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Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: February 12, 2006.

2 Kings 5:1-14

Psalm 30

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Mark 1:40-45

First Reading

2 Kings 5:1-14 is the first of three scenes in the story of Naaman and Elisha, which comprises all of chapter 5. Scene 1 is Naaman's healing. Scene 2, following our reading, details Naaman's conversion. Scene 3 tells the story of Gehazi's betrayal and punishment.

Perhaps the first exegetical point to make is that this is an example of biblical comedy at its best. While disease of any kind is never a laughing matter, the comedic nature of the chapter pokes fun at the powerful (Naaman and the two kings), unmasking human pretension and greed by using the least likely heroes. A slave girl, a general's servant, and an inferior river move God's activity along. The prophet Elisha is ignored by the powerful and reciprocates by not even coming out to meet Naaman. That the King of Samaria is undone by Naaman's approach is made all the more humorous when we note that, in the preceding material, Elisha has been busily working miracles for some time.

The church at Corinth is reveling in the freedom of Christ--at least that is the way they see things. Paul offers correction to their sense that this freedom is license to do as they please. Paul, in the earlier section of the letter, speaks more of how freedom in Christ is both freedom from the powers that enslave and freedom for loving and serving as Christ has done. Paul's metaphors of athletic endeavors--boxing and running a race--illustrate that the freedom he speaks of still has direction, forward movement. A do-as-I-please freedom makes for boxers that hit nothing and runners who never find the finish line. We have been freed from false futures in order that we might invest all our energy, all our lives, into the future prepared for us in Christ.

The Gospel reading begins a series of stories that Donald Juel says all tell us that Jesus is a "transgressor of boundaries" (Mark [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990], 23). The leper here approaches--first boundary crossed, for he should be keeping his distance. Mark then clearly tells us that Jesus "touched him." Jesus reaches across the boundary against touching a leper forged by Leviticus 13-14. The "Messianic secret" so prominent in Mark's Gospel erupts as Jesus instructs the man to tell no one but, instead, to show himself to the priest. This action is necessary for full healing. The priest needs to declare the leper clean so that he can return to life in the community. How to explain the secrecy Jesus asks for is the subject of many a commentary. It seems enough here to note that the leper can't contain himself, ignoring Jesus' command out of his pure--now unbounded--joy. We get some hint that the publicity Jesus was trying to avoid restricts his ability to go where he needs to go and brings scores of people seeking the same boundary-crossing health as the leper. Conflict with those who keep track of such boundaries is certain.

Pastoral Reflection

Naaman's bluster, his mountain of goods, his status and power, always indict me. Like many of us who live in the affluence and success of our little worlds, Naaman is sure that he can buy whatever he wants, even healing. If it isn't for sale, surely our might, our status, our connections will insure that we get what we want.

This story cuts Naaman's bluster down to size at every turn. First, a slave girl, an Israelite stolen from her home, shows unexpected and unsolicited kindness by telling the general's household about the great prophet who has been performing all kinds of miraculous deeds. He could cure Naaman. Naaman is too proud or important to seek out the humble prophet. He pursues political connections to a dead end, as the vassal-king of Samaria rends his clothes in helplessness. The forgotten prophet invites Naaman to come. Elisha slights Naaman again by not even bothering to meet him and telling him to simply take a bath in a sorry excuse of a river named Jordan. Naaman's tantrum shows how he clings to his trappings. Again, a slave, a mere servant, rescues him. The mighty are brought low, humiliated by God through the lowest of people.

Then comes the healing. In the cleansing waters that John used to baptize Jesus, Naaman is not just made new (like a baby) but is humbled. The preacher could press on in the story to include his curious conversion. The Syrian returns home with a piece of Israel, where a true God dwells. This leper can't help offering praise any more than the one Jesus encounters in the Mark text for the day; both have had an epiphany.

Boxers who hit nothing and runners who never cross a finish line: what wonderful metaphors for the church of our day. Claiming the "cheap grace" that makes us think that we are free to do what we please as long as we don't hurt anybody else, or knowing that God of course will always forgive, we live lives that look just like everybody else's. Christ "in my heart" often ends up meaning that Christ makes no appearance in my living.

Paul reminds Christians that there is a future that we are drawn into that is to be an all-consuming obsession. Bob Dylan wrote a gospel song called "Gotta Serve Somebody." Paul knows that life comes when that somebody is Christ alone and above all.

Boundaries abound in our world. You can find them all over: just look at the streets of any city, the homes of your parishioners, your own history of broken relationships, prejudice, and self-righteousness. That Jesus comes to smash these boundaries between clean and unclean, leper and community, life and death, is good news if you're on the outs. It is bad news if you like the perceived safety and comfort of the boundaries. The boundary between heaven and earth is rent at the beginning of Mark's Gospel as Jesus is baptized. The boundary between holy and unholy is torn apart as Jesus dies. Jesus is revealed as the one who bridges the distance with his gracious touch.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:preaching
Author:Olson, Timothy V.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2005
Previous Article:Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: February 5, 2006.
Next Article:Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany: February 19, 2006.

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