Here There Be Lepers

I knew a leper once. Not in the sense that his skin was flaking off or that he had a contagious disease, but in the real sense of the term – he was estranged from the community. Nobody in my generation wanted to be near him and I think those of my parents’ generation and beyond had forgotten him. I was born in and went to high school in a small town of about 9000 people and I lived about 10 miles north of town in an even smaller town of about 150 people. The only time I would get a chance to see people then was when we went to town for groceries or when I was walking around at lunch time during high school. I would occasionally see this man who was slightly hunched over and had a strange voice. He would walk with his elbows pushed back and there wasn’t one of us who hadn’t imitated him at one time or another. The girls would run away and scream when they saw him and would say things like “Ooh gross!” He generally slept at a rundown motel near the high school. If you have ever seen Sling Blade with Billy Bob Thornton, he was kind of like that.

Whenever I would encounter him he would be perfectly pleasant and ask how I was doing. I think he even asked me for money once so that he could pay his motel fee that night. It was not until around my Sophomore year when I was at a community recovery meeting with my grandmother in a kind of Bible study/ 12-step recovery group. Kind of like Bill W. meet Billy Graham when I started to wonder who he was. Until then I had thought he was just the town Quasimoto and I didn’t really care who he was or what his story was. We would go around taking turns reading from the Bible and I have to admit that in kind of a snarky way I was looking forward to when it was his turn to read. I wasn’t even sure if he could read. I half expected him to pass when it was his turn. He took the Bible, ran his finger down the page to find where the last person had left off, and there it was. I couldn’t believe it. He read it in as normal and clear of a voice and just as succinctly as anyone else. I still can’t explain it and I don’t put any meaning behind it, but I still think it was the strangest thing.

When I got home I asked my mom about him and she knew right away who I was talking about. She said, “Oh, that’s Dennis Swanson. I used to have such a crush on him. Then again, so did all the girls.” I just looked at her thinking, “Way to go mom. Way to keep those standards up there.” I asked her if he was born like that and she said no, not hardly. You see, Dennis Swanson had been an all-state wrestler. Oh, so he was a jock. Not necessarily ever too bright. I see. No, no, she told me. He was our valedictorian. What!? I could hardly believe it. What happened to him? Well, she told me. He got too popular, too good, and he thought he was untouchable. He started dabbling in drugs (it was the early 70s, after all) and ended up getting a bad batch. Someone had thinned the product out to make more money and had used some chemical that wasn’t made for human consumption. It fried Dennis’ brain and he became the town leper. Just like that. Most liked, respected, and envied guy in town and over night he became an outcast – estranged from his community. Everyone wants to hang out with you when you’re cool, but as soon as your brain turns into a fried egg on a skillet, the party’s over.

I wonder if that’s how it had been with Naaman. We know that he was a top dog. Commander of the Aramean army, subjects under him, only answered to the king. Then, something happened that estranged him from the rest of the community. Was he too big for his britches? Did he alienate the wrong people? Who knows? The text doesn’t tell us that. What we do know is that Naaman thought pretty highly of himself, so it is plausible that it was his pride that alienated him from everyone else. We know people like that, don’t we? Usually they are the insecure ones who always brag to get affirmation from those around them but all it does is make people tired and not want to be around them. The next thing you know, the person who thought he was better than everyone else is an outcast.

One day Naaman decides, ok, this has gone far enough. It’s time to be healed. I’m tired of the situation. So the young girl from Israel suggests that he go see the prophet in Samaria and he does. We quickly see, though, that although Naaman wants to be healed and reconciled, he doesn’t want to deal with that that got him estranged in the first place. Elisha seems to know what it was though. He doesn’t even come to the door when Naaman arrives and believe me, Naaman notices. Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash himself seven times in the River Jordan and he would be good as new. Does he do it? Of course not!

Infomercials tell us that we can make easy payments, software and apps are created to make our lives easier, car dealerships tell us how easy they are to get to, and even Staples has an Easy button. I’m not sure about that one. Maybe a fairy pops out and waves her wand making everything easy. When things are actually easy though, we feel like they’re not complete like we should have to work for the real stuff. Naaman apparently feels this way because he complains that his waters back home are so much better and Elisha didn’t just come out and wave his hand and make him better. I don’t have to tolerate this. Doesn’t he know who I am? I’m going home. But his officers say hey, we’ve come this far. If he would have told you to do something difficult you would have done it – to show how great you are and how it was through your own doing that you were healed. What the heck, why not give it a try? Here. Here’s the Easy button. And so he does, and so he is healed. The key here is that he seems to get what had made him this way in the first place. He submits to God and asks that he not have it held against him when he bows with his king at the altar. Finally, Naaman sees why he got where he did.

After being healed, the job wasn’t over. Naaman had to go back to Elisha. Just like in the Mark passage Jesus tells the leper to go to the priest after he heals him. The priest has to declare him ritually pure so that he can be reconciled and reintegrated into the community. The text there in Mark says that Jesus was moved to pity and healed the man, but you may notice an asterisk. The Greek word here may have been mistranslated and what Jesus felt was not pity, but in fact anger! Why? Maybe it’s just because Jesus was trying to rest and have the crowds not bug him. Perhaps it’s because Jesus realized that the man wasn’t really dealing with the issues that got him there in the first place. Jesus tells him to keep his mouth shut and go to the priest so that he can be declared ritually clean so that he can be reintegrated into the community. There are rules to live in society and at that time the rules were the Law of Moses. Instead, the man chose not to follow the rules and went and flapped his jaws anyway and Jesus was angry because he knew that the man was not really willing to do what’s right and that he would be right back where he started. But notice that the ones who have the affliction are steered clear of, but the purest one, Jesus, is the one that they all flocked to.

We are left in the dark in these two stories because we assume that somehow these two – Naaman and the other leper in Mark – broke the rules of society either with their pride or something and became outcasts, lepers. There is no complete evidence so we just have to guess. But wait. You see, the lectionary cuts off the story at 2 Kings 5:19 when Naaman goes home. But the story actually continues and I think the writer of Kings makes his point here. Gehazi is the servant of Elisha and he gets a bright idea. Elisha had turned away all of the gold and silver and robes that Naaman brought to him, but Gehazi thinks, hey I can get those for myself. So he chases after Naaman and says, you know, on second thought, we’ll go ahead and take those off your hands. Elisha busts him and curses him. Now YOU are the leper. You and your descendants will suffer NAAMAN’S leprosy forever. He broke the rules and became an outcast.

The man that Jesus healed refused to follow the rules and we can assume that he wasn’t completely reconciled to the community that he had been cast out of. Naaman got it. He got healed AND realized what had caused his leprosy in the first case and made amends. Isn’t that the most important thing? Isn’t that the key? Realizing what caused the estrangement in the first place and making amends there. Gehazi? He lost his chance to make amends. What about Dennis? Well, I think Dennis is a perfect example of the fact that it is not always the sick, the outcast, the leper who has to make amends. Sometimes it’s the community around him who needs to realize that none of us is perfect and that if someone is different, even by fault of their own, sometimes it’s the community that needs healing so that they can except that brother or sister back in. This shows how much of a community event healing is rather than an individual one. One of my classmates said it best when explaining how she had been healed of an illness, but took issue when the healing was mentioned publically because she felt somehow her privacy may have been violated. She said, “I admit that I am still dealing with how to reconcile its (the healing’s presence as a story of wonder in our community—that, partially, because God was involved in the healing of my body, it is a story that belongs to the community, for the betterment of us all seeing God at work.” It couldn’t have been said more beautifully.

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