Sermon - Epiphany 6 (Ordinary 6) Year B

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Healing the Outsider

[Note: This is a set of notes rather than a sermon ready for preaching.]

The healing of the Syrian, Naaman, in 2 Kings 5 and the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45 both bring out the sense of fear and disgust that a dreaded skin disease can evoke, and at the same time in both stories that feeling of horror is associated closely with the fear of outsiders. The leper Jesus healed was an outcast by virtue of his disease and Naaman who suffered similarly was not only a foreigner but the commander of an army that the people of Israel had good reason to fear. There is in both stories a message about the extension of God's loving care beyond the immediate group of people who know him and live in a covenant relationship to God, but it is too easy to put it in that simple and bold manner. It is true but it is not easy to grasp fully. In both the Old Testament's rather surprising witness to the universality of God's care and in the Gospel message of Jesus in his healing ministry it is clear that people struggle to gasp the truth about God's love and have to overcome significant barriers to accept it. That challenge is at the heart of understanding how healing and reconciliation work together. They go together in the recovery of wholeness through the power of God.

The healing story in this Gospel reading makes its own particular points, but it has much in common with other demonstrations of the power of God in what Jesus did. Its meaning in context is more powerful than when seen alone even if it might have originated independently of the other healing miracles or wonders in Mark 1 and 2. It was cause for wonder, and it challenged onlookers with the same question as other acts of healing and reconciliation in this part of Mark's Gospel. "Who is this?", they had asked. "What is this? A new kind of teaching - with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him." (Mark 1:27) That is what they had said a little earlier in Mark's account of the beginning of the mission of Jesus announcing the Kingdom of God, when he healed a man at the synagogue in Capernaum. Then many others were brought to him; and in this later story we read today there is too a sense of his confronting and overcoming an evil power. To get the point, don't be too concerned about what kind of evil is being overcome or how it was done, just note that healing happened and the stern manner in which Jesus spoke to him. Healing is a kind of victory over the powers which oppress humanity, and a sign of the coming of the reign of God in human life, coming of the Kingdom. Then after the gospel reading for today, we have in the first part Mark 2 the healing of the man who was let down through the roof on a stretcher to reach Jesus in spite of the crowd. That was when Jesus healed by forgiving the man his sins "Son, your sins are forgiven", he said, and that really amazed the good people who were watching (Mark 2:5-12). It was another kind of victory revealing the Kingdom of God.

Why did healing and forgiving look much the same to him? Who is this man? Who but God can forgive sins? The faith which the evangelist is sharing here is the faith that this man is God. Only the one against whom an offence was committed was able to cancel the debt or to say that the offence would no longer be counted against the sinner. That act of reconciliation was an act of healing. Wholeness in the person's body was so much intimately linked with healing his relationship to God that Jesus spoke of them as if they were virtually the same thing: Which is easier, to say, "Your sins are forgiven", or "Stand up, take your mat and walk"? He might just as well have said one as the other, spiritual wholeness, in a restored relationship to God, that is reconciliation, is joined with wholeness of body in the physical act of healing. The same kind of thing happened in the healing of the leper in today's Gospel reading, but here the extension of wholeness from the person's body is to wholeness of community. The leper was not only considered sick with a dreadful disease, a disease of which people were very much afraid, but he was considered ritually unclean. He was an outcast who was forbidden to come near to ordinary people or to where they lived. The outsider was, in their eyes, the eyes of insiders, a dirty sinner, just as people still sometimes sadly tend to think that people of a different race or culture are dirty. To the Jews who were watching Jesus, anyone who touched an unclean person was considered unclean too, and liable to be cast out, just as today anyone who associates with a person who has been stigmatised tends to be excluded also. So it was very significant that Jesus touched him, but apparently the fact that Jesus healed him was seen to show such power over the evil that had affected the man that Jesus could not be contaminated by it. When the leper was healed he was reconciled to others in the community which had cast him out. He was restored again to wholeness of life his community. So, he had to show himself to the priest to prove that he was healed and able to come back into normal life again. (There is a parallel in this with the healing of the woman who touched the fringe of his cloak. See The miracle of wholeness, and Healing, wholeness and salvation.)

Mark's story of the healing of the leper has also some unique qualities. One is the emphasis given to how Jesus felt when he was approached.

If you choose, or if you will or if you want to, you can make me clean. The man had no doubt about the power of Jesus to heal him, but he was not sure of how Jesus would feel about it. The fame of Jesus as a worker of wonders was already spreading and it had made him hopeful and bold enough to approach Jesus and the people around him in spite of his being forbidden to come near anyone. He knew that he was breaking the law and could give personal offence to Jesus or anyone he approached. He did not know how Jesus would respond to such boldness, and such a breach of the Jewish law, for after all Jesus was a rabbi. This seems to be related to what happened afterwards when Jesus told him sternly not to tell anyone what had happened but only to show himself to the priest. There was a practical reason for this warning that is clearly shown in how the crowds became too large for Jesus to move about freely and he had to retreat to the countryside; but there is also a spiritual purpose in the warning. Jesus wanted people to understand that his healing was related to the restoration of wholeness in relationship to God, it was about the coming of the Kingdom of God. People could easily be so caught up in wonder of the signs that they might not see the deeper meaning. He was constantly on his guard against this danger and sometimes rebuked people seeking strange sights that were a cause for wonder. That was a problem too with the approach of the man to Jesus, he saw the power to work wonders, but he did not know what was in the heart of Jesus, whether he would care, "If you choose", was his expression of doubt. Clearly, Jesus did care, "I do choose," he said, apparently with emphasis, as if the man should have know that he would care.

