Last Sunday’s gospel lesson impressed upon us the scope of Jesus’ ministry and mission,
and the power of the good news of His preaching and healing to impact the lives of all who flocked to hear the message of forgiveness and presence of God’s new reign. With today’s lesson there is no relenting in the intensity and success of that mission, whose fast-paced movement by now has developed a kind of rhythm.
In the final words of last Sunday’s lesson, we heard that Jesus’ mission encompassed all of Galilee and drew the whole world to Jesus’ doorstep. But today, once again much like in the case of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:29), we are drawn back to the particular, to the impact of Jesus’ healing power upon the life of one individual. In fact, the whole movement of today’s lesson mirrors that of last Sunday’s verses, Mark 1:29-39. Whereas that lesson began with the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and ended with reference to Jesus’ mission throughout the whole of Galilee, this lesson begins with the healing of a person with leprosy and ends with reference to the spread of Jesus’ fame and people coming to Him from “everywhere.”
The clear effect of the progression of these texts is to proclaim the power of the good news, present from the very beginning in Jesus’ mission and ministry. Whereas in the other synoptic gospels this story needs some time to work its way out, in Mark this power has its “epiphany” already in Mark’s unique portrayal of the ministry and preaching of John the Baptist. When Jesus announces the “kingdom of God” has already come near and the reign of God is upon us in this good news, His preaching compounds and strengthens that message. “Immediately,” (to use Mark’s favorite word) the powers that be are engaged. Jesus’ healing and casting out of demons acknowledge His authority and power as something to be reckoned with. In Jesus’ presence lives will be changed. But as the story progresses, beginning especially in last Sunday’s lesson, there are signs that such power will not go unchallenged. The new and the old are bound to clash; the new will not be contained by the old. That impending clash becomes more explicit in Mark 2:1-12 and 2:13-22, but it already breathes beneath the surface in this Sunday’s lesson.
The leper’s arrival and request press the issues of the good news squarely: “If you are willing, you have the power to make me clean” (1:40; my translation). The NRSV’s “if you choose, you can…” disguises and softens Mark’s loaded words of “will” and “power.” Here, we are invited to face the issue of how Jesus will address the matter of “clean and unclean” in the particular realities of this world. That particularity is clear in the leper’s question, which is not about cleansing and power in general, but about the power to make “me” clean. Ultimately, the issue of the good news is whether it has the power to effect change in my life and yours.
The leper’s question recognizes that if there is to be healing, it will be dependent on a God who “wills” that it be so. The “if” in his question leaves that matter provocatively up in the air. As such his words remind us that hearing the arrival of this Jesus as good news is contingent on finding in him the epiphany of a God who actually “wills” that this healing be so. But his words also recognize that such actuality takes more than “will.” The will to cleanse remains only a possibility until it meets the appearance of One who has the “power” to deliver on the promise of that will. This issue of power is central, for it stands both at the beginning and end of this lesson, though it is unfortunately disguised in the English translations. It is here in the leper’s request (verse 40). It is there again in verse 45, where strangely and surprisingly we hear that the successful spread of the word about Jesus means He no longer “has the power” (NRSV, “could”) to go around “openly.” Instead, He must stay in secret in the wilderness. (Literally, he does not have the ability for “epiphany”).
Of course these matters of power will ultimately move this story to the cross. But for now, Jesus’ immediate answer is clear. Jesus is moved with compassion. He reaches out, touches the leper, and says, “I am willing.” If there is any question of the requisite power to cleanse, it is avoided and leapt over. The “I will” becomes immediate reality in Jesus’ command: “Be made clean” (Mark 1:41-42).
In Jesus, “I will” is the power of the good news to change lives and the message of Epiphany; that in Jesus this will and power of God is clearly revealed. Boundaries are crossed; issues of power are addressed; unclean becomes clean; the sick become whole. And Jesus will get into trouble for this!
The trouble is perhaps suggested in the refusal of this good news to be restrained, even by Jesus’ own command. Jesus gives the former leper two commands, “See that you don’t tell anyone,” and “Go show yourself to the priest,” neither of which he obeys. Instead, this man goes out and “preaches” the “word” mightily (Greek: polla; literally, “in many words”). And his preaching is effective, so much so that Jesus becomes hampered in His own ministry (Mark 1:45).
This epiphany story draws us into a number of tensions of discipleship and faith. The leper’s story makes clear that God’s will in Jesus to touch, to cleanse, and to make whole is not just imagination or wish. Instead, it is promise that has the power to touch the particularity of lives, broken and suffering from the powers of the unclean in this world. It also makes clear that the proclamation of this good news has the power, even today, to burst the boundaries of constraint that would keep this good word from being heard. The story of this Jesus will get out!
But tucked within this story, even so close to the beginning of Mark’s good news, is the impending approach of a journey eventually leading to the cross. In these few short verses, this story moves from Jesus’ “power” to His “lack of power.” The story moves from open proclamation of this healing, to Jesus’ inability because of it to no longer go about openly, resulting in His return to the wilderness. However, people still flock to Him in the “wilderness,” inviting us to look back in this story and recall a similar report about John the Baptist. But these words also point us ahead to Mark 9:2-9, next Sunday’s lesson for the last Sunday of Epiphany, traditionally known as Transfiguration Sunday.
