was true. The Savior’s response was to tell them that He was not possessed by any demon, but rather honored the Father, while they dishonored the Son. The disagreement became so heated that the Jews intended to stone Jesus right then and there. Instead, he passed through the crowd and left unnoticed by them.
So, finally, it becomes a major point that only a Samaritan returned to Jesus to give thanks after he had blessed and healed ten lepers. For Jesus and to all of us, this is a message about healing and aiding one another no matter what their discomfort. He used an unpopular people to demonstrate that everyone had the opportunity to live in the kingdom of God, and surely the diseased man who returned had found it. Jesus healed a horrid disease, but it wasn’t just about the disease as much as it was about the care we give each other. He observed the law of God and Judaism when he sent the lepers to the priests just as Moses had ordained. This was not the first or the last time that He would reach out and touch those who were inflicted and invite them to the Father. Perhaps the greatest message in this Gospel story is in Jesus’ last words to the leper: “You faith has made you well.”