No matter how many times I read Mark’s Gospel, I always find it full of surprises. Last week’s passage told how Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Today’s shows Jesus healing a leper. Last Sunday, when I was leading a retreat at Camp Stevens in Julian, California, we discussed the first healing story as part of the closing Eucharist, and once again Mark’s Gospel told me something about Jesus I hadn’t known before. After hearing this passage read, one of our members noted that in these early Mark stories Jesus is suddenly coming to terms with his ability to heal people. It’s as if he hadn’t known he could heal people before. He goes to Simon’s house, touches his mother-in-law, and she recovers. In today’s Gospel, Mark underlines the newness of Jesus’s healing power when the leper has to remind Jesus that he has the power to make people well. He says to Jesus, "If you choose, you can make me clean,” meaning, if my friend is right, that news has spread of Jesus’s healing power but Jesus hasn’t entirely taken it in yet himself.
But Jesus is a fast learner. "I do choose. Be made clean!" He touches the man and heals him. And then he asks him to do something: "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." What interests me in today’s Gospel is how the recovered man disobeys Jesus on both counts. Jesus has done him an enormous service. He has healed him physically, and he has healed him socially. To say that he is “clean” means that he is both bodily clean and ritually clean. He is now free from physical and social suffering. You think he’d be grateful, and that he’d show his gratitude by doing what Jesus asked. Instead, he runs out and tells everybody how the new rabbi healed him. And there’s no record that he ever went to the priest to offer thanks.
So our Gospel reading for today pictures Jesus with a newfound healing power using it to cleanse a leper who, once he is healed, disregards everything that Jesus asked him to do. So much for gratitude. This reading is paired with an Old Testament story that tells us of another cleansing from leprosy, this one of the Assyrian General Naaman by the prophet Elisha. Part of the point of this first story revolves around Naaman’s and Assyria’s military power in relation to Elisha’s and Israel’s political weakness. When the Israelite king hears that Naaman is coming to town for healing, he panics. Will they hold it against him if the great man is not healed? And Naaman’s attitude doesn’t help things. When he is told he can be cleansed simply by bathing in the Jordan River, he complains to Elisha that this advice wasn’t worth the trip--they have much bigger, more impressive rivers back home where he comes from. It is only when a servant says 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'?" that Naaman relents and does what the prophet had asked. And as the passage tells us, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”
These two stories are overtly linked by their subject: healings from leprosy. But they are covertly connected, too. Not only does each passage relate a miraculous healing. Each story also tells us how someone with authority tells a person to do something simple. In each story, that person refuses. There is something in us that balks at good advice, that wants to assert itself in a contrary way, that thinks it always knows best. Naaman and the unnamed man in the Gospel story share that characteristic. So do you and I.
There is a great scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall that illustrates this shared tendency. Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, has just been stopped by a Los Angeles police officer and is told to get out of the car and hand over his driver’s license. Alvy is so nervous that he drops the license and it falls to the ground. He starts explaining himself to the cop, who says,
Don't give me your life story
(Looking at the piece of paper
on the ground)
-just pick up the license.
Pick up the license. You have to ask
nicely 'cause I've had an extremely
rough day. You know, my girl friend-
Just give me the license, please.
Since you put it that way.
It's hard for me to refuse.
(He leans over, picks up the
license, then proceeds to rip
it up. He lets the pieces go;
they float to the ground)
... have a, I have a terrific problem
with authority, you know. I'm... it's
not your fault. Don't take it personal.
[Woody Allen, Annie Hall]
I don’t know about you, but I recognize something of myself in Alvy Singer’s tearing up his driver’s license, just as I do in Naaman the Assyrian’s grumpy complaint about Israel’s two-bit river and the leper’s disregard of Jesus’s small demands. In all three examples the request is simple: go bathe in a river, keep quiet and go offer thanks, hand over your driver’s license. And in all three examples the response is an almost inexplicable refusal to cooperate. Three people told not to do something stupid, and then there they go doing something stupid. I think I know those people. I think I am those people. I think they’re a lot like me.
