Sunday, February 12, 2012

Choose to Touch

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.” (Mark 1.40-41)

A Very Big Deal

Some time back, while putting away laundry, my partner Walt called, “Honey, come look at this.” He pointed to a nasty stain that filled a corner in our linen closet and crept across the ceiling. “Mold,” I gasped. Walt asked, “How can that be?” And that really was the question, as the spot, in our apartment’s driest corner, was the least likely place for mold to sprout. We started running scenarios that might account for a sudden outbreak of fungal growth. Where had we gone wrong, we wondered. What had—or hadn’t—we done? How could we clean it up and prevent it from returning? What if it we couldn’t stop it? It was no big deal. Yet it was a very big deal, because mold is unsightly. It signals uncleanliness. Soon we were scrubbing down the closet as if prepping it for delicate surgery. (We never solved the mystery of the mold’s origins.)

How embarrassing for a guest to spot the mold before we did! Yet, as terrible as that prospect seemed, it was nothing compared to what we’d face in ancient times. Hebrew Law considered mold and mildew in one’s home or clothing as types of leprosy—evidence of sickness that might infect the community. Anyone who saw our mold would have been religiously obligated to report us as “unclean.” Until we were ritually cleansed and our house put right, we’d be labeled lepers. And there are other telltale physical symptoms unrelated to mold and mildew that presented the same fate. If winter air chapped our lips or sunburn caused our skin to flake, we’d be lepers. If we had psoriasis, eczema, or any kind of rash, we’d be lepers. If inflamed nerves surfaced as hives or shingles, we’d be lepers.

Leprosy in Scripture isn’t just the ailment now known as Hansen’s disease—a neurologic malady that dries up one’s flesh and often scars limbs. It’s a catchall for many conditions (some infectious, some not) that alarm primitive people. Lepers may be called unclean. But they’re viewed as unsafe. You don’t hang around them, touch them, eat with them, speak to them—you don’t get close enough to breathe their air. Thus, when we open Sunday’s texts to find Elisha helping Naaman, a pagan military leader afflicted with leprosy, and Jesus cleansing a leper, we note these encounters are a big deal, a very big deal.

“If You Choose”

To be fair, Elisha treats Naaman with extreme caution. The commander’s king refers him to Elisha, who’s said to have power to cleanse lepers, and his arrival in Israel creates a lot of anxiety for its monarch. First, he’s not happy about a highly esteemed foreign leper traipsing the countryside, where he’s sure to be shunned by common folks—for good reason. But more than that, Israel’s king worries that failure to remedy Naaman’s condition will stir up trouble with the referring king. Once Elisha catches wind of the problem, he assures his king there’s no need to worry. “Send him to me,” he says. But when Naaman lands at Elisha’s door, the prophet doesn’t risk his health to greet him personally. He forwards a most unusual—and simple—protocol via his servant. He directs Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times and his skin will clear up. The rude reception and silly advice initially outrage Naaman, whose servants rush to point out if the prophet had asked him to do something difficult, he would have complied. So Naaman does as told and, as promised, the seventh bath restores his flesh “like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” (2 Kings 5.14)

In contrast, Jesus responds to a leper’s plea for help with flagrant compassion bordering on recklessness. The leper kneels before Him and says, “If You choose, You can make me clean.” (Mark 1.40) The text goes on: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” Jesus touches the man. Jesus chooses to touch him. Jesus cleanses him. Straightaway, He sends the man to a priest to verify his leprosy has been cleansed, warning him not to tell anyone what happened. But the man can’t keep his secret. “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,” verse 45 reports.

Lepers and Prophets

The two accounts are just similar enough to reveal striking differences. Both Elisha and Jesus possess curative powers and confidently respond to the lepers in unconventional ways. Yet Elisha’s curious decision to treat Naaman at arm’s length also reveals self-concern we don’t find in Jesus. Elisha obeys the Law prohibiting contact with lepers and thus protects his health. Meanwhile, Jesus defies the Law—as well as social taboos and nature itself—by touching the leper. In doing so he debunks the myth that lepers are unsafe, untouchable. The man’s cleansing will not only clear his complexion; it will restore his acceptance into community. After being pushed aside for reasons he can’t control, he will once again belong. And his belonging is more important to Jesus than any criticism or exposure to infection that may result from choosing to touch the man. Mark suggests Jesus’s warning not to divulge how he’s cleansed is a precautionary measure to ensure He can move freely without being inundated with requests for healing. Yet the man’s excitement and gratitude demonstrate what happens when those isolated by affliction and prejudice are restored. Their witness inspires others to find Christ.

So where are we in these stories? Well, basically, we’re everywhere. We’re lepers and we’re prophets. On one hand, we’re afflicted with infectiously toxic ideas and habits that cause us to dry up, marring our appearance and vexing us with discomfort. We’re beset by moldy attitudes that permeate our lives. And we can respond to our situations like Naaman, whose pride almost stops him from humbling himself in obedience to the prophet. Or we can emulate the leper who boldly kneels at Christ’s feet and prays, “If You choose, You can make me clean.” As prophets, we’re also endowed with gifts to restore others who’ve been unjustly denied because of superstitions, ignorance, and fear. In relationship to them, we can be like Elisha, and treat so-called pariahs at arm’s length, telling them what to do without actively engaging in their restoration. Or we can follow Christ’s example by defying taboos and fears with a cleansing touch.

Leprosy comes in many forms. It grows in closets. It seeps into the fabric of life. It discolors skin and disfigures limbs. It infects surroundings and cripples many. Yet it need not destroy us. There is cleansing in Christ’s touch—the defiant power to rejuvenate and replenish our sense of belonging. And once restored, the cleansing power we receive is ours to share with those suffering similar conditions. It’s a secret we can’t keep. It inspires us to move toward them. It changes how we view people who’ve been religiously and socially labeled “unclean.” It humbles us so we no longer distance ourselves from victims of isolation and prejudice. It’s a secret that empowers us to reach for them—to say, “I do choose to touch you. Be made clean!”

Gentle Savior, revitalize our sense of Your cleansing touch. Restore our awareness of the power that You display when we choose to touch others who suffer from isolation and prejudice. Rid us of fear and reluctance so that Your story may continue to be told through us. Amen.

We are all lepers cleansed by Christ’s touch. And we are all prophets who know the power of choosing to touch others plagued by taboos and prejudices.

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Sherry Peyton said...

Interesting that the Catholic tradition doesn't include the story of Elisha and Naaman but rather uses a Leviticus section on Moses being instructed on what to do with lepers. I suspect the Elisha story is more useful to the discussion. I love the way you rather masterfully put us in the position of both prophet and lepers. A great job as always Tim.
Blessings, Sherry

Tim said...

Sherry, our pastor had us open our Bibles to Leviticus 14 this morning to get a good look at the machinations of cleansing. She pointed out that it was time consuming, expensive, and arduous and suggested that Jesus may have warned the leper not to tell because He didn't want to become the "express, one-stop cleanser." I liked that.

Despite the lectionary divergences, the message still comes out the same, doesn't it? I like that, too!

Many blessings,