A Healing Touch
Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14 and Mark 1:40-45
From the early days of the HIV pandemic, the stigmatization of people with AIDS has been likened to the social exclusion of people with ‘leprosy’ in the Old and New Testaments.
Naaman is a national hero:a ‘mighty warrior’ and a favourite of the king, used to being looked up to, and able to buy any favour he wants.Infected with a horrible, apparently incurable skin disease, he is desperate.That is the only reason why he listens to his wife’s maid, a poor slave girl captured in Israel. Through her advice he comes eventually – by way of Israel’s king -to the house of the prophet Elisha.Elisha does not treat him as an important person.He will not accept his gifts. He doesn’t come out of the house to greet him. And yet Elisha is confident of his capacity to cure. What Naaman has to dois easy: he has to bathe himself in the local river.
This seems to him to be so simple and ordinary a task that he takes offence and goes storming off, offended that the prophet is not taking him and his ailments seriously. Again it is the servants who see through Naaman’s self-importance and persuade him to put himself in the hands of this strange and ill-mannered prophet. So Naaman’s ‘cure’ is not the result of racial superiority or great feats of heroism: it is the simple realisation that he is no different from the poor, foreign peoples who bathed every day in this unimportant seeming river.And in both situations, we notice, it is the marginalised individuals who are able to ‘see’.
In biblical contexts, the word ‘leprosy’ probably did not describe the condition we know by that name today. Rather, it is applied to a whole raft of unsightly skin-diseases, some of them contagious or infectious, and most of them curable.However, the Law said that people diagnosed as ‘leprous’ were ritually ‘unclean’.They should be sent to live ‘outside the camp’,away from other people.Those who touched them were breaking a taboo, and might need to go through cleansing rites themselves before being re-admitted to community. The priest did not have a healing function.Rather, he was judge, interpreter of the law, and guardian of community purity.
In Mark’s account of the healing of the leper, the disfigured man says to Jesus, sadly: “You could make me clean, if you chose to.”(One can imagine him thinking: “But he will not choose to.”That is what his experience would have led him to expect.) But Jesus is moved.“I do choose to,” he says, and touches him. And in this act of touching, he heals the man’s skin disease, but in the process he breaks theJewish purity rules and makes himself ritually unclean.
In 2001, African church leaders came to the conclusion that tackling stigma was the most powerful contribution their churches could make to the overall response to the HIV pandemic. Today’s biblical passages have been important ones in that process. Like people living with HIV or AIDS, Jesus knows that it is the stigma that hurts most, and that restoration to community – that is, the removal of stigma - is just as important as physical healing.So he sends the man off to the priest, who must judge him to be ‘cured’ before he can be readmitted to family and community life.
To think about: What conditions or forms of behaviour are particularly stigmatized in your community? What does ‘healing’ mean in this situation?