Epiphany 6 • 2 Kings 5:1–14 • February 12, 2012
by Travis J. Scholl
Allow me to introduce you to the University of the Poor as I was introduced to it. I was sitting in a classroom in New York City with fellow seminarians and some of the University’s instructors. We were learning of their mission and work, and I was sitting next to a homeless man. As he talked about the realities of poverty, I felt nobly inspired to be sitting there, part of the “growing movement to end poverty.”
It wasn’t until I began unwrapping the turkey sandwich in my box lunch that he revealed to the group that he was HIV positive.
I immediately felt my body squeezing in against itself. Didn’t I shake his hand when we walked in the room? Which water bottle on the table was mine? I could feel my face heating up, and my scalp itching. The air around me felt contaminated, and I was becoming again the grade-school boy who was petrified to catch my classmate’s flu bug. Except that this bug means death.
I mention all this because the most dreaded disease of the Bible—the one that had no cure—was leprosy, and sometimes it’s hard to get our hearts within the dread of the disease. To contract it was a death sentence. To have it exposed to the community was to be banished to total exclusion. To be a leper was to be untouchable…untreatable…unclean.
Unclean: yes, that’s how I felt sitting in that room in New York City.
When we consider all the exclusions that happen—ritual, medical, or otherwise—to keep us clean from contamination, it is striking that the one to bring a word of hope to the leprous warrior Naaman is an Israelite slave girl. Overcoming such exclusions means crossing lines. And this is the first line to be crossed: that a slave girl, of all people, would have enough courage to offer the cure to the noble commander of the king’s court.
The second line is crossed when “Elisha the man of God” interferes in international diplomacy with an audacity belonging only to prophets: “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel” (v. 8). But one detail cannot be forgotten. Elisha does not come out to meet the unclean Naaman. He only sends out a word, a divine word of power, promise, and healing. As it turns out, it is the only word that Naaman will need.
The third line is Naaman’s to cross, and it is two-fold. First, to believe the word, and second, to do what the word says. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times…and you shall be clean” (v. 10). He refuses the word at first. There are clearer waters in Aram. But his servants, who perhaps are taking their cue from the daring of the slave girl, convince him otherwise. As he steps into the muddy waters of the Jordan River, the word of promise does its work. The water washes off the dread death of the disease, “and he was clean” (v. 14).
Only after the pericope does Naaman meet Elisha face to face, in a striking scene where Naaman makes his profession of faith (5:15–19). (Should you so choose, it might not be a bad thing to add these verses to the reading, reference them in the sermon, or cover them in Bible study.)
Yet, it would take nearly 900 years for the final line to be crossed. The final line is the border Elisha didn’t want or need to step over.
“Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mk 1:41, from today’s Gospel reading). Jesus too speaks the divine word of power, promise, and healing. And the word alone—“I will; be clean”—would have been enough. But he chooses to touch the one excluded and unclean, the one who would make Jesus himself unclean. And because this prophet is like no other, the act undoes the taboo. The touch that would make Jesus unclean is, itself, the touch that makes the leper clean. It is the “happy exchange” of Christ at its most simple—to be made clean and healthy and whole by one touch from the Prophet’s hand.
As the man next to me told the rest of his story, my body and mind eased in his presence. I knew enough to overcome my superstitions. When we departed, we shook hands again. As to who was made clean by the encounter, I think I know the answer.