Sunday, February 15, 2009

On Embodiment

Readings: Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

So Naaman is healed by Elisha, who doesn't even do him the customary honor of coming out to see him. From within his house, Elisha sends his servant to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times and he will be cleansed of his leprosy. Not an encounter, just a message of good news: do this simple thing and you will be fine.

Elisha and Naaman are two prominent personages. Elisha is the protege of Elijah who by this time had departed the world in chariots of fire, and Naaman serves a king of a neighboring land. Who goes to see whom and how they are treated are matters of political posturing. Naaman, the LORD is so much greater than you that his messenger will not meet you. He will only send you a message, and that will suffice. Naaman is healed, but he has also been put in his place by the ultimate power-play.

Jesus, on the other hand, has no social status, and neither does the leper who begs him for healing. There is no room for political posturing. Indeed, politics is excluded from this encounter. Jesus does not send him a message. He touches him and says, "Be made clean." It is at once a command, and the power to accomplish the command. By himself, the leper cannot make himself clean. But the touch and the word cleanse him. He is not passive - he is given power to become clean, told to be clean, and he becomes clean in response to the command.

The body is central to both narratives. What is healed is a visible bodily infirmity, and how it is healed involves what people do with their bodies - sending a message, or having a personal encounter involving sight, voice, and touch. Which brings us to the Apostle Paul's letter to the church in Corinth. Paul knows that embodiment is central to the human condition. He knows that God has made us, body and soul, and given us to ourselves. Seeking after the necessities and pleasures of the body, we give ourselves over to Evil.

But God has re-purchased us through the price paid by Jesus in his death and resurrection. So the converts in Corinth believe, as Paul reminds them. And that purchase involves both soul and body. Thus Paul admonishes the Corinthians, as he admonishes us to exercise self-control in what we do with our bodies. That neither we nor others exist solely for our own pleasure, but for the pleasure of God.

Through the ages this passage has often been considered in the light of sexual morality, which has undergone changes from place to place and time to time. I would like to enlarge it to all of our behavior, everywhere, all the time. I will restate it as this: Live your life so that more good things happen around you than bad.

That may sound easy, but it isn't. It takes more discernment of the difference between good and evil than we actually have. I don't know what you may want to do about that, but for myself, I pray for guidance and wisdom, and a bit of help now and then.

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