Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Mark 1:40-45, Ps 30
Date: Feb 12, 2012
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
I was in New York City last week, which turned out to be the right place for the Superbowl, although I didn’t have the endurance to stay up late and watch the Giants win.
While in New York, I spent a lot of my time at the Bowery. It’s a homeless shelter and mission, started in 1879, in the middle of the city. I was there to spend time with the chaplain of the Bowery, who is a Mennonite minister; his name is Jason. After one of the midday worship services in the chapel, I was standing outside the front doors with Jason. I saw a man stumbling his way towards us, bundled up in layers of sweaters and coats. He had a nasty cough. Jason saw him and greeted him by name; apparently the man was a regular at the Bowery. The man extended his hand to Jason, to shake his hand. I looked down at his hand, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Jason do the same. The man’s hand was disgusting, filthy; it looked a little gummy from what I assumed to be mucus from his running nose. Jason paused, and I wondered if he was going to do it, to shake the man’s hand, to offer him a human connection, a recognition of mutuality, the solidarity that starts with human touch.
Jason shook his hand, and turned the man towards me so that he could introduce us to one another. “This is pastor Isaac; he’s visiting from North Carolina.” I tried to keep my cool, hoping that the man wouldn’t want to shake my hand. I subtly shifted my body, not quite moving away, but making it a little more awkward for him to try to shake my hand. I made sure I didn’t appear rude, or disgusted by him.
“Nice to meet you, pastor,” he said to me, without extending his hand. Jason told him that he should go inside the Bowery and wash his face because his nose was running and he was covered with snot. Since I am a considerate person, full of compassion, I took a step backward and opened the door to the building for the man. I never had to shake his hand.
I read Scott’s sermon from last week and thought this line was appropriate: “Jesus refuse[s] to heal from a distance — instead, he form[s] us in solidarity, making us a healthier, more faithful people.”
That’s the movement of Jesus that I refused, standing outside the Bowery in New York City: the solidarity that comes through touch, the humanity of Jesus that comes to us again and again in the hands of our sisters and brothers. Look forward to the moment, says Sebastian Moore, an old monk, Look forward to the moment when the whole mystery of God will be known in the clasp of your sister’s or brother’s hand.
When an unclean man came up to Jesus, he was moved with compassion, moved past disgust, compassion moved him to break through the division between holy and holy, purity and defilement. “Jesus stretched out his hand,” it says in verse 41, “and touched him” (Mk 1:41).
The man had a skin disease, a disease that cut him off from society. Listen to what it says in Leviticus about people who have this contagious disease:
The person with scale-disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall…cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease… He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev 13:45-46)
This isn’t just some crazy Old Testament rule; it’s what you need to do in order to maintain the health of the rest of society, to isolate the contagion. It’s a quarantine law, which is something our society does as well; it’s one of the tasks of the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC.
This man in the gospel is already breaking the law. He’s a criminal, a threat to society, refusing to obey the laws of quarantine, and disregarding the requirement to shout, “Unclean, unclean,” whenever he comes around other people.
Jesus doesn’t rebuke the man for violating the law and endangering society. Instead, he touches him; Jesus breaks through the dividing wall between clean and unclean, between friend and threat. For Jesus, healing is a power of restoration, of setting someone free from the forces of isolation, of alienation, the powers of this world that keep people on different sides of the train tracks.
Jesus touches this man and restores his humanity. Jesus makes it possible for him to be with others, to share fellowship, to sit around the table and argue and laugh — the stuff of life that makes us human, that enlivens our humanity.
The good news is the power of Jesus’ life that wants to flow through us, to move us into solidarity with those who our society thinks should be isolated, put in prisons or ghettoes, forced outside the camp. The life of Jesus wants to flow through us, as a power of compassion, of reaching out to touch the unclean, to be drawn into the lives of people who have been deemed social contaminants.
One way to read the story of Elisha in 2nd Kings, is to see how he refuses to touch someone who is unclean. Elisha refuses to get close to Naaman, who is not only infected with a skin disease, but is also an enemy of Israel; and not just any run of the mill enemy, but the commander of the army that frequently invades Israel. When Naaman comes to Elisha’s home, Elisha doesn’t come out. He sends a servant to give instructions to Naaman on how he can be cured from his disease. Yes, Elisha will offer God’s healing to Naaman, but only at a distance. Elisha loves his enemy enough to heal him, but that’s as far as he will go. He won’t touch him, Elisha won’t reach out in a gesture of solidarity. The divide between his people and Naaman needs to be maintained, for the sake of the people, for the sake of Israel’s integrity as a people.
The story sounds a little different if we pay attention to the unnamed servant girl. She’s an Israelite who was taken from her homeland, stolen from her people, her family, and forced to work in Naaman’s household. She’s part of the spoils of war, captured and put to work for the enemy.
She could have been driven by resentment, by a desire for the worst to happen to her masters. She could have thought of her time in Naaman’s house a prime opportunity for revenge, for sabotage; trying to do her small part to bring down the enemy.
But that’s now what she did. She was not overcome by evil, but she overcame evil with good. She became a force of life; she reached out her hand and guided her master to find life in the God of Israel, to find the restoration of his health in the land of Israel.
It’s no mistake that this young girl doesn’t have a name. We get the names of the powerful people in the story — Elisha and Naaman — but not a servant girl. That’s usually the case. We know the names of the people with power. But there’s another world being made possible among the multitudes of nameless people who work for healing, maybe in minor roles; people who never make the news, but who choose to love their neighbors, people who choose to be moved with compassion and end up removing another brick from the walls of division.
I know that you are people who do this: letting the healing power of Jesus flow through you, through your hands, without recognition, without a thank you. We aren’t promised a place in history. Instead, we trust that, as Jesus says, the God who is in secret, will reward in secret.
“Moved with compassion,” the text says, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” Nothing about this scene is safe. The movement of compassion is full of danger, of crossing lines, switching sides, a betrayal of whatever society at the time calls “the common good.” With Jesus’ holy touch, the man is healed; and Jesus doesn’t get the man’s disease. Healing and life flow through Jesus into the man, instead of the disease passing from the man’s infected hands into Jesus’ body. Jesus is safe, for now. But, as we follow the story, as Jesus continues to let compassion move him, we find out that he gets killed as a criminal, a Roman crucifixion, with the support of the religious leaders. Jesus becomes unclean, taking the form of a corpse — there’s nothing more unclean, nothing more threatening to society, than death, than a bloody corpse, put on display as a threat to anyone who dares to think about betraying the present.
Moved by compassion, Jesus wanders into the realm of the unclean, which is, after all, where we are: corrupted by the powers of sin, made unholy by the diseases of this world: greed, the desire to take more than what we need, the lust for power. We are defiled by shame, by guilt — overwhelmed by a sense of alienation from the people who love us, from the God who loves us.
Yet here we are, gathered as church, drawing closer to Jesus, who has already crossed over to our side, into the realm of the unclean, and crossed out the divide in the process; Jesus, the one who stretches out his hand and touches us, with life, with hope, with the promise of resurrection.
Here the good news from Psalm 30: “For you have drawn me up… I cried to you for help, and you have healed me… You brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life… You have turned my mourning into dancing…”