Monday, 14 October 2013

Vulnerability, defensiveness and love

There are many reasons why people put off going to the Doctor’s. “I’ll probably be better by the time I get an appointment,” you might say hopefully. Or there are the questions the doctor is going to ask about how you’ve been looking after yourself: just how much exercise do you take? – have you given up smoking yet? – what’s your diet like? – how many units of alcohol are you consuming every week?... and many more potentially embarrassing questions - and you wonder just what you’re going to have to have to admit to.

And then there’s the fear of what the doctor is actually going to do to you. Which bits is he/she going to prod and feel? What am I going to have to reveal of an anatomy of which I’m less than proud? And after all that, what might the treatment involve? – alright if it’s a course of antibiotics, but what about hospital referrals, long courses of drug therapy, operations, the bits which might be unlovely but which we don’t want to live without? 

 Now try to think what might be in the mind of Naaman, the commander of the armies of Aram (modern day Syria) as he looks for a cure for his leprosy. It wasn’t newly diagnosed,… it was something he seems to have lived with for a long time. He’s a high-ranking General - despite his illness. He’s learned to live with the disease – and perhaps we need to be reminded that what the Bible calls leprosy is not necessarily what we call leprosy (Hanson’s Disease), but was a catch-all term for a number of skin disorders. How many doctors had he seen in his own country, how much indignity had he been put through? – all to no avail, as he continued to suffer a disfiguring condition which didn’t sit at all well with his public prominence.

Naaman seems to have given up hope of a cure. Why should he want to put himself through any more prodding or lay himself open to any more useless courses of treatment? The suggestion that he turns to the prophet who lives in Israel is a last chance for him, an alternative therapy of which he seems highly sceptical.

Naaman goes seeking his cure in the way a General would. He takes his dignity along with him in a big way: piles of silver, loads of gold, fine clothes and a letter from his king – this is the reward for the man who can heal him. But a man who can arrive in this fashion is also a threat. The King of Israel sees the horses and chariots which accompany Naaman: “Now we’re in trouble,” he says. “There’s no hope of a cure. The doctors have never been able to do anything for him. He’s obviously just picking a fight!”

But what Naaman needs is not what kings and generals expect. He goes on to the house of Elisha the prophet, and finds someone quite different from the physician to the royal court he might have expected. He parks his chariots outside Elisha’s house, but the prophet doesn’t even come out. No fussing over this man so concerned for his dignity! And while Elisha saves him from the prodding and probing of a doctor, his remedy is not at all what he wants to hear… “Go and bathe in the River Jordan – and do it seven times!” Has Naaman really come all this way to hear this? If Elisha is so great a prophet, he ought to come out and wave his arms around and cure him! He ought to give heed to Naaman’s important position! If bathing is involved, it shouldn’t be in that excuse for a river, the Jordan, but in one of the mightier rivers of Syria – perhaps it’s as though Naaman had come from Gstaad and been told to take the waters at the Spa in Shotley Bridge! Anyway, no doubt Naaman has tried all that sort of thing before!

Naaman storms off in a rage… Fortunately his servants calm him down. “OK,” they say, “he’s asked something pretty pathetic. But you’d have done it if he’d asked you to do something really difficult. Why not give it a go?” And they persuade him. He swallows his pride, goes to the river Jordan, washes in it seven times, and he is healed.

On one level, the message is that Naaman must recognise that Elisha speaks with the authority of the one true God. And he does! – when he goes home, he takes a trunk-load of Israelite earth with him, so he can worship on  the soil of the land promised by God to the Israelites. But there is another level, I think. Naaman’s first need is to recognise that he doesn’t have all the answers. The solution doesn’t lie in being able to throw your weight around. Horses and chariots might win you battles, but they can’t win you your health. Fine clothes may cover up disfigurement, but they don’t cure it. And heaps of money in the end serve only to show you what can’t be bought.

For Naaman, the need is to find humility: to acknowledge his need; instead of issuing his own commands, to listen to others. And finally to give up standing on his dignity. He goes to the river Jordan – and we can imagine the scene: first he has to unburden himself of the warrior’s armour and weapons; then to take off the fine clothes of status; and finally, as he stands naked by the river, to reveal what needs to be healed – not merely a physical condition, but his defensiveness, aggression, his pride.

Naaman cannot find healing as the rich general of mighty armies, but only as a man. Today’s Gospel story tells us something more. Ten lepers come to Jesus for healing. These men are outcasts, forced to live outside the village, careful to keep their distance from this religious teacher. They have no wealth, nothing to offer Jesus.  All they can say is “Jesus… have mercy on us!”  These are men who have nothing, except the hope that Jesus will do something for them – and whatever it is, they cannot buy it, nor can they expect religion to do anything for them, because their disease has turned them into people who are to be avoided by the religiously upright.

The strange thing is that Jesus doesn’t say yes or no to their request for healing. He just tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. It’s their response of faith that makes them well. St. Luke’s Gospel tells us, “as they went, they were made clean.” In St. Mark’s version of the story, it’s the touch of Jesus that heals the leper. For St. Luke, it’s a matter of hearing what Jesus has to say to us. Do we listen to what he is saying? Are we ready to hear and to act?

We don’t know what happens to most of the ten lepers who are healed, but one of them turns back, praising God and throws himself at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving. The point that St. Luke’s Gospel makes is that the other nine don’t go back. And it’s a very modern and relevant point for our society where gratitude seems to be a scarce commodity. How often we complain, how rarely we give thanks! If only we were ready to show gratitude more often, then perhaps we would recognise just how many blessings we have received.

In this short episode, we see what is at the heart of the Christian Gospel – what we mean when we talk of the Incarnation, of God’s Son taking human flesh. Jesus knows what it is to be human. He knows what it is to be misunderstood and vulnerable. Jesus comes to us and shares in all that we are. He brings healing, he transforms lives, and he does it not by throwing his spiritual weight and power around, but by entering into all that needs to be healed. Jesus comes as the “wounded healer.” Not someone with the answer to everything, but one who can bring hope in our suffering because he knows what it is we suffer – sharing in our humanity, even in the uncleanness of the leper, he knows what it is that needs to be healed.

Do we know our need of healing – our need of God? Honesty with ourselves is one of the hardest things to achieve, which is why it is a good idea to be able to open ourselves up to someone else: a spiritual director, a member of our family, a friend.... And we can make a start by acknowledging our vulnerability, as finally Naaman  must do. To stop covering up. To see that for all our ability, wealth and achievements we can’t get it all sorted on our own. And this may help us help others in their need. So we don’t see them simply as people who are the authors of their own misfortune, people who deserve what they’ve got, people we can do without - like the folk of Jesus’ time thought they could do without the people they categorised as “unclean,” like so many people of his time despised the Samaritans, like the many prejudices we find voiced around us and perhaps share ourselves. “People are not loved because they are beautiful; they are beautiful because they are loved.” It’s love in action which Jesus brings to those who have less than nothing to offer. And when we feel unlovely, we do well to learn from this saying – and know that we are loved. And for that, be thankful…
(see - 2 Kings 5.1-3,7-15b; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19)

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