Epiphany VI, Year B
2 Kgs 5:1-14
1 Cor 9:24-27
(2 Kings 5:1-14)
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel." He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me." But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
(1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Jesus’ healing ministry more than re-socialized the outcast, it effectively removed an entire group of scapegoats. In today’s text, a former scapegoat has an opportunity to go before those who profit from scapegoating and bear witness to a new power, the power of God in the land. Power over demons, power over diseases, but not expressed as Power, but expressed as service (diakonia). ‘A new teaching-and with authority!” Someone who practiced what they preached and what was practiced was pretty beneficial to those who took advantage of the opportunity.
“Jesus will be the victim of a mimetic contagion.” (Things Hidden)
“Medieval communities were so afraid of the plague that the word alone was enough to frighten them. They avoided mentioning it as long as possible and even avoided taking the necessary precautions at the risk of aggravating the effects of the epidemic. So helpless were they that telling the truth did not mean facing the situation but rather giving in to its destructive consequences and relinquishing all semblance of normal life. The entire population shared in this type of blindness. Their desperate desire to deny the evidence contributed to their search for ‘scapegoats.’” (The Scapegoat).
“According to historians, in some cities Jews were massacred at the mere mention of the plague being in the area, even before it had actually arrived.”
Girard’s observations highlight an unanticipated irony. In the Markan text a Jew will be healed of a plague whose subsequent heirs will be persecuted and blamed for plagues by the followers of a Jewish healer.
Although Girard utilizes the metaphor ‘mimetic contagion’ it is seldom defined. That mimesis is contagious is what gives it strength to multiply. That which is contagious is that which is unknowingly catchable. It’s not like you and I go around seeing germs in the air and avoiding them. Rather we take care of our health and our bodies to give us a fighting chance should any germ gain a lodging in our system. Think of the flu. No one wants the flu, every year people we know get the flu, and when another season passes we wipe the anxious sweat off our brows. The flu is unknowingly catchable.
Mimesis is virtually analogous to viral contagion. Mimesis seeks out human hosts to propagate itself, even though it is ‘programmed’ to destroy the host. Mimesis is like the Borg of Star Trek, the sublimation of all identity to collective violence. So here we are, catching mimesis all the time. Some of us catch more than others, some are sicker than others, but all of us are sick, we are all highly contagious, mimetically speaking.
What is intriguing about humans is the sheer number of times mimetic models are thrust into their consciousness through the use of various media. We have become so seduced by it that we have become inured to it. We speak of the advertising and marketing industries. We are called upon hundreds of times a day, probably more, to want what somebody else wants. We are asked to fashion our desires for that which is deemed attractive to us by another. Mimetic desire is being passed on to all of us all of the time.
The leper in today’s story functions in a double fashion: on the one hand it is important to observe the external social implications of having victims to blame for social woes (= mimetic crises). Our leper is virtually cut off from the community. There will always be d i s t a n c e between him and others. Mythologization occurs when these hapless souls are perceived to be divinely judged, thus their afflictions had a divinely inspired penal character. God doesn’t let bad things happen to good people. If so judged by God, can we judge any less? And thus we effectively sacrifice another life for the benefit of the common good.
On the other hand, it is important to allow the meta-story of leprosy to offer the working metaphor of contagion. To see the many ways this metaphor can be explored in this text we only need observe our own ‘lepers.’ Perhaps they have been our model/obstacles. Who is it we are currently blaming for our woes? As our contagion spreads we take this collective blame to a higher level, a more fevered pitch until in collective unity we find a suitable substitute to cast our collective mimetic crises upon. And it is all too easy to believe that fate has spared the community and has accepted the sacrifice of an innocent, whose death is justified by appeal to the myth of the guilty victim. Unless and until we identify the roots and mechanisms of mimesis in our lives, we are little more than pawns in the great lottery of life.
There is, in this story about the leper, a meta-story about leprosy. And within this story are many themes, two of which are leprosy as contagion and leprosy as a legal problem. First, let us turn to leprosy as a contagion. We note current estimates (of the 106 reporting countries in 2003) to be 635,000 people afflicted with leprosy, with around 500,000 new cases being reported last year. We still do not know how leprosy is transmitted, respiratory theories are currently gaining ground; there are some who favor transmission via insects (like West Nile Virus). In short, it is still frightening and it is still actively seeking human hosts. It has never been eradicated from our planet.
To get a feel for how leprosy was treated in priestly circles, we turn to the Mishnah, tractate Negaim, which translates as ‘Plagues.’ In the Danby edition, there are twenty pages of densely packed rabbinic conversations and judgments on leprosy, all kinds of discussions on color and texture of boils and hair, when to inspect them, who may inspect them. There are opinions on leprosy and garments, leprosy and houses. These folks are trying to figure out how to limit contagion, how to properly diagnose the disease and how to handle proper re-entry into the community. The rabbis were practicing community health care.
