Sunday 12 February 2012

The healing touch

Address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on Sunday 12th February 2012, the 2nd Before Lent, Year B (incorrectly using the readings for Proper 1!)

Leprosy is the link between the OT and NT readings we’ve just heard.
In the OT reading (2Kings 5:1-14), we are told about how Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army from what is now Syria, is cured of leprosy by following the Prophet Elisha’s instructions to bathe in the River Jordan. And Mark (1: 40-45) tells us how Jesus cured a man with leprosy who begged him to do so.

True leprosy, now properly called Hansen’s disease, is a dreadful illness. It’s a chronic bacterial disease of the peripheral nerves and respiratory tract. It causes skin lesions, loss of the sense of touch, and over many years progressive disfigurement and disability. Until the 1930s it was incurable, but happily the infection can now be easily cured by a cocktail of drugs, and the WHO is coordinating efforts to eliminate it altogether in the near future. But despite being cured of the infection 2 to 3 million people worldwide are still estimated to be permanently disabled by its long term effects. It is right for us to continue to support the charities that work to help them.

Before the development of modern medicine, Hansen’s disease was often confused with other skin diseases, such as psoriasis and ringworm. They were all lumped together as leprosy, and sufferers – called lepers - were greatly feared, because leprosy was believed, incorrectly, to be highly contagious.

In Jesus’s time, religious law decreed that lepers were ritually unclean, and anything or anybody they touched also became unclean, so people avoided any contact with them. Theirs was a cruel fate. They were forced to live away from villages and towns with other lepers, and were obliged to warn other people of their presence by crying out ‘Unclean, unclean!’ If ever someone was cured – and real leprosy was incurable, so it must have been some other skin disease – the leper would have to go to be examined by a priest and take part in a complicated ritual involving animal sacrifices, as described in the book of Leviticus. Only then would the former leper be allowed back into Israelite society.

But leprosy is not what either reading is really about, I think.
The story of Naaman is surely not about his leprosy, but about how pride must be overcome before a person can find favour in the sight of God. It was only when Naaman could put aside his pride in his own greatness, and his pride in his own country, that he could be made clean by obeying the Prophet Elisha’s instructions. How greatful he must have been to his servants for encouraging him do so when he was stamping off in a a huff!

And Mark’s story is about Jesus, and about how Jesus responds to those in trouble who come to him – the leprosy is purely incidental. Let's look at it a bit more closely.

The leper comes to Jesus and begs him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’.
And how does Jesus respond? Jesus is ‘moved with pity’, we are told. ‘Moved with pity’ does not really capture the strength of the original Greek, which literally translated means ‘gut-wrenched’. Jesus was gut-wrenched by the leper's plight.

Then ‘Jesus stretch(es) out his hand and touch(es) him’. Those who saw it, or heard about it later, would have found this extraordinary, quite scandalous – a deliberate breach of the purity laws by a man who called himself a preacher. The leper was unclean, cursed by God perhaps. By touching him Jesus was making himself unclean. And those who associated with him risked becoming unclean themselves. Yet, ‘moved with pity’, Jesus does not hesitate. He reaches out his hand to this suffering human being and touches him – something, perhaps, which the leper had not experienced since his disease was first detected, perhaps years before. In this very human gesture Jesus makes manifest the love that he knows his Father in heaven has for all his children.

And this touch is a healing touch. ‘I do choose’, says Jesus, ‘Be made clean!’ And the leprosy leaves the man.

This little tale shows us, I believe, how we too can receive healing from Jesus when we are in trouble. When we are in trouble we can feel shunned by society, cut off perhaps from friends and family, by their anger, fear or embarrassment because of what has happened. But if we come to Jesus in prayer and ask him, he has the power through his Father in heaven to reach out with a loving touch to heal us, as he healed the leper. He may not choose to heal us physically – miraculous healing is very rare these days – but he will surely choose to heal us spiritually, to give us the strength to bear the trouble, whatever it is.

And the tale also shows us how we should behave when we encounter those in trouble who seek our help. Jesus did not shun the leper, and we who bear Christ’s name should model ourselves on him. When those who are shunned in our society come to us for help, we must reach out to them with a loving touch, like Jesus. And that includes those whose circumstances horrify us, for instance AIDS victims, drug addicts, sex abusers, prostitutes - as well as the plain feckless.

Jesus sternly warns the newly cleansed leper not to tell other people what has happened.
‘See that you say nothing to anyone’
, he says, ‘but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’

Why should Jesus want to keep his healing miracle secret? Perhaps he foresees that news of the miracle will make him a celebrity, and get in the way of his ministry. For that is just what happens: the former leper ignores Jesus’s warning; he tells everyone who will listen and crowds flock to see Jesus, ‘so that (he) could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed in the country.’

But I prefer another explanation. Perhaps Jesus fears that the former leper may be stigmatised if his connection with Jesus is made widely known. For Jesus already knows that he will be a controversial figure – he has already shown he is prepared to break the law by touching a leper, and that will not be the end of it. So he advises the man he has cured to go quietly to the priest. If the priest hears Jesus was involved, he might withhold his declaration of cleanliness. And only the priest’s testimony will make other people believe the former leper is clean again.

We are not told what happened to him, but I wonder if the former leper lived to regret ignoring Jesus's warning.

So to finish, thanks be to God for the insights to be found in today’s readings from scripture!
Among them are these:
(1) We need to overcome our foolish pride before we can find favour in the sight of God.
(2) Jesus will reach out with his loving touch to heal us if we bring our troubles to him in prayer. And
(3) We should follow Jesus’s example by reaching out to others in trouble, no matter who they are.

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