Sunday, February 12, 2012

Healings and healers

In the name of God, who created us from love, ... AMEN. Two healings and two after-healings and what do we make of those healings, healer, and responses.

The story of Naaman is a wonderful narrative with personalities and drama. Naaman had an intractable skin disease and nothing helped. The girl who served Naaman’s wife had come from Israel, and she suggested trying to find a cure for him here. Naaman’s king wrote to the king of Israel, and he set off with much money. Elisha, the man of God, told the king not to worry, but to send Naaman to him. He sent out someone to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan and be healed. Naaman thought Elisha should have delivered the message, or prescription in person. Annoyed he felt his pride and position slighted, so he pouted.

Whether he had Hansen’s disease or merely a disfiguring skin disease, he thought he was so important that he merited the personal touch. Elisha’s remedy was mere washing, not anything difficult or worthy of Naaman’s importance. Almost worse, the healing worked, and it seemed to him to demean him and his illness. He knew, though, he was healed, and he did attribute it squarely to the God of Israel, praising the Holy One, giving credit to the Holy One of Israel among his own people.

In similar way the leper was thoroughly healed when Jesus touched him. Naaman hadn’t been physically touched, but he had had an unremarkable treatment: just wash in the Jordan.

Jesus touched the leper. After Jesus had seen that the he indeed chose to be healed, he’d touched him gently, healing him. It was, of course, against the purity codes to touch a leper. Moreover, to be accepted back to his community, the leper had to go to the priest to be certified clean. Jesus told him not to tell anyone, other than to offer what Moses had commanded. Instead the leper, realizing he was well, couldn’t keep that secret. He was well and didn’t look like a leper, so he told everyone, proclaiming the cure freely. He was bursting with health and excitement, and walked along telling everyone. It wasn’t so much that he was disobeying Jesus, but that he was well, excited, and able to be with people, not having to warn them before he came close. There was no sign of illness, no residual physical or other visible ailment. He could interact with anyone, without permission. Of course he was excited, happy, and eager to tell everyone, crediting Jesus.

Even without a cell phone, Facebook, or tweeting, he could so spread the news about what Jesus had done for him, that Jesus could no longer stay there or go to crowded areas without being swarmed by crowds demanding healing. Jesus then stayed away from cities, going to open places in the countryside, where “people came to him from every quarter.” He was treated like a modern rock star or other celebrity whose reputation preceded him and so prevented his freedom of movement. Even if people didn’t specifically want what he was offering, they wanted to be near him to get close to touch him, pressing in. To move around at all, Jesus needed to stay away from where there were many people.

Many people make the point about Jesus that when he was pressed, he went out to pray. While that was true, he also went away from crowds into open space. The first is about piety, the second more about shyness or introvertedness. Repeatedly he went off to avoid crowds and be in open space. For ministry, I think it is publicly assumed that a pastor/minister will be at minimum gregarious, genial, and able to chat to anyone, any time, anywhere, and about anything. That does not seem to be the image the Gospels leave of Jesus. He didn’t avoid talking about issues, but he often avoided being pressed in on by crowds. It may be that after he had touched the leper—against the rules—he didn’t want to have to deal with proving he was ok, as well as the healed person was. He had healed one person on the Sabbath, not to violate that rule, but to heal the person. He hadn’t violated the purity laws intentionally in curing the leper, but had healed the disease and therefore his required separation from people. It was more a public health rule Jesus was breaking, but it was located in the purity codes, rather than in public health warnings, because the codes were all there was to guard the community’s well-being.

Naaman knew he was ill having tried many things. He also brought money to help his cure, and demonstrated his willingness to participate in his own healing by traveling a distance. The leper was more self-effacing, putting the healing on Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” He doesn’t expect a cure, but just enough cleaning to be able to reenter the community, without, on sight, being driven away from anyone and everyone. He thought he was asking for just enough to wash off the visible signs of the illness, because he knew no one is cured of leprosy. Doctors usually talk of remission, even if cancer has disappeared for years and years. Whenever a doctor says patients are cured, after a course of illness, it’s hard to hear the new reality of not being sick. In truth, it takes more than being disease free, to be healed. Even for common illnesses like the flu or pneumonia, common wisdom is a day of recovery for every day of fever, If people have had a fever for 10 days, they rarely take a full 10 days to get well, going back to work as soon as the fever breaks, dragging around for a week or longer until they’re really better. If they’ve had a long-term or chronic illness, most people give nothing like the equivalent number of years for recovering, yet it really is about a day of recovery for every day of illness. The leper was made so clean, that he felt and acted well. He displayed no signs of his previous illness or its mindset, and he was really without illness, its weaknesses, fears, and cautions; he was healed, cured, and cleansed.

Naaman’s healer, or his intermediary healer Elisha, didn’t come to Naaman, but only sent instructions. Perhaps these distance instructions allowed him both to heal Naaman and keep his life simple enough to keep living it. Jesus was outdoors, and the leper came to him. Jesus didn’t reject him saying, “It’s not a good time ,” but then he was stuck with the natural adulation.

In each story, the person is healed, cleansed, and the priest/Jesus is each credited with the outcome, however that happened. In both cases, the carping over breaking rules throws pettiness and even mean-spiritedness back to the rules and their adherents. If religion’s rules are to guard against healing, then it and its followers seem somewhere between misguided, stupid, or hostile to their people, wanting to control their actions rather than permitting their return to health, community, and independence. The leper did not submit his health, his new life, to the priest’s capricious judgment on him or his rules. Naaman and the leper knew they were well, and they each simply wanted to go back to their lives. Both healers were clear that they were a conduit for God’s healing power. They didn’t want personal adulation, but glory to their God. Such healings were so rare, that anyone hearing of them, wanted to glom on to the healers, because they knew their own prayers, beliefs, and priests hadn’t cured their lists of troubles. That’s still true and the practice of many. Especially when people have dire illnesses, and they hear of someone who can cure them, they line up. In all probability, they or some of their acquaintances have prayed for healing. Think of our long list of people seeking healing: physical, mental, or spiritual. Were any of them to be healed by a person in a flash, they’d spread the word. Either onlookers would think they had a nothing or psychosomatic illness or the healer was amazing, and all would want the same results. In each healing, the healers attributed to results to the Holy One. That Elisha achieved his results at a distance made it easier to consider that it was through his prayer rather than something he actually did. However, there Jesus was with a leper and then he was a well person. The people around them, saw that power of God in his actions, and wanted to be near Jesus to get their own healing. It’s still Epiphany, and the power of God that Elisha prayed for, for Naaman, was visible to all around Jesus and the leper. Not only did people credit Jesus being the “beloved Son, with whom God was well pleased,” but also that he had that power of God in an immediate and available way for those who went to him and asked. Jesus demonstrated that God was doing more than acting through him, more than through his prayer. People saw in him what they wanted, expected, and hoped for from God.

It’s difficult for us, I think, to make the same sort of prayer, and not have healing results. We are told repeatedly these healings were to show the power of God, but why not my prayer? I think there is really no good answer. We could consider the astonishing breadth of medicine as demonstrating some of that power in a different way in our time. Jesus is shown to be so filled with God’s power that he could heal those Isaiah named would be healed, as part of the in-breaking of the reign of God. May each of us receive some of that power to further that coming of God’s reign. However we do, God will be with us accepting our prayers and work as enough, and welcoming us into paradise with Jesus forever. Good News.

B 6 Epiphany 12 February 2012
© Katharine C. Black