Third Sunday before Lent
As a child I was always disturbed by stories of lepers in the bible. ‘Disturbed’ is perhaps too strong a word, though, ‘made uncomfortable’ would be better. There was a curiosity as to what suffers would look like and the fear of revulsion. Then there was sorrow for the sufferers. Feeling with that and dealing with it made me feel uncomfortable. Discomfort, revulsion, sorrow, I suspect lepers always invoked such feelings in others, much stronger than my young self felt when hearing the bible stories.
Lepers figure in two of our readings today. It was (& still is in some parts of the world) a greatly feared disease. As well as being cruelly disfiguring, it led to the suffer becoming an outcast. Hence the leper colonies in Mediaeval England If you had leprosy you became untouchable, unclean, unable to function economically, cut off from family. To be a leper was to be as one in the grave as the Psalmist puts it in Ps. 30.
In today’s readings we find two lepers, both of whom received healing and both of who had very different attitudes to their illness.
- The first is Naaman. He was a man who appeared to have it all as a victorious army commander, second only to the king of Arram, a man of great wealth with a good marriage. Only one thing was wrong, his leprosy that would soon lead him to loose everything, power, wealth, family. He could hide his secret for now but not for much longer.
His wife had a slave girl, captured in Israel. She was loyal and had a simple, trusting faith in Elisha the prophet and his ability to heal.
On being told of this Naaman told the king, who sent him with gold, silver and fine garments to the king of Israel with diplomatic credentials. Like many powerful men he assumed that there was nothing that his wealth & status could not buy. (Think of the late King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat in their last days) Naaman was wrong, when he met the king he was greeted with anger and suspicion.
Elisha on hearing of Naaman’s plight sent a messenger to the king to tell him to send Naaman to him. Naaman came with all those trappings of military muscle to Elisa’s house. He expected five star treatment and was angry when Elisha failed to appear in person, sending out his servant with instructions that if Naaman bathed seven times in the Jordan he would be clean. Only when his servants suggested that he would have followed a difficult command did he relent and receive his healing.
When it comes to the things of God we are disadvantaged if we rely on power, status and wealth. The slave girl was closer to God than the high and mighty Naaman who had to learn the lesson of humility before he could be restored.
- The unnamed leper in the Gospel had the right approach. Although a leper he was not yet full of bitter resentment. Physically scarred he was not yet mentally or spiritually destroyed. Kneeling before Jesus in an act of humility, he said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus saw through to his heart, and chose to make him clean. The man was totally aware of his emptiness before Jesus. He knew his need and thus he was open to divine healing. He could not contain his joy, despite Jesus’ command to keep it secret (n.b. the messianic secret in Mark). After all he was no longer an outcast, he could now mix freely again with others once more. Jesus always cuts across and breaks through such barriers of fear and suspicion, the ones we always try to build up again.
In our Christian lives we need the grace to see others as God sees them, to meet them with pity as Jesus did. It can be difficult for us to see beneath the surface. All to often we judge others by the externals of religion, class or race.
Also if we wish to find salvation (wholeness of body mind and soul) we need to have the humility to admit to ourselves and to God our true state and our real needs. If we come to God with the humility of the slave girl and the gospel leper we will more quickly find ourselves in a restored friendship with him than if we come like Naaman & his king, trusting in worldly things.
Such are the lessons to be learnt in the Christian life. Fortunately it is a work of God’s merciful grace at work in us through Jesus, something to be received as we ask as Naaman and the gospel leper discovered for themselves.
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