Now at one point in all of this discussion there occurs the theory of transmission by shadow. “If a man unclean [from leprosy] stood beneath a tree and one that was clean passed by, he becomes unclean; if he that was clean stood beneath the tree and he that was unclean passed by, he remains clean; but if [he that was unclean] stood still the other becomes unclean.” (Negaim 13.7) We point this out not to show how silly the rabbis were, but to show how seriously they took the problem of the contagion of uncleanness. Material contact spread contagion, a shadow is an aspect of the creation, ergo, a shadow can potentially ‘pass’ uncleanness.
These are not unimportant matters to the rabbis. It was a heavy burden to declare someone unclean. They had to get it right so that someone wasn’t diagnosed improperly, being declared unclean was, and still is, devastating. The social ostracism associated with leprosy is just as real today as it was in Jesus’ time. We must be careful not to think the rabbis were splitting hairs, they were safeguarding the rights of the community.
Narratively, the story of the leper transitions a group of healing narratives to a group of conflict stories, some of which have healing as the issue. The healing effect of good mimesis exacerbates the fear of bad mimesis. Thus, the conflict alluded to in the opening of the gospel, the theology of the cross, will begin to unfold as Jesus encounters the powers hostile to his message of the healing peaceful reign of God.
In Plagues and Peoples, William H. McNeill writes, “Since the 1940’s the impact of scientific medicine and public health administration upon conditions of human life has become literally world wide. In most places epidemic diseases have become unimportant, and many kinds of infections have become rare where they were formerly common and serious. The net increment to human health and cheerfulness is hard to exaggerate; indeed, it now requires an act of imagination to understand what infectious disease formerly meant to humankind, or even to our own grandfathers. Yet as is to be expected when human beings learn new ways of tampering with complex ecological relationships, the control over micro-parasites that medical research has achieved since the 1880s has also created a number of unexpected by-products and new crises.”
McNeill, in 1976, goes on to note the “unpleasant possibility that biological research aimed at discovering effective ways of paralyzing enemy populations by disseminating lethal disease organisms among them might succeed in unleashing epidemiological disaster on part – or perhaps on all of the world.”
Words written more than 25 years ago ring with more intensity today in the emerging discussion of war. One way of entry into the text is to simply consider what a biological event would mean for your community, your family, your job. Another is to care for people with HIV. The experience of social alienation is one of the greatest human afflictions there is.
There is the poignant story of St. Francis who would do anything for Jesus but he would not, could not touch a leper. Until the day that he is convinced by love to do so and the leper he holds turns out to be Jesus. Embracing the un-embraceable breaks the cycle of isolation.
In our not too distant history, we were burning witches; we hope that, perhaps hundreds of years from now, we will have eschewed the stupidity of warfare. Mimetic contagion is still the best explanation for the phenomena of both witch hunting and warfare.
A Few Homiletic Fragments:
Today’s text is about a missed opportunity. Good opportunities come along infrequently, and in our story the healed leper may have missed one, too.
1. Jesus touches the man rendering himself unclean;
2. The man is healed, therefore he is no longer unclean;
3. Is Jesus legally clean or unclean at this point? If he is ‘unclean’ one can understand the use of the emotive verbs in the text.
4. The man is told with great emotion to go and bear witness to the temple authorities, who, it is assumed, know his now former condition. They must now give him an inspection and ‘declare’ him clean and his sacrifices acceptable. In the process they would most likely find out how the man had been healed.
5. The leper was commanded to be a semeia to the authorities, instead he remains the beneficiary of divine dynamis.
6. The former leper starts telling everyone he knows. The leper essentially misses his call to discipleship. Exuberance won out over his chance to participate in Jesus’ announcement to the authorities that ‘God’s reign was dawning.’
I am always taken by the textual variant in this passage. Though we go with the translation found in the NRSV, the variant suggests that, when confronted by the leper’s statement, “If you will, you can make me clean,” Jesus is not moved with pity, but with anger! I am convinced that this is the original reading, as it is utterly inconceivable that a copyist changed “moved with pity” (splanknistheis) to “moved with anger,” (orgistheis) but the reverse is easily seen.
What stuns me is Jesus response of anger to the very suggestion that he might NOT will the man to be clean. Not that he is angry at the man himself, but at the system that has taught him that the servant of God might understand God as desiring his illness, that he might somehow deserve to have it continue.
Preachers are often looking for ways to psychologize the New Testament, to make “anger” okay, and so we look in places where it cannot truly be found to find evidence of Jesus’ acting out on his rage. (The “cleansing of the Temple” being most folks’ favorite.) That interpretation of Jesus’ actions in the Temple doesn’t really hold, but this one sure does. There is no mistaking it. Jesus is made angry, and what does he do? Does he condemn? Does he withhold? No… He heals.
