Deserted places

Epiphany 6B (RCL)
2 Kings 5:1-15
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

This story of healing is very strange. Jesus feels compassion for the man with leprosy, and heals him with a touch. That makes Jesus unclean. Then after healing the man, Jesus “snorts in anger at him and immediately casts him out and says to him, ‘See to it that you say nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest and offer concerning your cleansing the things arranged by Moses as a testimony to them.'” The word that the NRSV translates ‘sternly warning’ is the word used for horses snorting, and when applied to humans means to snort in anger. Why is Jesus angry at the man?

Jesus comes away from the encounter himself unclean, even though he sends the man to the priest to be declared clean. We are told that Jesus, because of the man’s testimony, can no longer enter towns openly, but instead stays out in ‘desert places.’ Desert places are where the action is in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus crosses the sea twice into desert places, and there feeds two multitudes, one 5000 people and one 4000. Maybe he is angry with the man because he wants to go back into settled places, into the town, into the temple. For Jesus, God and God’s intentions for the world are to be discovered in desert places.

Naaman, the Syrian, also has leprosy. He desires to be healed (is there a little bit of irony here, that he is a commander in the Syrian Army — in Israel, he would be outside the camp, not the general). A slave girl taken captive in Israel, a nobody, knows how he can be cleansed. The King of Aram make the whole thing into an international incident. The King of Israel tears his robes when he learns that he is expected to cure Naaman’s leprosy. Finally, word gets to Elisha. Naaman come to the dwelling of Elisha, outside the city, outside the structures of society (a prophet doesn’t live at the Temple). Naaman is angry that God hasn’t done something more impressive through the prophet. Finally, his servant convinces him that he should try, and Naaman “is baptized seven times” (LXX) in the Jordan, and is made clean.

The Jordan, of course, is in the wilderness. The people crossed it to enter the promised land. Elijah crossed it on dry ground on his way out into the wilderness to be taken up by the chariots of God. Elisha crossed it on dry ground on his way back in. John baptized in the Jordan, and after Jesus’ baptism, he was driven out into the wilderness for forty days.

Many people come to Jesus out in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place where community can be structure by trial and error. One is not constrained by existing social forms and structures. That’s why the hermits went into the wild places. They could re-create themselves, and recreate community.

It’s interesting that in the midst of our current economic crisis, we are looking to the same old structures to solve the problem. Congress, the Treasury, the President, Wall Street — these are going to save us. Jesus might be angry at us wanting to go back into existing structures. What would it look like to form a different kind of economy? What wild places should we try inhabiting?

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