How hard it is to tell the truth, to bear true witness! Bearing true witness is not just saying true things. It is communicating the truth, making the truth believable. Sometimes bearing false witness is an attempt to deceive people, but other times it is a failure to understand and bear true witness. Think of the bizarre story of Elisha healing Naaman the leper. I should tell you that the pious Christians who constructed the lectionary included only the first 14 verses of this text, believing, I suppose, that Elisha’s transferring of Naaman’s leprosy to his own servant is not morally uplifting. Elisha was not a nice man, however. When some small boys called him “Baldhead,” he summoned two she-bears to maul 42 of them; I’ll bet that story was not discussed in your Sunday School class, so you should look up 2 Kings 2:23-24.
Naaman was the general for the king of Aram who was a neighbor and generally an enemy of Israel. Naaman had engineered an Aramean victory over the Israelites and our text says it was Yahweh who gave Naaman that victory. So the Israelite claim that God was on their side was a false witness in this instance. Naaman, in contrast to Elisha, must have been a nice man because one of the Israelite girls he had captured and turned into a slave in his own household urged him to go to Elisha to be cured of his leprosy. The slave gave a true witness to Elisha’s power. The King of Aram was supportive of this and gave Naaman a letter of introduction to the King of Israel, asking him to facilitate the cure; this was a true and good intent. But the King of Israel misconstrued the letter as a false witness, thinking it a trick to give the Arameans a cause to invade again. Saddam Hussein must have felt like the King of Israel when the American government talked about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. When Elisha heard of his king’s distress, he sent word for Naaman to visit him, which is what happened.
Elisha did not go out of his house to greet Naaman, however. He sent a servant, perhaps Gehazi, to tell him to wash seven times in the Jordan and he would be clean. That was a true witness, but Naaman heard it as false. Naaman was probably offended by the lack of courtesy, and he thought that bathing in the rivers of his own country would have been just as effective as the Jordan. Leaving in a rage, Naaman was turned back by his own servants’ argument that he would have been willing to do something difficult if Elisha had told him to, so why not just try this easy thing? He did and was cured, now believing Elisha’s true if discourteous witness. He returned to Elisha to pay him, but Elisha refused pay; Naaman affirmed his service to Yahweh and asked for two mule-loads of earth to take back to his own land so that he could worship Yahweh on Yahweh’s own land. He said he would worship only Yahweh, with the exception of his official duties escorting the King of Aram to worship the god of Aram. Naaman’s act of piety in thanks to Yahweh for his cure was an extraordinary true witness.
Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, however, saw an opportunity for graft and with a lie, a false witness, put the touch on Naaman for booty shortly after he had left Elisha’s house. Naaman was told the request came from Elisha and he obliged. Gehazi put the booty in his own quarters. Elisha caught him and Gehazi lied to Elisha about where he had been. But Elisha was an accomplished clairvoyant and had seen Gehazi misrepresent Elisha’s wishes for a reward; Elisha’s extrasensory perception was a remarkable true witness. So he punished Gehazi’s false witness by covering him with leprosy. Perhaps that was a bit harsh by our standards, or cruel and unusual punishment, but we have a fairly stiff alternative in mind for the crooks in big business. The moral of the story is three-fold: do not bear false witness, do bear true witness, and sometimes it is hard to know what to believe.
This colorful story was paired with the gospel in the lectionary because both deal with healing leprosy; I’m sure that Mark had in mind to compare Jesus as a prophet to Elisha’s healing power in the way he told the story. The witness in Mark’s story was the leper who came to Jesus, proclaiming Jesus’ power to heal him if he chose to do so. That was a true witness and Jesus verified it. He reached and touched the leper—not many others would have done that. Then he said he chose to heal him, and did so. After the healing Jesus gave the man a stern warning not to witness to how he was healed. Instead, the man should only go to the temple to be ritually cleaned and approved by the priest. What was that all about? Some people say Jesus did not want to become known as a miracle worker, because all the lepers would come to him. Jesus obviously did not spend his time healing everyone who came to him, and did not think of his ministry as a medical one in our sense of that term. But why would he not want the healed leper to witness to his powers? In other places his healing power is construed as testimony to his spiritual power and the truth of his message. Why not here? Was he trying to disguise his real identity this early in his ministry? We do not know.
At any rate, the leper gave true testimony about Jesus, according to the story, and spread that word effectively. As a result, Jesus could not go into populated areas, and the people sought him out in the countryside. We know the end of the story, of course. The people abandoned Jesus, and Jesus had no magical powers to cure the sickness in the religious and political leaders about whom he was concerned. Of all the gospels, Mark’s is the most ambiguous. You remember it ends with the women terrified, gazing at the empty tomb. No resurrection appearances, just terror. The last line of the Gospel is, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Now I ask you, what is our witness about Jesus today? How can we give true witness rather than false witness? It would be false witness, I fear, to represent the gospels and other writings of the New Testament as giving literal histories of Jesus. The New Testament writers were themselves witnessing to what Jesus meant to them, and their witness is that he is messiah and savior of the world, not just of Israel but of the world. Of course, there was an historical Jesus and he did the things that got him remembered and interpreted in the New Testament way. But the biblical writings are not histories in our sense, and they fall into contradiction and implausibility if read as histories. There was an important theological movement of the 19th and 20th centuries that attempted to identify what can be known with critical certainty about the historical Jesus, and then to draw religiously significant meaning from that historical knowledge. That movement was a bust. Moreover, it bracketed out of consideration all the attempts in the New Testament to say what Jesus meant religiously, precisely because those things were interpretations, not historical reporting. So the movement obscured the Bible’s religious testimony.
