Namaan is a mighty warrior. He is a winner on the battlefield and off. In high favor with his master, the Lord has given him victory. Still, he has a personal problem: leprosy. All his accomplishments cannot protect him, even the Lord’s favor in battle. His wealth and power cannot help him. A young, powerless, captured slave girl can. He goes to the King of Israel who believes he’s being set up by the King of Aram. Elisha intervenes, telling him to wash in the Jordan seven times. Namaan balks, "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?" In the end he relents and is healed. It is not his great accomplishments that save him, but rather faith, reluctant faith in the God of Israel.
In a continuation of our reading of 1 Corinthians 9, Paul compares his spiritual self-discipline to athletics: running and boxing in particular. He’s been telling the Corinthians about the freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols. He cautions them as well to not let this freedom become a stumbling block to others. Partying at pagan feasts might just lead others away from God. Instead live a disciplined, intently focused life, like an athlete preparing for the Olympics. It is jarring to hear the apostle of justification-by-grace-through-faith telling us to strive (work) for our imperishable wreath (salvation). This is a reminder that Paul’s concept of faith was not theoretical. It was not an armchair faith: intellectual assent to a doctrinal proposition. Paul’s faith is trusting God, as did Abraham and Sarah. Faith is a life lived in such trust that we are free to give our lives away in serving the gospel and doing the hard work to which faith calls us.
Jesus is a good example. Living in complete trust, he is free to embark on an exhausting healing ministry in the community. He operates also out of his inborn compassion. "Moved with pity," Mark tells us (σπλαγχνισθεὶς, spalnk-nees-theis: literally "guts"), Jesus does something that makes him unclean: he touches a leper. His gut-wrenching encounter with this horrific disease impels him to action. Leprosy in the Hebrew Bible is a range of illnesses with symptoms of rash, spots, discolorations, hair loss, itches, discharges and the like. The remedy is usually the blood of an animal. Clothes and buildings can have leprosy in Leviticus 13 and 14. If one has leprosy one is "unclean" and must be quarantined from community. Jesus’ action restores the leper to community. Augustine says this is the same healing as Matthew 8:2. Bede says this shows the power of faith over law. Chrysostom says compassion drives Jesus to heal with his touch, not just his word. In order to fulfill all law, Jesus tells the leper to offer the sacrifices commanded by Moses and to show himself to the priests.
How effective would Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God have been, if it had not been accompanied by his ministry of healing in the community?
Corollary: How effective will our preaching the reign of God be, if it is not accompanied by a healing ministry in the community?
Here is the good news: In Christ, God responds to the suffering of the world with great compassion. He touches the untouchable and offers healing to all those he encounters. Furthermore, we are invited to be a part of this saving action in the world. We are called to respond with compassion to a world of suffering, touching the untouchable.
We must be careful not to insinuate that everyone who has faith will be magically healed. Luke reminds us that there were many lepers in Israel in Elisha’s day, but only Namaan was healed. Paul asks to have his thorn in the flesh taken away and the answer is no. Jesus asks to let this cup of suffering pass him by, but instead he goes to the cross. Jesus never promises his followers a free pass from suffering. Quite the opposite. He warns them they will be dragged before magistrates. As one pastor in our synod said, "If you haven’t been dragged into court for fighting injustice, you’re going to have some explaining to do in heaven." We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus into the world.
People do not suffer because of their lack of faith. But suffering may occur because of our communal lack of faith. A communal lack of trust in God might lead us to live lives of fear, hoarding and selfishness, contributing to a world where there is plenty of food for all, and yet too many are starving.
Faith invites us to respond to the world of suffering as did Jesus, with compassion, with touch, with hope. When we trust God to provide all we need, we will not be afraid to share, to give generously. We will share our bread with the hungry, share our touch with the outcast, share our time with the sick.
What is your congregation’s healing presence in the community? What is your congregation’s healing presence in the world?