The Barrel by John H. Pavelko

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On Bended Knee

2 Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45

A LIVING DEATH

The word leprosy conjures up frightful images of rotting flesh, ulcerated wounds, stubby fingers, missing feet, and distorted facial features. Scenes in such movies as Ben Hur and Papillion have inaccurately portrayed the disease as an unbearable illness that inflicts grizzly deformities on the human body. It is one of the oldest and most feared diseases of the ancient world. The regulations and prohibitions found in Leviticus and Numbers group several types of skin diseases-psoriasis and ringworm-under the generic title. While included in the list of communicable diseases, it is one of the least communicable.

But the Jewish community in Biblical times did not have the advantage of our modern scientific discoveries. They considered it a punishment from God. The hand of Moses was temporarily afflicted with the disease when he stood before the people to prove that God had sent him. (Ex 4:6) Miriam, the sister of Moses, was stricken with it for challenging the authority of her brother. While these examples may not have been the illness that we now call Hansen's disease, they serve to illustrate the dread associated with the affliction. 

The books of Leviticus and Numbers assigned the priest the role of community diagnostician and provided both a criteria to determine person had contracted the disease and the response of the community once a diagnosis was confirmed. The leper was ostracized from the community. They could not visit Jerusalem or any walled city. They were banished from the homes of their family and required to avoid all physical contact. They had to warn strangers of their condition by calling out "Unclean! Unclean! whenever they were in public. Leprosy condemned the sufferer to a lonely existence. Josephus, the famous Jewish historian, recorded that lepers were treated like dead men. During the middle ages, the leper would dress in a black garment and walk into church behind a priest who carried a crucifix. A burial service would then be read over the person.1

Without a realistic hope of a cure in the Biblical world, we are not surprised by the inclusion of two miraculous healings in both the Old and New Testament. They would have been memorable experiences. The kind of which eyewitnesses remembered the explicate details their entire lives. They also must have been life-changing experiences for both men but what a contrast between the men and their stories. They come from quite different positions of the society and sought a cure for their ailment in very different ways.
 

 THE PLIGHT OF TWO MEN

Naaman commanded an army under the King of Aram. The boundaries for this homeland fell east of Israel. The general was accustomed to giving orders not taking them. His skill lie in plotting sophisticated strategies not following simple directions. He was a man of power and prestige and expected to receive treatment in accord with his rank. The leper that comes forward in the gospel of Mark remains nameless. He probably did not have any social ranking nor did he carry any title of distinction. 

Naaman lived in a society that did not treat lepers as social outcasts. He had a wife and enjoyed the social accommodations entitled to him by his rank and social position. The Galilean leper would have been living in poverty either alone or in a colony of lepers. Isolated from society, he would have no means of supporting himself, except through the generosity of others. We do not know what form of illness either man had. Leprosy or Hansen's disease as we now call it, does not produce white skin, ulcers, or other deformities. Through the work of a missionary, Dr. Paul Brand, the medical community has discovered that the condition is not a skin disease but an infection in the nervous system.
 

 SPIRITUAL TRUTHS FROM PHYSICAL REALITIES

A tiny rod shaped type of bacteria, known as a bacillus, is responsible for the spread of the disease. Its transmission remains a mystery. After a person is infected, the bacillus migrates to the certain nerves located near the surface of the skin. The human body responds by sending antibodies to fight the infection causing swelling that eventually chokes off vital nourishment. The nerve eventually dies causing a loss of sensation to a specific region of the body. Numb to pain, the person does not know when he is inflicting damage. Leprosy patients walk all day with nails, thrones, or small stones embedded in their feet producing severe wounds. They will grab hot coals without flinching produce severe hand burns, or inflict deep gashes that become infected. Under a constant barrage of attacks from sharp objects, searing heat, and extreme stress, the human body is never allowed to heal itself. Mutilation of the fingers and feet occurs. Open wounds become infected and gangrene develops requiring the amputation of the extremity. But the process only continues as a new part of the human body comes into direct contact with the physical world.2

While reading and reflecting on the account of Dr. Paul Brand's discoveries into the causes and cures of the illness, I realized how symbolic the physical progression of leprosy is to our spiritual lives. For me, leprosy came to represent our sinful state. Early in life we do not know that we our become infected. Untreated the disease invades our soul and we become numb to our spiritual affliction. We do things that produce emotional and psychological harm. We even allow others to abuse us. But we do not feel the spiritual pain. We see the devastating consequences in our lives but our soul has become numb to the pain that touches the heart of God. So, we continue to repeat our destructive patterns of behavior. We continue suffer at the hands of others. Then the psychological and emotional wounds become infected producing personality deformities. We lose our ability to engage in meaningful relationships. Friendships become estranged by the ugly distortions of our personality. People kept their distance. We feel rejected and alone. 

