Sunday, February 15, 2009


In my grandparents' house, a small cottage high up on the hill in Fishguard, overlooking the harbor, there used to be a small framed copy of a watercolor that (to be honest) few people outside of Wales have ever heard of. It was entitled "Salem," and depicted an old woman in traditional Welsh dress leaving a chapel, clutching her Bible. Her face is hard and grim, and the scene itself is grimmer - for it shows the rigors of Welsh puritan religious nonconformity that was at its peak at the end of the nineteenth century. No joy, no warmth - just a duty to God whether one liked it or not.

The painting was so popular that it spawned tens of thousands of prints, but its popularity was less to do with it being a piece of rustic nostalgia - and more to do with its notoriety. Because the belief grew that the face of the devil himself could be seen in the picture.

As a young child I would stare at this scene for what seemed like hours, but could never see that face. And my grandfather would point at the picture and then at me and say in Welsh, "Gofal! Mae'n gwylio!" ("Be careful! He's watching you!") But child psychology was never his strong point.

It was years later that I returned to this painting, this time the original, and saw the face for the very first time. And should you ever look upon this scene I will not spoil it for you by giving away the secrets of the artist. But the face is there, all right - and so clear and obvious that now every time I see this painting it is the first thing that leaps out at me.

In ways very similar we may consider two scenes from today's readings. The cleansing of Na'aman, the great and famous military supremo, and the making clean by Jesus of an unknown leper.

Both are very familiar stories, one ancient in origin and the other first century, and both lead us on first, second and even subsequent readings to focus on the primary action in the stories - which is the making clean of two individuals.

But the stories are not there simply for narrative purposes. There are greater things concealed within them, but often so difficult to see. Until, that is, we visit the scenes afresh - and then it all becomes so clear.

Who was Na'aman? He was the field commander, a five star general, of Aram, the king of Syria, and had just defeated an Israelite army in battle. And how odd is this. "The Lord had given victory to Aram." In other words he was the enemy, and to add insult to injury this enemy was now to be healed, made clean, at the instruction of Elisha, one of the Lord's prophets of Israel.

Look at the implications of the details of this story.

1. God appears to be working outside of Israel.
2. God seemed to be working against Israel, and
3. ... now a foreigner is about to be blessed with wholeness.

All these things run counter to the traditional Hebrew understanding of a covenant with God - because they lie outside its boundaries. They demanded a new and wider understanding of God's presence and purpose - because traditional boundaries had now been crossed.

So it also was with that brief encounter between Jesus and the leper. The most powerful image in that story is not the healing of the leper, but the fact that Jesus touched the leper.

For in doing so he ran enormous risks. He put himself at risk, and put his community at risk - because remember that public health involved keeping lepers at a distance, outside of a possible infection zone.

But more than that. In touching the leper Jesus broke the law. What he did was not only against the Law of Moses, it also rendered him ritually unclean and therefore outside of conventional religion and practice.

Yet there was no hesitation. In touching the leper Jesus crossed a boundary, and in that single act challenged barriers of ignorance, fear and superstition that had for centuries clouded people's perceptions of God and what it was to live as the people of God.

Jesus gave - he gives - a new insight into our relationship with God, with one another, and what it is to truly live within a community of faith.

He touched, as we also are called to touch. Touch those who are outside of the boundaries of fashion, power, politics, religion and respectability. To reach out, to heal, to restore, to unite with them.

You see, the pictures, the story, the scene, becomes divinely clear.

In one single act.

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