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A Tale of Two Lepers (sermon)

February 10, 2012

Mark 1:40-45             2 Kings 5:1-17

These two stories want to talk to each other. They are both healing stories. They are both stories about lepers, people who share a common trauma, a common desperation and a common humanity. They see what life they have as fragile and disappearing.

And they both seek help from a prophet. Why a prophet? Probably, because there was no one else.

Imagine for a moment, life prior to the advent of modern medicine… You can’t just make an appointment and see the doctor, and assume that the doctor will, 9 times out of 10 be able to solve your problem. No, any rumour of healing power draws crowds and is cherished in the public imagination with great hope. Prophet’s were a kind of celebrity.

The other background issue to these stories understanding ‘leprosy’. Today it is a technical medical term. In the biblical context, any skin disease was leprosy. And leprosy was not just a physical condition it was a social condition. To be marked on the skin was, to be stigmatized (in both senses of the word), unclean, not really human, outside the circle of social life and untouchable.

At least that was how it normally worked… unless like Naaman you were a great warrior and second only to the king. And so he is a kind of exceptional Leper. Socially he is as near to the centre of power, as much of an insider as you can get. And yet he is human. The sign of death is on him, Death is at his door. So he comes, cap in hand, with a letter to the neighboring King of Samaria. The letter is addressed to the King and asks that Naaman be healed. It was commonly believed that Kings had supernatural powers to heal and obviously this prophet must be an agent of the King. So it is the King who is asked. The King is full of bluster, a small King faced with this request from a major power immediately draws the obvious conclusion this is an excuse for a war. Interestingly the King of Samaria seems to under no illusions about his godlike status. He knows he can’t heal.

You see there is a prophet in Israel and in Israel a tradition was developing in which prophets challenged Kings, they were thorns in the political flesh. Perhaps here was a king who didn’t believe he was a god. The prophet, on hearing of the King’s fury immediately contacted the King and told him to send Naaman to him.

And so the second most powerful figure in the known world turns up at the prophet’s door with full cavalcade expecting to be treated as a world leader with red carpet and full honours. But the prophet simply sends out his servant to meet Naaman – a clear act of provocation, a clear demonstration of his complete disregard for the man’s status. And the servant instructs Naaman in his treatment. Wash seven times in the Jordan! That’s all.

Naaman’s turn to blow his stack. He expects a ritual with a bit more pomp and ceremony and waving of hands. But no, he just has to swallow his pride, follow instructions from a little man’s servant, go down into a little river.

In the end he does it, it works and he wants to pay his fee. So they have an argument about his gift. The prophet wants no payment. He may not be an agent of the King but his healing power is not his own to charge for, so insists on no reward. Naaman is equally insistent on retaining his independence and dignity by paying his way. In the end he says, ‘Look, if you won’t take my present, at least give me some soil from your land, so I can go and build an altar and make sacrifices to your God.’

In the ancient pagan world sacrifices were way of giving payment to the gods. Naaman vows loyalty to only one god… it’s a kind of monotheism… but he wants to treat that god like a pagan god that you can do deals with. If he can’t pay the prophet, he will pay the prophet’s god with sacrifices of crops, or goats, or first-born children.

One way or another he will retain his status and dignity and keep up with his payments

Our second leper is not an exceptional leper, he’s your standard outsider who has spent his life like a street animal, beyond the circle of the human community. Imagine for a moment what that might have meant for his life. Imagine spending your life without being touched by another human being…

This ordinary leper also hears rumours of a prophet. He joins the crowd and seizes his opportunity, coming up and begging for help, pouring out his desperation at Jesus feet.

I imagine there was a moment of the kind of silence that follows any public expression of emotion, and Jesus we are told… felt deeply about this… the Greek word is more commonly associated with anger than compassion, but many translations can’t understand anger so they go with compassion. But I wonder if anger is not an equally appropriate response to the leper’s situation.

Jesus response is immediate. He doesn’t merely speak on behalf of God (in the name of the Lord) as was the usual prophetic role, he touches on behalf of God. He reaches across the barrier that separated the man from a shared humanity and touches him. And the man is healed

Moved with compassion or anger, or both, Jesus reaches out and breaks the code… of holiness… with another holiness.

He has another holiness… and another holiness is as revolutionary as another political system…

Notice Jesus is not a violent revolutionary, he is not in a rush to break open the whole world… His first command to the healed leper is to keep it under wraps…

The leper immediately goes and does no such thing. He tells everyone. And part of me understands this. How can you keep it quiet? How can you be patient when you have spent your life the way he had?

Why the silence? What is Jesus trying to do here? At first glance it appears that Jesus is maintaining the status quo. His second command is to go to the temple and show yourself to those who keep these things under control. Show yourself to the priests who make sure that the unclean people are kept separate from the clean people … and get one of their certificates to say you’re clean now. Go to them, says Jesus “as a testimony”… And that’s the key I think. In other words go and show them what happens when someone reaches out and touches an unclean person.

Bear witness… to the system, the gatekeepers of stigmatisation… bear witness to another holiness.

Because the leper disregards Jesus strict command… then Jesus’ subversive struggle with the temple and its gatekeepers seems to move to another stage, and we read that: “He can no longer go into a town openly…” and instead outside, in the countryside, people come to him. But as we know his engagement with the city and its temple is not over.

I will conclude with some questions that this text raises for me. Maybe one of these questions speaks to you too?

We assume that dirt spreads but cleanliness doesn’t. What if it’s the other way round?

We assume that you change the world by changing the ideas of one person at a time? What if the world only really changes when institutions like temples and market places are changed as well?

What happens when we spend all our life like Naaman not wanting to be touched by another human being, maintaining our own independence… what happens to our life?

 

 

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