When Mark says, in the version you usually see, that Jesus then was moved with pity, it makes sense. It expresses the emotion of compassion that we would expect him to have. But, strangely while the majority of manuscripts say that Jesus was moved with pity, there are some ancient manuscripts which say that he was angry. So it then reads, Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Many scholars regard this as more likely to be the original wording. If he was angry it can hardly be that he angry because the man dared to approach him or that he broke the law in doing so, Jesus welcomed outcasts and rebuked the Pharisees for putting the letter of the law above human need. It is more likely that he was angry at the man for his lack of understanding the spiritual nature of the healing that he sought. Perhaps too he was concerned about his doubt that Jesus would grant his wish. He could also have had this source of anger heightened by the injustice of the man being so poorly treated by others around him, by his social ostracism and the self-centred notions of racial purity that went with it. There was cause for anger in much from which the man suffered. In a more general and spiritual sense you could say that he was angry with the powers of evil which had to be overcome for the man to fully healed and set free in body, community and spirit. There was a sense in which the request that the man made required Jesus, the Messiah, to go into battle; and his healing was another victory over the powers of evil. You don't have to know how it was accomplished to see that, it was another sign of the kind of victory and liberation that the coming of the Kingdom would bring. If Jesus still spoke sternly to him afterwards, it was because he did see the significance in the grander scheme things of what had happened to him.

We can hardly blame him for his excitement, and he would eventually have discovered that he was restored to normal community life, and would enjoy a greater wholeness than physical healing alone. He might even have understood Jesus better to the point of seeing how he was being reconciled also to God. We don't know how it worked out for him. Not everyone appreciated what Jesus did for them, but the message for us and the whole wide world is that in Christ God cares to the point of going into the struggle for life on their side, thus restoring people to wholeness of life in relationship himself and to one another while knowing the inner blessing of personal wholeness.

Naaman the Syrian enjoyed a similar restoration, although his understanding was limited too. He seemed to be confused about whether the Lord God, Yahweh, the God of Israel, in whose power the prophet Elisha had healed him was the universal Lord of all people or simply a local or national god of Israel. The important declaration of faith and the strange act of devotion inspired by his healing comes in the verses which follow today's Old Testament reading:

So he declared belief in Yahweh the Lord God of Israel as the universal God of all nations, not limited in his blessings to Israel only, but he could not free his understanding of gods as being identified with particular nations, so he asked for some of the soil of Israel to carry back with him to Damascus so that he might worship the true God there as if still on the territory with which he was associated. It appears that he wanted to take back with him a load of earth to form the base of an altar on which sacrifices would be offered to no other God but the Lord who had blessed him with healing in Israel. It was far from being a clear insight into the universal love and sovereignty of God for in the next breath he asked forgiveness for continuing to take part in the worship of his master's pagan god Rimmon. It is a hard lesson to learn, this idea that God is the same God whose quality is to have mercy without regard to nationality, race or cultural identity.

Fear of a foreign power is clear in the way that the king of Israel responded to the letter from the King of Aram (that is the region around Damascus, otherwise known as Syria). They had been at war, and would be again, and although he would not have known it, a century or so later it would be the Assyrians who would destroy their nation. The king of Israel had good reason to fear the King of Aram although it was not unknown for international diplomacy sometimes to include requests for assistance in a medical matter. Ancient records discovered by archaeologists contain other examples. But it could also have been a threat, a way to pick a quarrel: grant this request, which we both know is impossible, or I will come and deal with you; and to make the point here is the commander of my army accompanied by soldiers and chariots. We don't know exactly what the disease was which afflicted the general Naaman, but the king thought it was incurable. The same is true of the disease which Jesus healed, although there in the Gospel it applies to an affliction which caused the man to be isolated and here in the case of Naaman he was allowed to associate with others and go about normal work, even in close contact with his king. The word leprosy is used in the Bible to refer several different diseases. What we call leprosy, Hansen's disease, is probably something different. Nevertheless, it was a fearful and dreaded skin disease. Some such diseases might be cured by suggestion, reinforced by the ritual of washing seven times, a sacred number, under the instruction of a famous prophet, but we don't know, and it does not matter for the point of the story, which was that the amazing grace and power of God can be much more widely known than people are inclined to expect, and despite the kind of national, cultural or even personal limits we might attempt to put upon it.

It is a nice coincidence that the prophet Elisha and the king of Israel in this story lived at Samaria, while it was in the parable of the Good Samaritan that Jesus expressed in a manner that has resounded to the ends of the earth the principle law of loving your neighbour even if he is a foreigner. We have good authority for understanding the healing of Naaman as an illustration of this principle because Jesus himself spoke of it that way (Luke 4:27). It was when he was being challenged in his home town about his understanding of God not being limited in the way they tended to think. He pointed out that there must have been many lepers in Israel but Elisha healed none of them, only the Syrian Naaman. In the teaching of Jesus it was a sign of the way that God could not be made the exclusive possession of one people. His blessings are free gifts of grace available far beyond traditionally limited expectations. So the healing which is salvation is deep and wide. New wholeness is offered deep in heart of a person who is blessed by it, healing in body and in spirit, changing the relationship of the person to God, and wide as limits of human society, to neighbours near and far. Personal faith and social justice, international affairs and personal reconciliation all are subject to the universal sovereignty of God and to his limitless loving care. We are the recipients of these saving acts and called to be agents of his for the same purpose. We give thanks to God for the blessings and the call, in the name of Jesus who brought it home to us and gave us hope of victory in the Kingdom of God. Glory be to him.

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