Liberating Touch

Clarendon Presbyterian Church, Arlington, Va.
Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Mark 1:40-45

Sometimes it takes stories to interpret and understand stories. That was my experience this week as I wrestled with the healing stories we’ve just heard from 2 Kings and Mark.

I came across two brief anecdotes this week – one in the Postsports page and the other from NPR’s “Story Corp” series. In the Post, a sports writer shared the story of boarding a train at Union Station this week coincidentally with Caps owner Ted Leonsis, one of the wealthiest people around town. As they made their way toward the Philadelphia-bound train, the writer, and most of the other passengers, passed an elderly homeless man sitting on the cold concrete concourse. Leonsis stopped, spoke with the man, noticed that he had no shoes, and gave him money to buy some.

The Story Corp bit featured a 90-something-year-old wedding ring salesman in New York, who began his career in Manhattan’s diamond district at the end of World War II. He told about how he used to come up to couples kissing on the sidewalk and hand them his business card, because, he said, “married people don’t kiss on the street.” It was a wonderfully charming little slice of life.

Hold on to those two brief narratives, because we’ll come back to them.

So, what’s up with these two leprosy stories? In the older story, from 2 Kings, we have a king who refuses to believe that healing can be so simple a thing as bathing in the waters. He’s ticked off because he believes there should be some high-toned to-do worthy of his exalted status. Why any old fool can go jump in the river! He’s a king, after all.

And then there’s Jesus, in these early Markan stories: He is going from town to town healing people, news is spreading, and he’s telling the healed to remain quiet about the experience.

What’s going on in these stories? What have they to do with us?

Calvin observed that scripture interprets scripture, and he was right, but it helps a great deal if we understand also a few of the cultural clues. In this case, the story from Kings provides the clues we need to understand Jesus and to let scripture interpret itself for our lives.

Why is the king upset about the simplicity of the healing?

Was it simply a case of misplaced pride? Of royal pomposity?

To be sure, there is some of that, and the humor of the tale lies in how the king’s aides puncture his pride by saying, “your most royal highness, if he asked you to do something difficult you’d surely comply, but when it’s simple you pitch a fit. Don’t be a dolt; be healed.” Of course, they put it more politely lest they be tossed into the river, but we get the point and the joke.

However, underlying the story, and also lying behind the reason that Jesus is moving from town to town, is the deeper story of the role that disease played in the ancient culture in which these stories unfold.

We all know that ancient people did not have access to modern medicine and the science that lies behind it. Too often, though, we miss in these stories the worldview through which disease itself was understood.

Why was Jesus moving so rapidly from town to town? Why was he insisting on a relative news blackout?

It cannot be that there was a general disdain for health care providers, or, closer to the mark, for healers. There were such folks in every community, as common as ring salesmen in New York, perhaps. If Jesus were merely the latest practitioner to come on the scene offering balms for wounds and concoctions for common ailments, he might have disturbed the competition a bit but he would not have drawn the threats and condemnation of the powerful – the social, religious, political, economic powers that be – of the nation. If he were simply another healer, one can imagine him setting up shop in Galilee and the townsfolk saying, “you got an ache, you gotta go see this Jesus; he’s got some healing potions and boy does he tell a good story, too.”

But he was more than that. His healing touch was laying bare fundamental contradictions and injustices at the heart of the social order.

In other words, the healings are not about miraculous power, and the silence is not about a “messianic secret.” The healings are about social liberation as much as they are about individual restoration, and the silence is strategic.

Ched Myers explains it this way:

We tend to assume that healing stories speak of the miraculous cure of physical pathologies, because in our modern worldview illness is equated with biological disorders (in medical anthropology this is called a bio-medical definition of illness). The ancient world, however, perceived illness primarily as a socially disvalued state (an ethno-medical definition) – that is, an aberrant condition that threatened communal integrity.

For example, what the biblical writers call leprosy cannot be identified with what we know (biomedically) as Hansen’s Disease. Their concern, however, was not scientific diagnosis of symptoms but the determination of social abnormalities requiring quarantine. In the cultural system of Judaism, these were associated with impurity or sin. [The closest we can come to understanding this in our time may be to think of AIDS in the early 1980s.] From the ethnomedical perspective, then, healing was a matter first and foremost of resocializing the anomalous person. Hence the rituals associated with the cleansing of leprosy (see Leviticus 13-14) concerned not medical cure but symbolic re-entry into the community.

