So this morning we have an incredibly familiar story. I don’t know about you, but I first heard it in primary school, and on and off ever since. But I think it’s some time since I last looked at it seriously – I’m fairly sure I’ve never preached on it – so decided it was time to do so again and see what we can learn from it about two thousand eight hundred years or so later.
Naaman was an important person. He was a high mucky-muck, a General, in the King of Syria’s army. Our version says “Aram”, which was part of modern-day Syria, I think, but same difference. And Israel and Syria then, as today, didn’t get on any too well, and there had been raiding parties on both sides – honestly, you could be reading today’s paper, not the Bible, couldn’t you? Anyway, a small girl had been among those seized, and was now being a maidservant to Naaman’s wife. Naaman would have had it good, but for one thing – he had leprosy.
I don’t think, mind you, it was what we know as leprosy today, which is more properly called Hansen’s disease. That wasn’t to reach the area for another five hundred years or so, when it was brought back from India by Alexander the Great. Naaman’s trouble seems to have been a kind of fungal disease called tzaraath that could affect houses and linen as well as people; we don’t know exactly what it was, but it seems to have been regarded, if you were Jewish, as a physical manifestation of some kind of underlying spiritual unease.
Naaman, who wasn’t Jewish, wouldn’t have been as excluded from society as, say, the leper in our Gospel reading was. If you were Jewish, you had to tear your clothes, cover your face, and live in exile outside the town, calling a warning if anybody got too near. And if and when you got better, there was a very strict cleaning ritual you had to undergo with the priests before you could go back into society – you couldn’t just say “I’m better!” and carry on. But Naaman, as a Syrian, was exempt from all that. Nevertheless, his condition was affecting his career and his quality of life in general. But how, how, could he get better?
And then the little slave-girl says to her mistress one day: “Why doesn’t the Master go to Samaria and visit the prophet there? He could cure him in a minute!”
I don’t know how impressed the missus was with that, but when you are desperate.... and they were desperate. So Naaman goes and sees his king, who readily gives him permission to go, and gives him a letter of introduction to the King of Israel, and quite a lot of money and treasure to be used in payment or bribes where necessary.
The King of Israel, who was called Jehoram, is, of course, utterly horrified! “What does he think he’s playing at?” he asks. “I reckon it’s just a scheme to pick a fight with me. I can’t cure his man, so then he’ll feel at liberty to attack me!” and he tore his clothes which, back then, was a sign of strong emotion. I suppose it’s better than throwing plates around.
However, Elisha gets to hear of it and sends to the king to say “Stop fussing! Send the man to me and I’ll deal with him.” So Naaman and his retinue trek into Samaria, to Elisha’s home, and when they get there, Elisha sends a servant out with the message, “Please sir, my master says to go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and you’ll be clean.”
Naaman is a bit shattered by this. “Well!” he says, “You’d have thought that at least the prophet would come out and pray over me, not just send a message through his servant. And why should I wash in the Jordan, anyway? Perfectly good rivers at home, if not better!”
But then his servant – servants do seem to play a huge part in this story, don’t they – says to him, “Well, look, Master, if he’d asked you to go and do something difficult or expensive, you’d have done it, wouldn’t you? Why not try washing it the Jordan. It can’t do any harm, after all.”
So, still grumbling, Naaman trundles off and washes himself seven times in the Jordan, and lo and behold, he is clean. No sign of the disease at all. His skin and flesh are completely restored, better than ever – no more wrinkles, even. He looks like a lad again.
He’s thrilled, as you can imagine, and rushes back to Elisha’s house and offers him all the treasure he’s brought with him. Elisha says “Thanks, but no thanks”, and Naaman says, “Well, if you really mean it, may I have a couple of wheelbarrowsful of earth as I plan to worship your God from now on.”
That may sound a little strange to our ears, but back in the day, who you worshipped very much depended on where you lived; that’s why, of course, Naaman would be expected to go to the House of Rimmon, his local god, when he went home (and, as he explains rather earnestly to Elisha in the bit of the story we didn’t read, he doesn’t actually plan to worship Rimmon any more, but he does need to accompany the King there when he does). Anyway, the point of the lorryload of earth is so that he has part of Samaria with him, presumably so that the God of Samaria feels at home.... well, it was a nice thought, anyway! We wouldn’t do it, believing that God is at home anywhere, but back in the Iron Age, their view of God was a bit different!