We attempt to "cure" ourselves by finding new friends. We then hide behind masks. We present smiling happy faces in public hoping that people will not see the damaged personality concealed by the façade. If our deformities become exposed, we break off the relationship and seek out new ones. We do not allow anyone to become too close or see the person for who we are.

I wonder how long the Galilean leper and Naaman tired to hide their affliction. I wonder how long it took before they finally came to grips with the severity of their illness. It could have been years before their physical condition was publicly exposed. Naaman was more fortunate than the Galilean leper; he did not lose his job, his family, or his social prestige. Maybe that is why he had a more difficult time accepting the prescription. He was not at the point of absolute desperation.

The major premise of Alcoholics Anonymous is that an alcoholic cannot begin the recovery process until they reach bottom. Until they accept the reality that they are an alcoholic and powerless or the drug, they will never be able to stop the destructive pattern of behavior. It would not have taken the Galilean leper near as long to come to that point as Naaman. Banished from his home, begging every day for food, unemployed, rejected and feared by everyone, the Galilean leper would soon become desperate for a cure.

We do not know how he heard about Jesus or what he had heard. We do not know if he understood who Jesus was. We do know that when he finally found the wandering rabbi, he fell to the ground and pleaded to be made clean. He could no longer deny his physical condition. His only hope of a cure resided with the teacher from Galilee.

Presbyterians do not readily identify with the Galilean leper. We are a proud and proper lot. We do not grovel on the ground for anyone. We enjoy reading the book "I'm OK, Your OK," to Jonathan Edwards' sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." But as the British preacher, Martyn Lloyd Jones once said "...it is a spiritual necessity to have a sense of sin."3 Dr Jones continued by outlining the difference between seeking God for help, comfort, or advice and seeking God for salvation. The former approaches the divine with reservations and expectations, much like the proud Naaman. This person assumes that God will perform according to his set of expectations. The person who seeks God for salvation abandons all vain attempts to dictate her terms to God. The seeker casts herself at the feet of Christ knowing that unless he is wiling, she has no hope.
 

 MOVING FROM DOUBT TO FAITH

For post-resurrection people, the qualifying statement, "If you are willing," seems to convey elements of the same doubt and mistrust expressed by Naaman. But isn't that true of all of us. We approach God in faith but we still wonder, not about his capability but about his amenability. Is God really willing to salvage the wreckage of our lives? Is he really willing to put back the pieces and rebuild?

Just as these thoughts and others were going through his mind, Jesus reached out and touched the man saying be clean. For the Galilean leper the touch may have been more important than the words.

The young man came to the missionary hospital with claw-like hands and distorted facial features, typical of the crippling disease. Dr. Brand tried to explain in his broken Tamli dialect that he could not only halt the progress of the disease and restore at least partial movement to the man's hand but little could be done to reverse the damage to his face. Uncomfortable with this partially bad news, the surgeon tried to lighten the news by touching the man's shoulder and joking a bit. He said with a wink, "Besides your face is not so bad and it shouldn't get any worse if you take the medication. After all, we men don't have to worry so much about faces. It's the women who fret over every bump and wrinkle." Expecting a smile, the missionary was stunned when the young man began to shake with muffled sobs.

Fearing that he had offended the young man, Dr. Brand turned to an assistant and asked her in English to find out if he understood what he had said. After comforting the man, the assistant quizzed him and discovered that the reason for his tears. She reported to the doctor that the man was crying because he put his hand on his shoulder. Until he came to this missionary hospital, no one had touched him in years.4

Words are cheap but our touch of love requires a price. We must offer to another person our personal affection and affirmation. The warmth of another hand conveys empathy and acceptance. You can disguise your emotions behind carefully selected words but you cannot conceal your feelings for another when one hand grips another. Through our hands, God offers his love.

Over the years, the Church has done a poor job of accepting people who do not measure up to a certain moral standard. We have treated them as if they were social lepers. We have withheld our friendship, our acceptance, and love. Instead of loving the sinner but hating the sin, we have shown distain for both. We are now paying a heavy price for our judgmental attitude as those who have been rejected for so long demand that we not only accept them but also affirm their sexual aberrations. They are forcing their demands and their lifestyle into every aspect of our society. While the Church is called to demonstrate a standard of morality that honors fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness, we are also called to accept everyone and offer the loving touch of forgiveness and grace. For only by offering our unconditional love, will each person come to know the saving and life giving power of God.

The Galilean leper discovered that power on bended knee at the feet of Jesus. Who knows where others will discover it, if we are willing to offer the touch of love and grace.



1. The Gospel of Mark. Edited by Barclay, William, lecturer in the University of Glasgow. The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed., Mk 2:1. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 2000, c1975. 

2. Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, The Gift Nobody Wants, (HarperPerennial: Zondervan, 1993), pp.94-102.

3. R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, (Westchester IL: Crossway Books, 1989), p. 55.

4. Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, The Gift Nobody Wants, p. 106
 


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