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SHUNNED THROUGH ILLNESS 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15; Lk 17:11-19

Our two Bible readings today are about people being cured from leprosy in a miraculous way. The story of the enemy commander, Naaman coming to Israel and seeking a cure is full of drama and humour. The gospel story is of Jesus healing the 10 lepers and then only one returning to give him thanks. There is a great deal that we can take from these stories of healing, but I would like to look at them from a particular perspective – the perspective of mental health.

World Mental Health Day
For the Bible to be relevant and for our faith to mean something in the real world, we need to relate what we read in the scriptures with the contemporary world and its concerns. Each year 10th October is observed as World Mental Health Day. This year the theme is Mental health in a changing world: the impact of culture and diversity. Let me quote you from the official publicity material:

“There are approximately 6.5 billion people living on planet Earth. Within that number, there are more people living outside their country of origin than at any other time in history. One person out of 35 is an international migrant — 3% of the global population. If we look at our world today, is there any single culture, race or religion that is 100% contained in one single country? We can find dramatically different languages, religions, family relationships and values, as well as views on health care and treatment wherever we go, including in our own respective countries. A female mental health professional born and trained in India may have moved to the United Kingdom and is seeing a male client born and raised in Ecuador — how do they communicate and how do each view the same mental illness?”

Let’s look at two particular ways in which these contemporary concerns and our readings today relate to each other.
Fear of Illness
In the pre-scientific age of the Bible disease was treated and thought about in ways very different from today. Leprosy was dreaded as a contagious disease. Naaman would have been horrified to discover the first signs of disease in his skin, as a general with a public reputation and a well-off way of life, he could have completely lost everything he had were it to become widely known that he might be contagious. Even though Naaman’s time was centuries before Jesus’, I suspect that he would have been treated in a similar way to the 10 lepers in today’s gospel reading. Lepers were driven out of their homes and communities and forced to live at a distance from the rest of society. They were isolated because of the fear of contagion. The type of skin disease called leprosy in Bible times is possibly a different strain from modern leprosy which is far less contagious. Nowadays the disease can be treated with drugs and isolation is not so necessary. In Jesus’ day if any were lucky enough to think they had recovered, they first had to get a clean bill of health from the priests of the day before rejoining normal society.

Those who suffered from such a contagious disease not only had the physical problems of their illness but also had tremendous social and mental suffering placed upon them. The 10 lepers whom Jesus healed would have found some measure of solace in each other’s company, but imagine how distressing it must have been to be chased out of their homes and communities and thought of as life-threatening, dirty, possibly even being punished by God for some unconfessed sins! It was a terrible stigma.

Mental health may not be contagious like leprosy was thought to be in Bible times, but it does often carry a stigma with it. People who suffer from bad mental health may often have the added problems of being isolated, lonely, misunderstood and shunned by normal society. We find mentally ill people difficult to relate to, difficult to cope with or contain within normal relationships.
Differences of Culture
In seeking to understand the life and times of the Bible we are already engaged in a cross-cultural exercise! We have to realise what is true about our own culture and how it differs from the culture we find in the Bible before we can begin to appreciate what the Bible is actually saying to us today.

When we come to look into the Bible we find cultural differences play a key role in some of the stories. Naaman came from a proud nation, the Arameans who lived in the area we now know as Syria. They had two grand rivers: the Arbana and Pharpar and were obviously powerful in a military sense, as they kept raiding their smaller neighbours, the Israelites. But the Israelites had a great man of God, Elisha, the successor of Elijah, and he was thought to possess great powers. So it was that when Naaman discovered his illness, his foreign servant girl, a captive from a raid, recommended her master take a trip to Elisha. Part of the comedy of this story is that the king of Israel completely misunderstood the reason for this particular visit of Naaman and thought that it was simply a different kind of military raid. Then Naaman misunderstood Elisha’s response – thinking that the prophet should have come out and done some grand and mysterious ceremony. Instead, Elisha was to exercise simple faith and wash himself in the small and unimpressive river Jordan. Through his healing Naaman’s attitude towards the culture of Israel was changed: Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel”.

Cross-cultural misunderstandings and expectations also play a role in the gospel story. Leprosy had forced 10 men together and at least one of them was different – he was a Samaritan – a point which may be lost on us, but the implication is that he was the one least expected to return and show any kind of gratitude! Jesus praised him for his new-found faith: rather like Naaman finding faith in Israel’s God in an unexpected way.

Culture and Diversity
Mental health is a major concern in today’s health service. Here are some statistics to illustrate the scale of mental health problems:
· Around 300 people out of 1,000 will experience mental health problems every year in Britain.
· 230 of these will visit a GP.
· 102 of these will be diagnosed as having a mental health problem.
· 24 of these will be referred to a specialist psychiatric service.
· Six will become inpatients in psychiatric hospitals.

Part of the message of this year’s world mental health day is to bring to us an awareness of the cross-cultural aspects to mental health. We live in a city where there are many minority cultures. We may not be directly involved with health provision, but as Christians we are called to be aware of the needs of our neighbours whoever they may be. Here are some questions addressed to European health services that help us to see the cultural aspects to the provision of mental health care:
What provision is there to help people explain their mental health problems in their own language?
Is the use of mental health services by ethnic and minority groups proportionate in comparison to their relative population size?
Are there any special programmes that provide care for vulnerable and marginalized groups, including minorities and illegal immigrants?

Jesus responded to those who were suffering from a socially isolating disease, regardless of their cultural background. If we are to be his followers, then a good starting place is to be a little more aware of mental health illness and issues of cultural diversity in our own situation. The Bible and real life relate to each other and this is one way in which we find they do.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Faithful Lord,
whose steadfast love never ceases
and whose mercies never come to an end:
grant us the grace to trust you
and to receive the tokens of your love
new every morning
in Jesus Christ our Lord.