February 12 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45
Theme: There are some fairly obvious ones today; but I'm going with "Obstacles to Grace", looking at some of the things that might hinder our relationship with God, or prevent God's grace flowing into us.
Introduction. There is much that is strange about the healing of Naaman, including the fact that it remained very much a sore appoint right up to Jesus' time: see Luke 4:27-30. The strangest thing about it is its inclusion in the Hebrew Scriptures at all! What were the Jewish faithful to learn from this story? That their God cared as much for Syrians as for Jews? That Elisha humiliated the second most powerful person in Syria and lived to tell the tale? Or that, only when we get rid of our national and ethnic illusions of superiority, and our false preconceptions of what God should and shouldn't do, are we open to receive God's grace? So there are things we must get rid of for our relationship with God to grow. There are also things we must do: just as athletes train to achieve physical fitness, so we must strive to achieve spiritual fitness. When we are ready to acknowledge our need and call out to God unconditionally, to open ourselves to God's healing grace, God is willing to meet our needs.
Background. Writers such as Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, Jim Marion, and Ken Wilber have been pouring out books in recent years on the subject of spiritual evolution and development, both in relation to our species and to the individual human being. It is generally accepted that the new-born infant has no sense of self: very young infants will watch their own foot waving about with the same attention he or she gives to a rattle or a toy dangling above the cot. The infant does not distinguish between self and object. The ability to do this develops gradually over the next 2 years or so, so that by that age the child has some degree of self-awareness, but this is still fuzzy around the edges. The close bonding with the infant's parents means that the distinction between self and parent is not nearly as clear as that between self and stranger. As the years go by there is a gradual move to identify with a larger group of people, other family members, play-mates, and others who are seen often. Somewhere in the teens a period of re-alignment of loyalties takes place, with a growing sense of self and autonomy, and then more equal relationships may be entered into.
Meanwhile we start o indentify with "clans" or "tribes" of our own choosing, be they sports teams, hometowns, or our country. Healthy religious faith seeks to lead us on further, to transcend such us-them divisions altogether and recognise the oneness of humanity, and even of all creation. But most of us struggle with this to some degree. When push comes to shove – and especially when peace gives way to war – all pretence to belong to the one human race is liable to be replaced by a growing conviction that our side is right and the other side is wrong; that God is on our side and the other side is demonic. Listen to debates on the Treaty – or on our three-tikanga constitution – or on globalisation –and you will not hear many voices raised in support of the proposition that we are all one in God! Come to that, go to a meeting on the future of the Parish of East Otago and suggest that it doesn't matter where we worship – or which churches we use and which ones we close - and see how many people agree with you! Despite the universalism that has been an essential part of our faith since the time Of Isaiah – reaffirmed by Jesus in his ministry and spelt out in black and white by St Paul at least three times – we still do not really believe that in Christ there is no such thing as male and female, Jew or Greek, free or slave: that in Christ all such differences are transcended. When they are not they become obstacles to grace.
Kings. What a wonderfully told story this is! Right from the start we are alerted to the fact that it operates on the two levels we have become used to in recent weeks, the material (worldly) realm, and the spiritual one. Naaman is the Commander of the Syrian army. We are told that he is a great man in the eyes of his master (the King of Syria) and highly regarded because the King and the people believe that Naaman has won a great victory on the battlefield. However, the author makes it clear to us that his victory was given to him by the Lord, although he sees no need to explain to us why the Lord God of Israel should give victory to a pagan army often at odds with Israel.
The picture of the great man is completed by an assurance that he is a valiant soldier, then immediately dashed to pieces with a medical diagnosis: he has leprosy. His life will never be the same again. Help comes in a most extraordinary way. In his own household, serving his own wife, is a young girl captured from Israel, nameless and quite probably abused. Yet she has compassion for his plight. She plucks up courage to raise the subject with her mistress: "if only", she says, indicating the strength of her concern for the master's health. The wife passes her message on, and his desperation is such that he decides to give it a go. He seeks leave from the King, and again we see the worldly point of view: the King gives him a letter of authority addressed to the King of Israel (not, to the prophet of whom the servant girl spoke). To men of such rank the assumption is that you deal with the man at the top and he will order the prophet to carry out the work. Similarly it is assumed that the prophet (or perhaps the King) will expect a pretty handsome koha for his troubles. The King of Israel adopts a similarly worldly view of all this, fearing a diplomatic set-up as a pre-cursor to more aggression.
