This morning we have heard two stories, stories of faith, but also stories of restoration.
There was perhaps no more dread disease in the Biblical world than that of leprosy. There is much debate over whether this was what we have come to call “Hansen’s Disease” today. Many scholars suggest the term may have simply been a catchall for many different kinds of skin diseases, such eczema and even fungal infections. People didn’t go to the doctor to be diagnosed, they only knew there was something wrong. Regardless of what is exactly being described here, a skin disease was not only painful and often life threatening, it was first and foremost isolating.
The purity codes of Jewish Law pronounced those with skin diseases to be ritually “unclean.” These “lepers” were forced to leave their families and their towns and live in isolation, often without benefit of sanitation or basic shelter. Even if the disease itself didn’t kill you, the treatment of the community might prove even more fatal.
To my mind one of the worst aspects of this isolation would have been the fact that no one could touch you. What could be worse? Do you remember how in the early days of the AIDS crisis in this country, people with AIDS were treated very much like lepers. There was palpable fear when someone with AIDS was around. Some churches stopped using the common cup. People were afraid even to touch those who were HIV+. The isolation must have been devastating to those who had been given a virtual death sentence and most needed the embrace of friends and loved ones.
We have two stories before us this morning, stories of faith, but also stories of restoration. When we compare them we see similarities but also some marked differences.
In our Old Testament reading, we hear the story of a warrior, a slave girl and a man of God. The warrior was Naaman, this Aramean military commander, who, as powerful as he was, suffered from leprosy. Elisha, the man of God and protégé of Elijah, has a growing reputation as a prophet and a healer, and his fame was spreading. Who will bring them together? A slave girl. Kidnapped by the Arameans this slave girl now intervenes by telling Naaman that he can be healed of his disease. Her courage is matched only by her faith in God to heal Naaman.
When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, Elisha doesn’t even bother to come out and speak to him. Instead Elisha sends word to wash in the Jordan River. “Excuse me,” Naaman says. We’ve got rivers where I come from! Naaman was expecting a miracle show. He wanted Elisha to come out, wave his hand over the disease and magically cure it. Instead, Elisha instructs him to do one of the simplest things: to wash. I love the reactions of Naaman’s servants. “If he had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it.” So Naaman washes, is cured of his disease, and proclaims his healing as an act of the one true God.
Compare this story with the one we hear in the Gospel. Here we have two main characters: another man with leprosy and, of course, Jesus. This man with leprosy, however, does not have any power. He is not a military commander with servants to do his bidding. This man is an outcast, an exile. We don’t know how he heard about Jesus. All we know is that he comes and finds Jesus, begging him to heal him. The encounter is so different from that of Naaman and Elisha. This is not to say that they are any less powerful or significant, just different. I find this interaction between Jesus and the leper to be so much more intimate.
The leper’s words are words of absolute faith and trust. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” He knows that Jesus has the power. Notice that he doesn’t say, “You can heal me.” He says, “You can make me clean.” The man has been cast out of the community. He is looking to be restored, to be welcomed back to the community. And who could do that? Who could restore the man? Only a priest could. A priest had to declare a leper clean before he or she could return to the community. It’s as if this man is asking Jesus to be his priest. You can make me clean.
And what is Jesus reaction? The text says that Jesus is “moved with pity.” Now, there is debate over this word we have translated as “pity.” Some other versions report that Jesus was moved with anger. We know why Jesus would have pity, but why would Jesus be moved with anger? Some commentators suggest that Jesus is angry at the whole rigid system of purification rites that had made this man an exile to begin with. But despite whether Jesus does what he does out of pity or out of anger, or both, we see genuine emotion here. Both words imply deep, gut-level feelings. Whereas Elisha may have almost seemed flip and off-hand when he didn’t even come out to see Naaman, Jesus’ emotions are most likely palpable, visible here. Jesus is moved.
And he answers this man’s desperate plea: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus’ simple reply echoes down to us today: “I do choose.” Be made clean! But don’t miss some very important words right before this – Jesus touched him.
Touching a leper was the last thing a priest would do. To touch a leper would have meant that you yourself would become unclean. You’d have to go through all the ritual purifications and washings. For a time, you would be isolated yourself.
We know how Jesus loved the outcasts and spent time with sinners, but notice how many times people who are outcasts touch Jesus or are touched by him. The woman with the flow of blood wants to touch Jesus’ garment. The woman with a bad reputation bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears. Jesus touches the hand of the dead girl. And here Jesus reaches out and touches this unclean man. He embraces, as it were, the umembraceable.
Notice it doesn’t say that Jesus “healed” him, but that the leprosy left him and he was made clean.
Jesus then orders the man not to tell anyone but to go to the priest and show him. This would ensure that the man would be welcomed back into the community. He would truly be restored.
The man, however, becomes more like the slave girl in the Elisha story. This man has been set free, and he tells everyone he meets what Jesus did for him. The story spreads so far and wide that Jesus can’t even go into the towns. He must remain outside and have the people come to him.
That’s no small detail. Notice where Jesus is – on the outside. Had Jesus gone into the town and set up shop – become a healer and hosted his own miracle party, those who had been outcast couldn’t have gotten to him. He remains outside the towns. Of course those in the towns came out to see him, but more importantly, those who weren’t welcome inside the towns could come to him as well. He was present for those who needed him the most.
Jesus’ power is on display here, as we will see throughout Mark’s gospel. Not only can he heal, but he can restore the outcast. Not only can he restore the outcast, but he touches the untouchable.
Jesus life and ministry are about proclaiming liberty to the captives, prisoners of the system, restoring those who had been cast out to full membership in the community. Jesus stayed where they could find him, and he not only let them find him, but he touched them. Can you imagine the grace of that moment?
If in a small and indirect way, we celebrate the touch of Jesus in the Eucharist. We don’t have imaginary elements. We don’t talk about bread and wine. We touch them. We eat them. They nourish our bodies. This is tangible stuff.
There are so many in our town and in our lives who experience life as untouchables, whether physically, emotionally, or even economically. Many suffer in silence and isolation. Do we have any good news for them this morning?
May God’s grace meet us at the table this morning with touch, with faith, with acceptance. And may we all leave this place, healed, and with the good news on our lips: I know someone who touches outcasts, embraces the unembraceable. And may Christ Church have that kind of reputation as well: a place on the outside where even the most terrified and marginalized can find acceptance and welcome. Amen.