The text this week centers on a common theme: the faith of a servant acted out on foreign soil.
Naaman, at the outset of the story, is not the unexpected one with great faith. The narrator chooses to describe him differently. Instead, he is the commander of the army of Syria. He is a “great man.”
Subsequently, the text reads that through Naaman the “LORD had given victory to Aram.” This may come as a surprise to some readers, yet it is consonant with Israelite theology. Because Israel confessed their God as the one true God, supreme over all other gods, the only way to explain a defeat like the one suffered at the hands of the Arameans (1 Kings 22) was to interpret it as God’s will. Thus, the opening declaration is not so much a statement about Naaman’s status before God (i.e., he was favored by God), as it is a reflection of the theological worldview of Israel. To be sure, what happens to Naaman at the end of the story is not the result of his favored status before God at the beginning of the story. Instead, it is the result of the faith exhibited by an unnamed young girl. At the beginning of the story, Naaman is portrayed as a powerful military leader, unstoppable on the battlefield. In the last line of verse 1, however, the narrator introduces the point of tension in the story: “Although he was a great warrior, he was a leper.” Naaman was able to “save” his people from foreign threats, but he could not save himself from leprosy.
The next figure introduced into the story is the antithesis of Naaman. Naaman was described as a “great man,” but in verse 2, we encounter a “young woman.” He has a name, she does not. He was a great warrior, she was a captive. He lived a life that demanded respect, she was a servant. Yet despite being on foreign soil, and despite being a captive of war, she had the one thing that could rid Naaman of the condition that plagued him. The unnamed woman who had been delivered into the hands of the Arameans speaks of this prophet in Samaria who could deliver him from leprosy.
Beginning in verse 4, the conversation and concern present within an Aramean household (Naaman, his wife, and their servant girl) shifts to the international and political realm. Naaman tells his king, the king prepares letters for the king of Israel (presumably Jehoram), and considerable wealth is gathered in an effort to buy the favor of the Israelite king.
Diplomatic correspondence between kings in the Ancient Near East was not unusual. In letters exchanged between Hebrew and Aramaic parties, the opening line of the main section typically began, “And now.”1 In 2 Kings 5:6, the opening line of the letter actually reads, “And now,” according to the Hebrew text. (The NRSV chooses to omit this word.)
It is worth noting that the narrator goes into great detail to depict this correspondence between the two kings. The response of the king of Israel suggests that such a letter carried with it great weight and significant political ramifications if such a request was not met. But the question remains: why would the narrator highlight the exchange between these characters? Some might argue it was done simply “to tell the story,” however, it is also possible that the narrator has drawn attention to the kings intentionally.
In this story, there has been a building of “power structures.” The unnamed captive Israelite woman speaks to Naaman’s wife. Naaman’s wife speaks to Naaman. Naaman speaks to the Aramean king. And now the Aramean king writes to the Israelite king asking that Naaman be healed. It would appear that the Israelite king is at the “apex” of the power structure. Each conversation has led to this final conversation with him. And yet the king himself declares, “Am I God to give death or life?” The one with the power not only confesses that he is powerless, but equally shocking, appears unaware of what everyone else in the story knows; that there is a prophet, a man of God, in his land who can heal leprosy.
Elisha hears of the king’s anguish and gives the king an order, instructing him to send Naaman to him (suggesting who really has the power in this story). Naaman appears at Elisha’s house, and instead of coming out to greet the “great warrior” and his entourage, Elisha sends out a messenger with instructions. Rather than follow these instructions though, Naaman is angered by Elisha’s apparently flippant response. It seems that Naaman wants a grand theatrical event, complete with shouts to the deity and a little “hocus pocus.” After all, he is the “great warrior.” He wants the attention demanded of such a great man. Yet the one with power is not Naaman. Contrary to his own self-perception, it is Elisha. So angered is Naaman by Elisha’s response, or lack thereof, that Naaman prepares to return home.
Finally, the narrator returns to the theme present at the beginning: the faith of a servant acted out on foreign soil. It was the faith of a servant girl that started this venture. Now, it is the faith of Naaman’s servants that ensures its completion. They chastise Naaman for his pride and remind him that had the requirement been a difficult task, he surely would have done it. Naaman consents and does “according to the word of the man of God.” In effect, Naaman concedes that he does not have the power to end his leprosy. At long last, Naaman exhibits a faith that is acted out on foreign soil, just like the young Israelite woman in his household and the servants with him. His cleansing comes not as a result of his power, but out of his willingness to believe.
1 Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, “Some Notes on Aramaic Epistolography,” JBL 93 (1974): 201-25 and Dennis Pardee, “An Overview of Ancient Hebrew Epistolography,” JBL 97 (1978): 321-346.