And, just to round off the story, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, decides that even if Elisha is going to let a young fortune go without visible regret, he certainly isn’t, so he rushes after Naaman and says, “Oh, we’ve got some visitors coming – prophets, they are. Could we have some money to give them, please?” Naaman, still delighted, says “Yes, of course”, and hands some over.... but, of course, Elisha knows all about it and when Gehazi gets home he accuses him, and says that as he wants Naaman’s stuff so badly, he can have the tzaraath that went with it, too. And Gehazi’s skin becomes covered with tzaraath then and there.
Well yes, but this was back in the Iron Age, nearly three thousand years ago. What has it to say to us today? We don’t exclude people because of their illnesses. Do we? From what Stephen was saying to us last Sunday*, I rather think we do, a bit. And there are other reasons people get excluded, too. Or not exactly excluded, that’s not quite the word I want here, but made to feel different.
The author Robin McKinley calls it “Othering”, and she has this to say about it: “I have a major thing about what I call ‘Othering’. I’ve talked about it before in . . . terms of being a professional writer, some of whose readers more or less, or consciously or unconsciously, or worshipfully or hostilely, Other her: make her something Other than what they are themselves, merely because she has written a book or books that the readers respond to in some way they find disturbing or inspiring. I don’t like being Othered. You can admire (or despise) someone without losing sight of the fact that they’re human just like you. Excessive admiration makes me twitchy . . . and you wouldn’t believe some of the things that people who haven’t liked one or another of my books give themselves permission to say or write to me. If they got it that I was a person just like them they wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t."**
I think we do this a lot to people, don’t we. We do it to ministers – I was thinking that when I was making myself comfortable before the service; we have three loos here: men, women and ministers! And I have heard people say “Oh, you mustn’t criticise the minister!” as if they were something other than human. They aren’t. They’ve just had more training than most of us!
We do it to celebrities of one kind or another – and indeed to people whose only claim to fame is that they are different. Naaman was different. He was a Syrian. He had tzaraath. I think that’s why he was so upset that Elisha left him standing outside the door and just sent a servant out with a message. Was he being treated differently as he was a foreigner? Would Elisha have done the same to a local person?
It’s an attitude that has come down through history, hasn’t it. Shakespeare knew all about it, and has Shylock say: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?”
Shylock felt himself Othered. People didn’t consider him quite human because he was Jewish. Sometimes people maybe don’t consider us quite human because we’re Christian believers. Or maybe it’s we who find it difficult to consider people quite human because they aren’t, because they are Muslim or something like that. I remember when, as quite a small girl, I was invited to lunch in the holidays with a schoolfriend, and my mother being terribly anxious lest I comment on the food, as it was a Friday and we would undoubtedly be served fish. Quite why she thought I would, when I liked fish, I can’t imagine – and anyway, by then Vatican II had happened, and fish wasn’t served. But it turned these people into Others, strange people who ate fish on Fridays because they had to, not because they wanted to.
One of my friends has recently been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome. How easy it would be to Other her, make her into something less than human, because of her illness. Yet she’s the same friend I know and love, she hasn’t changed just because some doctors have stuck a label on her. Another friend recently came out as a Lesbian. Again, all too easy to Other her, to only be aware of this particular aspect of her, but again, she didn’t suddenly change overnight – she is still the same person she was before she came out.
We all do it – perhaps especially in today’s “celebrity culture”. We ask intrusive questions of our “celebrities”, never stopping to think how we should like it if we were asked similar questions by strangers. We focus on just the one aspect of their personality. We feel free to write rude e-mails to people whom we contact via their website. I wonder, in fact, if the current phenomenon of Twitter, where certain celebrities, notably Stephen Fry, update us on their doings as though they were sending a text message, isn’t an unconscious effort on their part to avoid being Othered. Not all slebs – some are doing it to boost their celebrity status, but I think Stephen Fry, who also, famously, has bi-polar, wants to be seen as human like everybody else.
But Jesus never treats anybody as Other. Jesus holds out his hands to the leper: “Of course I want to heal you: be clean!” As he holds out his hands to us. And as we need to hold out our hands to our neighbours, whoever they are. Jesus sees everybody as human, and we need to try to do the same. To see everybody, no matter who they are, as a human being, just like us. As a human being for whom Christ died. Amen.
* The Revd Stephen Penrose had been speaking about his work with people living with HIV/Aids.
** Quoted with permission from http://robinmckinleysblog.com/
Oberstdorf as Austria, 22 May
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