The Proud & The Humble

Sunday 12th February 2006
Year B, The Third Sunday before Lent
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
2 Kings 5:1-14
Mark 1:40-45

Do you remember what it was like when we all became aware of HIV/AIDS? How we worried whether we could share the communion chalice? Do you remember how much we worried about physical contact? How we drew in our breath when Princess Diana made a point of talking with such people? There was a time when I was travelling in Africa in the late 1980s when I had to grit my teeth because I was so frightened of indirect contact with AIDS through eating in restaurants, never mind shaking hands. And yet by then I had read all that I needed to read. The chances of acquiring HIV/AIDS outside intimacy were less than the chances of being knocked down by a car in England. But still I was frightened.

So how would we have felt about leprosy, living in an age of scanty medical knowledge and no books, a world of fixed understandings and iron laws? Every Jew knew that lepers were outcasts; there were lengthy passages about leprosy and lepers in the sacred Books of Moses.

It is easy, then, to understand the simple desperation of the leper in Mark's gospel. There was no cure for this disease - it affected the rich as well as the poor - and there was no way back into society as long as you had it. You were an outcast in every way. But Jesus did not seem to mind outcasts; even this early in his ministry - and we are still only in Chapter One of Mark - Jesus was well known for mixing with all the wrong sort of people. He did not seem to mind Roman stooges, people with demons, prostitutes; so it was worth giving it a go.

Well, that is one way of putting it but I think it was more than that. Those who are desperate, without rational hope, without a way out, frequently become obsessed with an idea, with a financial scheme if they are desperately poor, with a cure if they are desperately sick. They can't stop thinking about the idea and it builds and builds. In spite of what I said about Jesus being well known for mixing with outcasts, the leper probably spent days working himself up into this state, imagining how he would have to brave the horror and insults of the crowd as he broke through the inner circle to throw himself in front of Jesus. And then what? And then what?

We can imagine the motivation, we can imagine the event, we can imagine the outcome. We can imagine the leper trying to see as much of himself as was physically possible and socially decent; we can hear his cry of joy; we can hear the roar of the crowd; we can feel that little knot of tension amongst the local religious leaders.

How much more difficult it is to imagine Naaman. What was going through his mind. In his society Leprosy was clearly not such a big problem; medical knowledge was more advanced, perhaps; but still, leprosy was a serious handicap. An Israeli slave girl thought she had the answer and Naaman did what all powerful people do; he resorted to power and money. King Joram of Israel was put on the spot and passed on the problem to Elisha, a man with whom he had a very complicated love/hate relationship; more hate than love. Instead of an intimate chat with the King, Naaman was sent to a wild man. Naaman thought that all Elisha needed to do was to say the word but this was not faith speaking it was pride; why should Naaman put himself out? then he was told that he would have to immerse himself in the Jordan seven times which he took as an insult. Still, the loathing of leprosy won out and Naaman submitted. From this point on it is not all that easy to imagine what happened: there was nothing instant; we find it difficult to picture the daily bathing; and we only have a vague pen portrait of Elisha compared with thousands of words about Jesus. But I think that it is worth thinking a bit more about Naaman and leaving to one side the simple, if not easy, lessons we can learn from the leper in Mark.

It is not easy being powerful; and it is certainly complicated being deeply flawed and powerful; Kings with physical defects or disabilities have been known to be very touchy on the subject. Naaman was proud but desperate, so he listened to somebody with three disadvantages: she was a woman; she was a slave; and she was a foreigner. Naaman was proud but ashamed: he hoped that his commanding officer and a friendly king could sort everything out quietly. Naaman was proud and frightened; so he hoped Elisha could just get it all over with. But, in the end, Naaman was proud but practical. And the wonder for us is that Naaman, in spite of all, was cured through the will of God with Elisha as His earthly agent.

This is important because I think if we are honest our automatic reflex to this pair of stories is to identify ourselves with the leper in the Gospel; but I think if we dig a bit deeper we will find that most of us are really much more like Naaman. It is not that we are as powerful as him and probably not as proud; but we are creatures of power and fear; of competence and clumsiness; of pride and diffidence. If we think clearly about ourselves, even if we decide that we really are more like the Gospel leper than Naaman, we still have something to learn from the Old Testament story.

Of course we all want to be as hearty and healthy as we can; we want to look nice and we want to behave nicely; we want to be respected and be worthy of that respect; but at heart, at root, right in the middle of things, we can only play the hand that God has dealt us; and if we do our best then that is the best we can do. Our creator knows why he made us and knows exactly what we are made of. We will, of course, never stop worrying about what other people think - there will always be a little bit of Naaman in us - but the only opinion that really counts is God's.

I like the picture of wild man Elisha laying down the law to the suave, military figure of Naaman; I like tidiness occasionally having to submit to untidiness; I like the sheer, absolute unpredictability of my maker and what was made.

If God ever becomes tidy I will be on my way; what about you?