Touch

12 February 2012
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 6C (RCL)

1 Kings 5;1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Illness has several components. In our modern world view, we think of illness primarily as a biological process. We think of leprosy as Hansen’s disease, a bacterial infection that causes skin sores. It is now treatable with antibiotics (though the treatment can take time). We tend not to think of the social and personal aspects of disease, let alone spiritual. But just ask anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer or HIV about how their friends responded to the diagnosis, and you will quickly discover that disease has a social component. All of a sudden, friends no longer know how to carry on a conversation. Twenty years ago, anyone diagnosed with AIDS became an instant social pariah.

In cultures without the forensic understanding of persons and diseases, the social aspect tends to predominate the understanding of illness. Treatment, rather than by drugs, happens through social milieux. Touch (anointing), speech, prayer, incantations, all connect the ill person to some social system. Even the preparation of herbal medicine involves the medicine man and a whole economy of care. We have just hidden those aspects of care behind insurance dollars.

In two of the readings today, we have stories of the healing of a leper. Namaan the Syrian was an officer in the Syrian army. Clearly, the Syrians didn’t treat leprosy in the same way the Israelites did. He would have been an outcast in Israel (or at least excluded from the ceremonial meal at the king’s table). And Elisha’s treatment of Namaan has nothing to do with the biological process. Elisha tells Namaan to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Joshua (the names Joshua and Elisha are synonyms — Joshua means “Yahweh saves” and Elisha means “God saves”) had led the Children of Israel across the Jordan on their way into the promised land. By washing in the Jordan, Namaan becomes an Israelite. If we read the story further, we would know that he asks for several mule-loads worth of the land of Israel, so that he may sacrifice to Yahweh, even in Syria. The “cure” restores him to community — the community of Israel. He becomes a better Israelite that Ahab.

In the story in the Gospel, Jesus touches the leper to heal him. Anyone who touched a leper became a leper, until seven days had passed, and he showed himself to the priest. Jesus does not show himself to the priest until the end of Mark’s Gospel. For Mark, Jesus (the name also transliterates “Joshua”) is a leper for the course of the Gospel. Jesus spends the whole Gospel of Mark building a community of the misfits, outcasts and sinners — gathering them to table.

In the 1980’s, many AIDS patients never received a touch without a latex glove. Isolation became a huge component of the disease. Who are the “untouchables” today, and how might we touch them?

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