The scripture passages selected for the lectionary from the New Testament Gospel and the Hebrew Bible don’t always go together very well. But this week, in two stories about healing leprosy, they do:
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. –2 Kings 5:1-14 NRSV
And from Mark’s Gospel account:
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. –Mark 1:40-45 NRSV
On their surface both passages appear to be simply about the healing or “making clean” of men suffering from leprosy, which in biblical times could have meant any number of skin diseases. Of course, as is true of so much in the Bible, there is a lot more going on, much more below the surface and behind the scenes.
Naaman was a powerful man, a commander in the Aramean army. As such, he was certainly within the center of power in the ancient world and a man much to be feared by the Israelites. And yet his skin disease thrust him from the center of society out onto its margins. Lepers were “unclean,” both in Israel and elsewhere. None of his own Aramean healers could help him, and he was forced to chase down rumors of alternative healing across international borders. Perhaps this is not too unlike Americans crossing into northern Mexican border towns to seek healing from cancer or other modern-day scourges with treatments illegal in the United States.
An Israelite slave girl, captured in a previous armed raid and now a maid-servant of Naaman’s wife, gave him the tip. Given his personal history, Naaman was quite used to getting his way and ordering whomever he wanted in whatever way he desired. The Israelite prophet Elisha, however, upended the expected rules and gave him no special treatment whatsoever. After an initial tantrum, Naaman eventually complied and washed himself seven times in the River Jordan. In the end he proclaimed the sovereignty of Israel’s God and even took Israelite dirt back with him when he returned home. In short, Naaman was a powerful man very much at the center of society whose disease thrust him to the margins where he was humbled and cured. Assuming he returned to a powerful life in Aram, it’s perhaps safe to assume that his experience changed the course of his life.
Meanwhile, in chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus beginning his earthly ministry. As was true in last’s week’s Gospel lection, Jesus is becoming aware of the price of fame. Miraculous healings were drawing crowds so he could proclaim more widely his message of the coming kingdom of God on earth, but they also meant he couldn’t enter Galilean towns to do so and had to remain out in the countryside.
That’s where a man suffering from leprosy sought him. Unlike other healing stories where Jesus went to the person needing healing, this leperous man came to him. That, it must be remembered, was simply not allowed in proper society. Lepers were untouchables who were required to maintain a distance from other people and even call out “Unclean, unclean!” as a warning. Yet this man came to Jesus to tell him that if Jesus wanted to he could heal him. Furthermore, Jesus touched the man (which would have made Jesus just as much an unclean societal outcast) before instructing him to tell no one but to appear before the Temple priests to complete the ritual acts of returning to a clean life. The formerly diseased man, however, was so thrilled to be healed that he began to tell everybody he encountered, which of course made it even harder for Jesus to move around in society, keeping him constantly in the outlying countryside.
The irony here is that an unclean outcast on the margins of society was healed and brought back into the center of things by Jesus, who because he had touched and healed the man was himself thrust farther outside the mainstream. A constant characteristic of Jesus’ ministry is that it took place out on the margins, in humble service to his fellow Judeans and Galileans.
These two stories offer a pattern for modern-day followers of Jesus. Where should our ministry take place: At the seat of power or out on the margins? Yet where is the church more typically found? Two thousand years of Christianity have resulted in varying examples of Christendom. It wasn’t just Emperor Constantine’s efforts to join religion and the power of the state that defined Christendom. In 21st-century America there are many forces at work that promote Christianity as not only the dominant religion of the country but wish the “Christian way” (or perhaps more appropriately, a particular branch of Christianity, such as evangelicalism) to be the “American way.”
Certainly the church can become quite powerful and influential when it resides at the center of society. But is that Jesus’ way? With all the increasing economic and social challenges in the United States of America (and elsewhere, certainly), the example of Jesus’ healing and teaching propel those who call themselves disciples out onto the margins as humble servants and ministers of change.
- Down to the River of Healing Waters — Lectionary Reflection (bobcornwall.com)
- Between the Lines: Epiphany 6: February 12, 2012 (bibleworkbench.wordpress.com)
- The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B: February 12, 2012 (prayerbookguide.wordpress.com)
- Wade in the Water (Ekklesiaproject.org/blog)