The Rabbis taught in Jesus' time that to heal leprosy is as difficult as raising the dead: the King's response in verse 7 ("Can I kill and bring back to life?") suggests that this view has ancient roots. Elisha hears what's going on and tells the King to refer the unfortunate Naaman onto him. Now watch and admire the storytelling genius of this author: every little detail helps to heighten the drama. "So Naaman went with his horses and chariots" (verse 9): we might say, with his entourage, all very impressive and reeking of power. Elisha doesn't even stir himself to greet his "distinguished" patient: he sends out a messenger with a ridiculous "green prescription". Naaman is incensed. He has a very clear idea of how a healer should act: wonderful comedic touch! Naaman has to accept that he is no longer the powerful one; he has to learn to control his anger; he has to lose his ethnic/national superiority; and he has to submit to the advice of his staff. All those things are acting as obstacles to God's healing grace; and only when he jettisons his pride and arrogance and submits to the Lord's authority exercised through Elisha, his servant, and Naaman's own men, is he healed.
Taking It Personally.
· Recall a time when you were ill. Which part of Naaman's story do you most identify with? The shock of the diagnosis? The willingness to try the unorthodox? The sense of anger at the way a health professional treated you as a person? The indignity of the hospital gown? What did you learn about yourself from that whole experience?
· Think about your ethnic or national identity for a moment. Are you proud of it? Why? Do you consider yourself patriotic? Is your Christian identity more or less important to you than your national or ethnic identity?
· Are you open to receiving advice from those of "inferior rank" (children, junior colleagues, recent immigrants, etc)?
· Is this story about baptism, being born again, healed, cleansed, converted? Read verse 15: does that alter your view?
· Read Luke 4:27-29. Why do you think this story is so controversial? Can you identify with those who find such a story offensive? [Think about our propensity to re-write history, to cover over the black spots in our national history.]
Corinthians. It is not obvious to me why this short reading has been chosen today. I want to see it as a warning against spiritual passivity, or quietism. Yes, God, takes the initiative, but that does not mean that we just sit back and let it all happen. We need to be spiritually fit: we need to work at it, in prayer, in worship, in Bible study and reflection, and in other forms of spiritual exercise. Perhaps verse 24 is not St Paul at his best, with the implication that we compete with one another for the crown of salvation and there can only be one winner! But he recovers in verse 25, so we can overlook that brief lapse.
Taking It Personally.
· Are you careful to ensure that you get regular physical exercise? Do you try to eat healthily and get a reasonable amount of sleep? Why?
· Do you give the same amount of attention to your spiritual wellbeing as to your physical wellbeing? Why not?
· What form of spiritual exercise might you trial during the coming week?
Mark. And here's another beautifully told story. Notice that it is not set anywhere in particular: it is a representative case. The leper comes to Jesus in breach of the Law and custom: he should have kept well away from other people. He kneels before Jesus and begs him. This is the essence of prayer. He comes, he submits, he acknowledges his need, and he asks for help. Jesus responds immediately by touching him – also a clear breach of the Law and custom. Jesus thereby renders himself unclean, and identifies fully with the leper. But then he tells the leper to go to the temple and do all that the law requires for him to be re-admitted to the worshipping community. All he asks for himself is that the man will keep what has happened quiet. Fat chance! He tells his story to anyone who will listen [think Facebook, twitter, etc;] and the story goes feral: it ends with Jesus excluded and confined to "lonely places". He and the leper have swapped social positions.
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on this story as a model for petitionary prayer. What is your most pressing need at this time? Bring it to Jesus; kneel before him; cry out to him for help. Hear Jesus assure you: "I am willing. Be healed."
· Notice how Jesus is "filled with compassion". Compassion means to "suffer with". Jesus feels the man's pain and it becomes his own. There is nothing "professional" or emotionally distant about Jesus' response to this man. Reflect on your own intercessory prayer for others. Is it rooted in compassion for those others?
· Some translations say Jesus was angry, either because the leper seemed in doubt as to whether or not Jesus would treat him, or because he was angry at the effect leprosy was having on this poor man. Do you feel this sort of anger when you confront illness?
· The language is pretty strong in verse 43: it is the same phrase used in exorcisms! Does this change your image of Jesus in this story?
· Can you recall feeling socially excluded at any time? Who might feel such exclusion in our country, or in our church, today? How do you feel about that? Angry? Compassionate? Pray about it.