What wonderful stories this week for those marking the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany. (Mark 1:40-45; 2 Kings 5:1-14; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.) How often do we fail to recognise the opportunity for healing because it does not come in the way that we have imagine?
If you are celebrating The Transfiguration you may like to read what I wrote three years ago.
The punch line that really gets to me is when Naaman says “I thought that for me he would surely come out … and wave his hand over the spot, and the cure the leprosy! 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?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servant approached and said 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?” All the wonderful and dreadful human elements are played out. “I am important, I would have thought that the prophet himself would have come out for me!! If I am to do something to receive healing then why is it not a difficult feat worthy of a warrior like me? Why have I had to travel out of my comfort zone to come here for healing, surely I could have done this closer to home?”
How often do we not recognise, or accept, or give thanks to God for the invitation to healing simply because it doesn’t turn up in the format we have decided is the way God should work? Maybe because we have such fear and shame and feelings of powerlessness around illness and death. And maybe because we are scared to let God get his hands on us. We want healing from what we name as a problem but not from all that ails us. Some of us are quite fond of some of our problems! We have spent a long time developing them and we have invested a great deal in seeing ourselves in a certain way. We want rescue but not until the last minute when we have tried everything else. And even then, some of us only want rescue from the crisis but not from all else that ails us. We want to be relieved of our suffering but not changed!
So what is the simple thing that Naaman is asked to do? He is told to bathe in the river Jordon seven times. Now this has all sorts of religious and political ramifications which we won’t go into, but at a practical level he is asked to do something very simple. However at some level Naaman knows that if he submits to such a simple cleansing process that he risks encountering God and being changed, not simply fixed up.
The leper in the gospel wants to be healed and yet he too finds it difficult to stick with the instructions Jesus gives him and rather than simply following the instructions of Moses on how to be reintroduced into community after healing from leprosy, he rushes around excited and celebrating in a way that he finds preferable.
Our gospel story is a two way story. It describes the process of the leper – his fear, hope, joy and undisciplined celebration and relief at being healed. He is in many ways not worthy of the healing he has received. He is spiritually clumsy and religiously undisciplined. And yet he receives healing. For this is also, and mainly, a story of the activity of Jesus which reveals the nature of God.
Jesus responds strongly to the leper’s request. The polite simple English of “Moved with pity …” does not do it justice. In the Greek the word used is the same as for guts (Splangchna ) – the entrails of men, and the wombs of women. They were believed to be the location of our strongest feelings – of passionate love and hate. Henri Nouwen wrote “the compassion that Jesus felt was obviously quite different from superficial or passing feelings or sorrow or sympathy. Rather it extended to the most vulnerable part of his being. It is related to the Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, which refers to the womb of Yahweh. Indeed, compassion is such a deep, central, and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God. There, all the divine tenderness and gentleness lies hidden. There, all feelings, emotions and passions are one in divine love. When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself.”
This is not simple abbra kadabbra, wave the wand, you are well again. This is the healing that takes place at depths well below the leperous wounds that the eye can see. This is healing that takes place where desire for wholeness is met with desire for tenderness. This is healing which takes place when one reaches out is desperate hope and one reaches forward with compassion.
So what does this story of healing with compassion tell us about our lives, here and now. Firstly this is a story which points to God – the nature of God as revealed in the life of Christ as the source of compassion. In Jesus, God came and lived among us as one of us becoming available and vulnerable. Available to God’s people in ordinary and intimate ways, and vulnerable to the joys and pains of human life and death. Compassion might therefore be said to begin with presence, with being present to God, to ourselves, to one another, as we are. As we are, not as we want to be or should be, but as we are, as others are, where we are right now whatever our circumstance or status.
Compassion is also about relationship, our relationship with God, with self, and others. Compassion is about the quality of the relationship and also who we seek to be in relationship with. For us as disciples, as ministers of God’s grace, we cannot show compassion if we have not first experienced God’s compassion, if we are not in right relationship with God. And if God’s compassion for us is to be the source of our life, the focus of our formation as disciples, and the core of our call to mission, then we will find ourselves deeply in relation to others.
The compassionate life is therefore also a community life and those we are called to belong to in deep ways will mean that we risk not belonging to the attractive successful group. The communities we find ourselves members of in response to the call to compassion will make it clear that we are sinners among other sinners, that we are numbered among the lepers. Now at some level this is of course true of any group but we are called to especially belong with those who do not belong elsewhere, to be in solidarity with those who are numbered among the outcast.
Compassion is also about a life long process of transformation. We are transformed by our experience of God’s compassion for us, by the need of others for this same compassion, and by the opportunity to be compassionate. We are hollowed out, worn smooth, and filled to overflowing with the myriad moments of mercy and compassion that form our days.
When we live lives touched and healed by God, then we proclaim the gospel that the kingdom of God has drawn near and we bring healing and compassion into the world. Even so, come among us Lord Jesus.