There is a willful, selfish, stubborn part of me at my core that wants what it wants despite all good advice to the contrary. No matter what your credentials to advise me, I think I know best. One of the revelations in today’s healing stories concerns that solidarity you and I share with the two cleansed lepers. At some level, each of us needs healing. At some deeper level, each of us resists it. Part of us would rather stay isolated in our sickness than be restored to wholeness in God’s health. The good news of the Epiphany season is that God will not let us stop there. God wills that we be made whole. And one of the ways God makes us whole is by allowing us to see fully into ourselves.
One of the great spiritual landmarks in our tradition is The Confessions of St. Augustine, probably the first real autobiography in Western literature. In The Confessions Augustine talks directly to God, telling his life story, looking for signs of God’s activity in his life. As he goes over the facts of his life—his early years in North Africa as a pagan, then his religious seeking in other traditions, his years as a successful teacher of rhetoric and of his time living with a concubine in Rome, finally his conversion to Christianity and his return to North Africa—as he recounts these he becomes aware, late in the book, of just how little he knew himself at the time of these events he recounted. The real story of Augustine’s Confessions becomes the way God progressively reveals Augustine to himself. He realizes that his ability to take in the fullness and depth of his selfishness and sin increases as he grows in an appreciation of the fullness and depth of God’s grace. Augustine couldn’t have taken the knowledge of his own iniquity earlier in his life. It is only as he ages and matures and becomes more secure in God’s love that God allows him to see himself exactly as he is.
Sometimes God loves us by showing us things. Sometimes God loves us by hiding them from us until we are ready to accept them. If you’ve ever been in therapy, you’ll know that you’re not ready to understand your problem until you’re ready. The therapist could probably tell you your diagnosis at the end of the first session. But even if she did, you wouldn’t be able to hear it. Something in us not only resists. Something in us hides from the knowledge that we resist. Part of God’s mercy and grace to us is that God shows us ourselves only as we are able to accept ourselves. In this sense, God is like a therapist, and the life of prayer is like a relationship with a trusted guide whom you come to know enough to open you up to God’s healing, revealing light.
We’re nearing the end of the season of Epiphany, a word that literally means “manifestation”. In this season we talk of the ways in which God’s glory has been made manifest in Jesus, in the people who gather around him, in God’s world, and in us. Today our scriptures point us to another side of Epiphany, to one of the more subtle ways God is at work in the world. God wants to heal you. And God wants to heal you by showing you to yourself in all your fullness. God loves and blesses all of you—not just the public face you show to yourself and the world. God loves and blesses you in your shadow places, in the parts of yourself you certainly don’t love, probably don’t accept, and may not even acknowledge or know about. The journey of faith is a journey of progressive self-discovery. God shows you to yourself only as you are ready to take that knowledge in. But once you can acknowledge the fullness of who you are, the blessings extended are deep.
In our culture, we seem to think that being Christian is somehow about being “nice” or “warm” or “good”. Those are cultural values, but they’re not the deepest Gospel values. Jesus did not gather a group of nice, warm, good people around him. Instead, he gathered a group of broken, complicated, conflicted people around him whom he then loved into being authentic, compassionate, and whole. In a sense, those of us who gather around Jesus then and now are like the two lepers in today’s readings: broken people who need healing. The offer is not perfection (or goodness or niceness or warmth) but wholeness (and authenticity and health). And they’re offered to us even when we push back stubbornly against them.
Like Naaman and his Gospel counterpart, you and I have been given the opportunity to wash, be cleansed, and give thanks. The hope is that we, unlike them, will be able to live into our healing and its implications. God really does love you as you are. God really does call you into being who you are in all its complicated fullness. And God’s greatest mercy to you is God’s persistence in loving you into seeing and loving yourself as God sees and loves you. And if you can see and love yourself as God does, then you’re well on your way to seeing, loving, and healing others too. Amen.