6th Sunday after the Epiphany Year B
February 12, 2012
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One Sunday last month The New York Times ran an article about the growing number of luxury suites in hospitals. One woman they interviewed said she woke up in a Manhattan hospital and for a moment, mistook it for a five-star hotel. The bed linens were clearly expensive; the en suite bathroom was decked out in marble. The views of the East River were impressive indeed. A man in a black vest and tie appeared with a menu and announced that he was her butler. The care provided apparently matched the amenities according to the woman, who said she was supposed to have been in Buenos Aires on vacation but ended up in this New York hospital instead. “I’m perfectly at home here — totally private, totally catered,” she said. “I have a primary-care physician who also acts as ringmaster for all my other doctors. And I see no people in training — only the best of the best.”
Only the best of the best will do for very important people, it seems. Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, was an important person indeed. He would certainly approve of such a fine healthcare facility; only the best would do for him. While Naaman was “a great man and in high favor with his master” and “a mighty warrior” as well, he had the misfortune to suffer from leprosy. Leprosy wasn’t a single disease but a name given in biblical times to a variety of repugnant skin conditions. Leprosy wasn’t just unpleasant and messy for the person who was unlucky enough to have it. It carried the taint of sin—which I’ll say more about shortly—and made a person ritually impure. So even a powerful person needed to do something about this condition, and he needed to do it quickly. Naaman would have done anything to be cured of this affliction, or so one would have thought.
When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house expecting to be cured of his disease, he was greeted not by the prophet himself but by a messenger. The messenger told Naaman to wash seven times in the River Jordan in order to be healed. Naaman was incensed. He expected the personal ministrations of the prophet. He was a great man after all. Naaman was as affronted as the woman in the luxury hospital suite would have been if she had been visited by one of the medical residents instead of a renowned specialist. Fortunately Naaman’s servant persuaded him to go wash in the Jordan as he had been told. Just as Elisha had said, his flesh was made clean again.
In the first chapter of Mark we have another healing from leprosy. It contrasts sharply with the account in Second Kings. “A leper came to Jesus.” This man didn’t come with a resume like Naaman did. He didn’t even come with a name. His identity was his disease. It was as if the name of his disease told us all we needed to know about him. Specifically what the name of his disease told people was that they needed to avoid this man. As I mentioned in the story of Naaman, leprosy was more than a physical illness. It had a societal dimension. People who had leprosy weren’t considered fit for society, period. Leprosy had a moral dimension as well. People who had leprosy were believed to have sinned in some way or another. The affliction was seen as the just punishment for that sin. A person with leprosy was to be avoided at all costs. A person with leprosy ceased to be a person and became a “leper.” Leviticus 13 is quite clear that a person with leprosy is excluded. It says: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease…He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” It doesn’t get much clearer than this.
We would be mistaken to think that this ancient attitude to disease is no more. A few years ago I visited a shelter resident while he was in the hospital for tuberculosis. Normally HIPPA protects a patient’s right to privacy. Not so in the case of the TB patient. Hospital personnel who previously would have told me nothing about this patient were suddenly offering information, more personal information than I felt the situation warranted. All I needed was to be told was the diagnosis and to wear a mask and gown.
Patients’ rights and even dignity seem to fall even farther if the disease happens to be HIV-AIDS. Before my husband’s cousin Mark died he suffered more than the ravages of the disease. He suffered unnecessarily cruel treatment from clinic and hospital workers. One memorably refused to touch anything Mark had touched; the man refused even to push Mark’s wheelchair. Others were openly scornful of his condition, implying that it was his fault. These people didn’t see or treat Mark as a person, the loving son, partner, brother, and uncle that he was. No matter that before his illness he’d graduated from MIT and had a successful career as an engineer. Instead of a person, they saw a disease. Instead of compassion, they felt fear and disdain.
Such is the condition of the person in today’s Gospel who is known to us only as “a leper.” He was an object of fear and scorn. He was someone respectable people in his community crossed the street to avoid. No one would touch him. Any contact with a person with leprosy would make the other person ritually impure and outcast himself. No one would risk touching him. No one except Jesus, that is.
The man with leprosy in Mark’s Gospel stands in sharp contrast to Naaman. He doesn’t come demanding to be healed or argue about the manner of his healing. He comes as a supplicant. He comes and kneels. He says to Jesus, “If you will you can make me clean.” The words “if you will” might not have any particular resonance with us. These words might even sound like a challenge to us. But a first century reader or listener would have recognized the words “if you will” as the language of prayer. By approaching Jesus in this way the man with leprosy acknowledges both Jesus’ relationship to the divine and the proper way to approach divinity.
Jesus is “moved with pity.” We might think, “Well, of course. The man was clearly suffering.” We might feel revulsion, but we know we’re supposed to feel compassion. But in Jesus’ cultural context any so-called sane person would have only been moved in the other direction, to get away from this source of impurity as quickly as possible. Jesus does the opposite. Jesus does the unthinkable. Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I will. Be made clean!” And as the Gospel says, “Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”
As immediately as the leprosy left its victim, Jesus returns to the realities of his time and place. He tells the man two things. First, to go to the priest, make the required offering and get the official pronouncement that would restore him to society. Second, to tell no one. We’re not told that the man fulfilled the first part of Jesus’ instructions. Likely he did. But the Gospel clearly tells us that the man ignored the second part and spread the good news of his healing far and wide. “He went out and began to talk freely about it,” even though Jesus told him not to.
Wouldn’t you? I hope I would. How could you possibly keep such good news to yourself? What Jesus has done by curing the man with leprosy is every bit as miraculous as raising him from the dead. Jesus may just as well as have taken him out of the tomb the way he did with Lazarus. A person with leprosy in first century Palestine was worse than dead. Jesus didn’t just cure this man’s skin condition. Jesus gave him back his very life.
So it’s no small wonder this man didn’t keep silent. Thank heaven this man didn’t keep silent. Thank heaven he and others like him, down through the generations, didn’t keep silent about the great things that God in Jesus did for them. Thank heaven that someone told each and every one of us here in this place today that God in Jesus Christ did, can, and will work miracles in our lives. Thank heaven that we’ve heard the good news that there is no dark and hurt place in our lives that Jesus will not go to heal us. So when God in Jesus has done great things, share the good news. Give glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.