I can think of a hundred people who would be better at writing today’s commentary on this text. Why? Because I am not as disciplined as the athlete or the warrior that Paul refers to in his metaphors. I tire easily and want to give up before the finish line. I find it difficult, and usually boring to engage in practices that keep me sharp, alert and focused.
But having said all this, I am also aware that, in some respects, I have ‘kept myself in shape’, so to speak.
I am continually learning from the application of the mimetic theory to Christian spirituality. Just as the cross and resurrection present us with the two major moments of salvation, just as baptism is a reflection of these two major moments on a personal level and eucharist a participation in these two moments on a corporate level, so also mimetic theory has two sides. The first is the one we are most familiar with, the one that leads from mimesis and rivalry to scapegoating and the pillars of culture. The second, what Rebecca Adams has termed ‘positive mimesis’ is less well known. This is because as Girard has developed his anthropology, he has taken the biblical trajectory of (negative) mimesis up to and including the cross, but there he must stop (see his conclusion in I See Satan Fall as Lightning). In the beyond of the cross, in the eschatological horizon of the resurrection comes the encounter with the Risen Lord and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and thus the possibility of following Jesus or discipleship. While this call is extended to those before the cross, the Gospels give us plenty of evidence that Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it, that is, until after they had encountered him post Easter.
Just like Saul on the road to Damascus, it still takes an encounter with the Living Christ to make us alive, to create awareness, to turn us from ourselves to others, to move us to ‘turn back’ (Heb: shuv, Greek: metanoia), to ‘return’ (that great post-exilic call) to a life lived coram Deo.
The spiritual exercises of which Paul speaks are not defined and this is important, but the effects and benefits of such are clearly articulated, it is the eschatological prize which we seek and that prize is none other than God in Christ. By not defining the exercises he uses, paul opens the door for each person to find those that best work for them. Whether prayer, meditation, fasting, daily devotions, communal worship, monastic vocation, singing, art, dance, etc., each of us has our own way of bringing our ‘flesh’ in tune with our spirit, which is constantly being tuned to the Spirit of God.
Each of us has to say “No!” to negative mimesis, each of us has to learn to renounce desires that we are brought to recognize are imitations of others desires. Saying “No!” to these desires and their negative effects reflects God’s “No” to us before the cross of Christ, saying “Yes” to the imitation of Jesus’ desire for God reflects the Father’s act of “Yes” in raising Jesus from the dead, to bring new life.
Because spirituality is a unique gift for each one of us, yet collectively builds us up as the Body of Christ, it cannot be legislated. When spiritual disciplines are legislated they are no longer spirit but letter and are not life giving. A community however, may choose as a group to follow certain practices, which are beneficial to that community, but as many monastics have found, just doing spiritual disciplines because others say so does not necessarily make for a healthy spirituality. Occasionally, this has led to a notion that spirituality is hard, difficult or painful as one sees in the flagellants of the Middle Ages or in some contemporary Asian monastic Holy Week scourging traditions, or the wearing of a cilice to remind one of Christ’s suffering. These forms of spirituality are really forms of masochism.
Authentic spirituality as a discipline is difficult only because it requires a regularity, it is a practice. Just as an athlete cannot choose when to work out and when not to, depending on how they feel, so also the Christian cannot choose to attend to the “No” and the “Yes” of spiritual discipline because they feel like it. It is especially when we do not feel like it that we may find we need these disciplines most.
Note the commentaries for use of the Isthmian Games and the metaphors involved. Particularly noteworthy are the commentaries by Richard Hays and Ben Witherington III for their hermeneutic observations about this text and modern preachers.
This text is best preached as both exhortation and gift. The gift is the eschatological prize, the hearing of the words “Well done, good and faithful servant”, the beatific vision. The exhortation is to those who have become weary, who are results oriented, who look at their world and their life and don’t see instant change. Just as a workout routine begins light and moves to harder and more difficult tasks, so also we must encourage our congregations to begin their spiritual disciplines gently. Not everyone is a St. Anthony or a St. Therese. But we also continue to exhort them to pick up the pace, to run the race as if it really matters, because it does.
We are, and can be, shining lights in the world today. If brothers and sisters in other religious traditions outstrip us Christians in their spiritual exercise, that ought to be cause for concern. But we, who have met the Risen Jesus, also know that this journey we take with him is full of forgiveness, that he picks us up when we fall, he cleans our wounds we get hurt, he coaches us to use our gifts better and more wisely. If we western Christians were to learn to say “No” to those things that weigh us down (greed, gluttony, pride, etc) and say “Yes” to those things which are uplifting (care of others, prayer, fasting, etc) imagine what a different world it might be.