2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Being human is not just biological. Likewise, illness is not just biological. Yes, an illness causes us to suffer, but our experience of suffering is affected by how one personally understands the illness. And when our understanding of our sickness changes, we are opened up to a new relationship with God. In the 2 accounts of lepers today, God is giving them a chance to participate in their own healing.
In other words, we cannot simply look at what is medically going on in the body. We must ask, “What does the illness mean to the patient?” What is the name of the illness? Cancer or Funny Shaped cells? I know this sounds silly, but this was really in a New York Times article presented to me by a fellow All Souls member. Does the name itself strike fear in people?
We also must ask the patient what was the cause of the illness? How did you get sick? Was it because you sinned or was it circumstance? If you think it is sin, was the sin the act of harming your body? But if we consider what the psalms teach us, suffering is not the result of being unfaithful; rather it is often a sign of faithfulness. For some reason however, even the most un-religious person today will look up to the sky and ask, “What did I do to deserve this?!” Why do people have such a difficult time believing in grace? We insist on merit, but the results of this logic are disastrous. This thinking – thinking that one truly always reaps what he sows – can lead us to blame victims for their own victimization.
The point though is that if there is going to be healing, if we are going to consider the entire experience of suffering and not just the medical symptoms, then we cannot just simply tell others what they’re feeling is impossible. We should not negate their experience. Instead we help them find new meaning for the suffering and maybe that will transform the person.
Modern doctors are not so good at this. They have combed through the Bible; they have studied the symptoms that the leper is said to have had and they say it is medically impossible for it to be leprosy. But to say that the text is wrong – that the diagnosis is absurd – is a failure to understand the patient’s reality.
The reality of the leper is that he is isolated and so he begs Jesus to reverse his situation.
Filled with compassion, Jesus reaches out and touches the man and then he verbally commands “Be made clean!” It is unclear what activates the change. Touch or words? If we look at other healing narratives, there is no consistency. Not every healing has Jesus touching. Not every healing has Jesus speaking. Jesus does not even need to be physically present. Jesus’ transcendent presence is enough.
But let’s look at our gospel portion. Who is Jesus even talking to when he says “Be clean”? If we look at what comes before and after, that can help us understand the context. In the chapter before Jesus has to cast out many demons in order to bring healing. So is Jesus speaking to a demon when he says, “Be clean”? I wonder though if Jesus is talking to the man. “Be clean.” In the chapter after this episode, Jesus is telling people to be perfect “Be perfect” as your Father is perfect. And if Jesus is talking to the man, if Jesus is telling us to make ourselves clean, does that mean you and I contribute to our healing? The same message can be found in Kings.
In our Old Testament reading, Naaman’s leprosy compromises his status in the community and his physical restoration is brought about his decision to participate. But Naaman’s reputation is not the only one at stake. The King of Israel was expected to possess charismatic qualities to prove his right to power. It was the king who was supposed to heal. This is why the King of Israel tore off his clothes and lamented. This task is too great. I cannot do this. Everyone’s going to find out I’m a fraud. And if I’m outted, then outsiders will feel emboldened to take my crown. These are the stakes. And this is why the King of Israel wisely aligned himself with the prophet Elisha who could command spiritual authority.
So Naaman (who is not from the tribe of Israel) approached Israel not empty handed and asked to be cured. And what does the prophet Elisha say? Go and wash in the Jordan river 7 times.
(Naaman) Huh, uhh, excuse Mr. Prophet, yeah, I thought you were just going to wave your hand over me and call on the name of the Lord.
(Elisha) Uh, no, no, nope, 7 times, Jordan River.
Now Naaman is really confused… the Jordan, is not the rivers of Damascus way better?? Phesh, forget this.
Elisha does not stop him. Elisha knows that he can’t just impose healing. We can’t force people to drink the water even if we know it will make them feel better.
But Naaman comes around and his flesh was restored. “Be clean”, go into the waters. God is speaking to us. God is saying, “I am giving you the opportunity to be your own liberators; I am enabling you to participate in your healing. Be free from your resignation.” This promise makes the “miracle” secondary. Do not be distracted by the supernatural event; look at the broader significance. God is powerful and God’s giving us some power too.
Our psalmist today knows about illness, and his words of praise are about recovering from sickness. “Lord, you restored me to health.” Oh my God, thank you! I have no other vocation now but to exalt you! I’m soaring, I’m so thankful. Remember those days, God, when I pleaded and sobbed? I thought I believed in you before. I thought I trusted so much that I would never be disturbed by anything. But you showed me how shaky my faith was. You hid your face and I trembled. Remember God, how pissed I was? I was so mad to realize how much I need you. Remember how I was convinced that You need me! That’s right, you heard me God, if I die who will worship you? If I go down into the grave, who will recall your mighty works? Uhh, can the dust praise you? But you took mercy on me? Your wrath, only lasts for a twinkling of the eye. My wailing is turned to dancing.
This psalm covers many stages of the writer’s spiritual journey. His understanding of suffering changed over time. Salvation was not a one-time flu shot. The psalmist came to realize that his prior faith was so meager, and his reality disintegrated. That was the beginning of repentance, where he turned his life around, where he saw himself in light of his sin, and became repentant – not unto death although he felt like he was dying, and not unto desperation although he may have felt desperate. But in that revelation of God’s faithfulness, comes a revelation of the face of Jesus.
So we are not left to despair or death, but our repentance breaks into joy, and God smashes our idols. Then the first full day is over, and we go to bed, and in the morning we see our Bibles, and we begin to study and fellowship with the saints and all of a sudden we are on this journey of greater and greater revelations of God and greater and greater revelation of our need, and then our repentance grows deeper. But there is grace. Our faith is strengthened once more joy bursts out of that. Then after 60 years we are more broken than ever, but we are more confident of salvation, and full of unspeakable hope. Every day we rebuild and rebuild, and one day our joy will no longer be from our performances, but from the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we will rebel, perhaps for self-preservation. And sometimes we might curse God the way the psalmist did. But the point is that we do not stay there.
The psalmist realized suffering did not indicate that God was absent. The existence of suffering does not negate the Good News that life is a gift from God. Agony and ecstasy do belong together. Happiness and suffering are not mutually exclusive. Psalms regularly juxtapose complaint and thanksgiving. Essentially, Joy is possible in the depths of our sorrow and sickness. We should not reserve our praise for seasons of prosperity. Praise is a way of life.
If we think that suffering can be avoided, we foster an unreasonable expectation. It is so easy to isolate oneself and refuse to see all of the suffering. Some do not even want to think about how Jesus suffered for us for fear of glorifying suffering. But ignoring suffering allows us to ignore the real pain and isolation of others. Ignoring suffering leads us to believe that suffering is abnormal when in fact it is normal. We suffer if we lose touch with the reality of suffering. If we deny the suffering, how can we carry others’ burdens? A new relationship with suffering will bring about a new relationship with God, and a new relationship with God will bring about a new relationship of suffering.
In the three readings we delved into, each person approaches God differently. Begging, yelling and offering sacrifice before God. And in each story, the person was not passive and God was not passive.