If you’re anything like me, you are growing tired of seeing biblical stories, characters, and images used as metaphors in the popular culture.
Or should I say misused. The next time I hear the little school/big school football upset described in terms of “David vs. Goliath,” I might just seize up. Read 1 Samuel 17 again sometime and you’ll get the point. Big as he was, poor Goliath never had a chance. He was going up not against little David, but against the Lord of Hosts, God of the armies of Israel, and it was the Lord who did all the doing in that contest, through little David. The David and Goliath metaphor is more often than not taken in exactly the wrong sense. And while the metaphorical usage of biblical material is a cause of some distress from time to time, the need for metaphors is clear and worthy of some attention when we think about the task of preaching.
Ours is a culture that is obsessed with finding metaphors for life; what it is all about, what its meaning is, how it is best and most fully to be lived. And the wide world of sports provides ample grist for the metaphorical mill. Google some combination of “sports,” “life” and “metaphor,” and you’ll be overwhelmed with sites and quotations to check. “Sport is a metaphor for life,” be it baseball, football, golf, or presumably even water polo. Sports “teach lessons” about personal conduct, trial, and adversity, “for life’s most difficult moments,” thereby offering “preparation for life.” One site even extends the claim beyond the merely metaphorical, “The idea is that sports aren’t a metaphor for life, sports are life.” While the story of David and Goliath may oft be a misunderstood metaphor, the need for ways to think about the meaning of “life, the universe and everything” is alive in our culture, in our world, and very much in our churches.
Paul seems to have anticipated the need for and the usefulness of metaphor. He uses sports very effectively when thinking about the spiritual life and the calling of the child of God. Here are some examples where Paul uses the language of athletics:
Each of these examples is taken from Paul’s correspondence to his protégé Timothy. While Paul’s sports metaphors are not limited to 1-2 Timothy (cf. Philippians 3:12-16), he frequently offered his encouragement to Timothy with metaphors and contrasts drawn from the arena of…well, of the arena. In Paul the struggles that come with the work of the apostle are brought to bear in the imagery of athletic contest; compete, run the race until you’ve crossed the finish line, fight, struggle, persevere. These are Paul’s metaphors of encouragement for his disciple in apostleship.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 is another example of Paul’s sports theology at work. Paul uses two metaphors here, one of running the race and the other of boxing. He urges a similar commitment to that of the athlete; exercising self-control and “punishing” the body; in those who hope to receive an “imperishable” victory-wreath. There might be some temptation to read and then preach these metaphors as exhortations to upright and committed Christian living. Certainly the language and imagery lends itself well to this reading. But in the broader context, both of 1 Corinthians 9 and of Paul’s references to the “imperishable” wreath or crown, this striving seems to be something different.
Following Paul’s description of the calling and appearance of an apostle in 9:16-23, the urging to run and box with commitment and purpose is striking. Paul has described the course which he has run, which has included a fair share of “congregational alligators.” The work of the apostle is not easy, according to Paul, but in the face of adversity and controversy he has “run the race in such a way as to win it.” This, Paul urges in all who share in the work of the gospel; Timothy, me, you, and those to whom you proclaim Christ crucified. Run the race in such a way that you may win it. Do not flag or fail, “so that after proclaiming to others” you yourself “should not be disqualified.” Preach, or be damned.
In sharp contrast to the exhortation to general righteous Christian living, this passage may also seem like a text that is really for the insider, the professional disciple, i.e. for you, the preacher. On one level, it is. The office of ministry is not always an easy space to occupy; the stole not always a comfortable fit. There will be times of struggle, of controversy and, yes, even suffering for the parish worker. This is one manifestation of what Luther called anfechtungen, the trials, sufferings, and temptations that are often a mark of service to Christ. For those called to leadership in the church, Paul offers this exhortation: run-on, fight-on, preach-, teach- and visit-on.
But in another and equally important way, this encouragement to strive, train, learn, grow, and exercise, is a call to everyone who runs in the Way, for all who are in relationship with Christ Jesus. As Paul puts it, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete…?” The gospel is not the sole purview of the clergy; rather it is for all to share in. All are to run this race, and all of us are encouraged to run and box with heart.
One final word about Paul’s use of sports metaphors in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul talks about the victory wreath that is the prize for which we run our race. It is crucial both to understand and to preach this “wreath” for what it actually is. The wreath itself is not one’s own resurrection or prize of eternal life. Neither is the wreath one’s own glory. Rather it is the faith and the salvation of those to whom you proclaim the gospel. In almost every case where Paul speaks of the wreath or crown, he is talking about “you” to whom he has preached the gospel and who have come to believe (cf. Philippians 2:16, 4:1).
The proclamation of the gospel, be it public or private, in front of an audience or one-to-one, can be difficult. As Paul says elsewhere it may seem like foolishness and folly to many who hear it, and this will, from time to time, reflect back on we who proclaim it. But this is our imperishable wreath, the life and salvation of those for whom and with whom we run this race. “So [let us] not run aimlessly…so that after proclaiming to others [we ourselves] should not be disqualified.”