We will see that in every major healing episode in Mark, Jesus seeks to restore the personal and social wholeness denied to the sick by a sociocultural system which marginalizes them. His healing acts are symbolic actions directed as much at the system as the individual. (“Binding the Strong Man,” by Ched Myers, Sojourners, March, 1987.)

In the 2 Kings story, the king desired a ritual befitting his place in the social hierarchy. To be restored to his position of great power required a fittingly complex ritual. That he could be restored to that position with so simple a gesture is, in part, the prophet’s way of saying, “you are not as powerful as you believe yourself to be.”

Jesus’ healing gestures, likewise, are ways of saying, “you are not marginalized in the kingdom of God, and you should not be marginalized in this social order either, because if you are to be transformed, everything must change! Everything must be transformed. The social hierarchies by which we measure meaning and value must be transformed.”

Jesus was going from town to town to share the good news of transformation, of repentance and restoration, to be sure. He was also going from town to town because if he stayed put he would die because he was upsetting the applecart.

He healed on the Sabbath and in the temple square because the time and the location underscored and reinforced the social order and the power arrangements. The choices were made in compassion with the marginalized individuals, absolutely; but they were also strategic and, in a fundamental sense, political. That is to say, they were designed both to the restore individuals to shalom, to wholeness, but also to undermine the arrangements of power that governed the city and that destroyed the social fabric, the shalom of the city, the right relationship of human being to human being in which mutuality and compassion are the mark and measure rather than domination and subjection.

So, how do we take these ancient stories and hear their word to us, in our context?

Well, what are the dominant world views that structure our social order? They are numerous, and, just as in Jesus’ time, they are so widely accepted and unquestioned as to go unnoticed and unremarked upon most of the time. That’s why the two little stories I shared in opening struck me this week.

We take almost for granted the story of American rugged individualism and self-reliance. Indeed, we define our very lives according to the values of that archetypal story, and we are quick to categorize as outsider, as fundamentally different, anyone who cannot make it on their own – or, more accurately, anyone who cannot achieve the appearance of having made it on their own merits and efforts. That’s why the gesture that Ted Leonsis made was, at its core, transgressive.

He recognized in the homeless man, a fellow human being. Now maybe he didn’t think of it this way, but his gesture underscores it nonetheless. He saw not a failure, an outsider, someone to dismiss as “mentally ill” or “drug addicted” or “alcoholic.” But rather, someone about whom it can be said, “there but for grace, go I; there but for family, connection, compassion, institutions that worked for me, faith, hope and love, go I.” And, therefore, I must stop and reach out a hand to share that compassion, that grace, that gift that I have been given.

None of that is to say that the homeless man wasn’t addicted or mentally ill, or that he would use the money wisely. Rather, it is to understand that we are all complicit in his condition because we are all connected in one great fabric of life. We are not individual actors, ruggedly independent of one another. When the social fabric is rent, we are all wounded by its ripping. We are not self-reliant; we are God-reliant.

Only love can stitch together what has been rent asunder, and only love can free us from the explanatory lies that we tell ourselves. Jesus understood this, and his every gesture of healing made clear that no one lies beyond the liberating touch of God’s love, and every story that suggests such fixed bounds is a lie.

Which brings me back to the jeweler. He understood the importance of the tactile touch of love and its concrete symbols. His life’s work celebrated that liberating touch, but as I listened to his story, the day after our marriage equality witness last week, I wondered what would have happened if he had gone beyond pressing his business card into the hands of young straight lovers, and gone into the places where respectable business people did not go in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s and so on. What if he had reached out also to same-gender lovers and said, the liberating touch of love is for you as well?

Obviously, this is not about one old ring salesman. It is about each and every one of us. It is not only about public gestures, but also about personal behavior. At the same time, though this life and faith be intimately personal, it is also never private.

Because, it is not so much that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – though that is true. It is more that any break in God’s shalom leaves each and every one of us less than whole.

Our task, our calling, as followers of Jesus, is to be attentive to the breaks and to be repairers of those breaches. To be attuned to the shattering of shalom, and engaged in its rebuilding. To be awake to the rending of the fabric, and alive to its reweaving. Go, therefore, into all the world – or, at least, into your own little corner of it, and reweave, rebuild and repair whatever your own hands can touch with liberating love. Amen.