The Jesus that is real to us is the remembered Jesus, the literary Jesus, the Jesus remembered in the New Testament and then in subsequent theological writings. We also have the liturgical Jesus, the Jesus remembered in our rites and music. The remembered Jesus is the one that is real to us, and effective, the Jesus we can touch. So who is this remembered Jesus to whom we witness?
First, Jesus is indeed a healer. We do not have to believe in the healing miracles of the Bible to make this point. I recommend strongly that we think of those miracles, such as the one in our gospel today, as symbols of something else, however credible they were to people in the first century who believed that magic is a common event. But I have seen the remembered Jesus heal. I have known people whose lives were so broken, so confused, so addicted to destruction, so self-destructive, that they had no hope for being decent persons. Then someone told them about Jesus, they remembered Jesus of the Bible, who loves even them. And their lives were transformed. They clung to that literary Jesus, that liturgical Jesus of some worshipping community, and were healed. Their theology might not have been sophisticated at first, but Jesus saved them and they were healed. The Jesus I remember says that anyone can come to him and have their souls made whole. I’ve seen that work, and witness to those miracles.
I’ve seen communities, families, and even church congregations, that were filled with hate, recrimination, lust for vengeance, and an infinite round of resentment. We all know about the round of hatred in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. We’ve also all known smaller communities like that up close. But have you ever seen such a wrangle of wretched hate brought up short by the memory of Jesus and his love, by the hearing of his call to love our enemies, by his proclamation that even God is merciful and forgiving, by his willingness to sacrifice his work and friends and his whole life for the sake of reconciliation? I’ve seen that happen, and the community slowly deconstructs its hate and recrimination, its lust for vengeance and resentment; it learns to forgive, and to practice love. That is Jesus healing now, and we have seen it and touched it. The master witness to this kind of healing in our time was Martin Luther King, Jr., who made aggressive pacifism a powerful instrument of justice in the name of love. We too can witness to this healing, for we have seen it.
Jesus is not only a healer, but a preacher who himself witnesses to God’s justice and mercy. Through sermons and parables recorded in the New Testament, and then through two thousand years of interpretations of Jesus, we have his word that every creature in the world is God’s creature. God is equally close to them all. Justice consists in treating every creature as beloved of God, without favoritism. Our ethical principles for relating to one another attempt to express this. The norms for international politics demand this. Our environmental concerns should be guided by this word about God as creator and lover of all. That we are personally sinners, wicked as a nation, and abusive to our environment is itself the judgment upon us, however balanced that is with some virtue, kindness, and care. We cannot bear false witness about ourselves to God: that is metaphysically impossible. More powerful than judgment, however, is God’s redeeming mercy that Jesus preached. Indeed, Jesus said, and we have seen it proved again and again, that even sinners are loved and can be healed by that love, even rogue nations can repent, make amends, and return to justice, even abused ecologies can recover. The wild fecundity of God, who with abandon sends rain and sun on the just and unjust alike, blows through the world with a cosmically vast power making things new. We have seen all this, we have touched it, and we can understand it to witness for it.
Jesus is not only a healer and a preacher, but, as I said last week, Jesus is among us as a prayer, a spiritual force who brings us to God as he himself was in love with God. We don’t witness only to Jesus teaching people to pray, or to the prayers inspired by him throughout the life of the Church, although those things are important. It is more important to witness to the mystery of God that Jesus shows us. Jesus reflects in our midst the ambiguous, uncanny, undomesticated, larger-than-life wildness of God. Jesus points to the Abyss of creation, the nothing from which we come. Jesus is the Light of God in which all things might be understood. Jesus is the Fire of the Spirit that can cleanse us and make us God’s hands. Jesus is the Deep River of our spiritual lives, the divine flood that carries us to the unimaginable God. What a blessing it is that the Bible is not a straightforward history of the man Jesus! At an important level Jesus cannot be comprehended and we must comprehend that.
When we remember this wild Jesus we are brought closer to the wild God. Jesus is remembered not only as a man but as a mysterious wonder worker, a preacher whose text came from heaven, the incarnation of the divine Word itself, the Cosmic Christ embracing the Big Bang and the Final Dissipation as Alpha and Omega, all glorious, the King of the Universe whom you can sense sitting beside you on the pew, in the poor man, the suffering woman, the starving child. Jesus is all these images remembered together who shocks us out of our ordinary sleepwalking and lets us know we are in God’s world. The remembered Jesus is here and now, incised in the carvings and windows of this church, in all the images that wake us from sleep. Jesus is the cosmic witness to God.
In our time, we are the witnesses to Jesus, just like the healed leper. Our witness is not to something in the long past but to something we have seen and touched. We have seen the remembered Jesus heal persons and communities. We need to testify to this, especially in light of all the people and groups who have not been healed. The teachings of Jesus have seared our consciences, opening our hearts to know we are under judgment, but also in the thrall of cosmic mercy. Everyone here has experienced this in one way or another. The remembered Jesus, whose images are so fantastic, so exaggerated, so profound, wakes us to the wildness of God and the reality of our situation as creatures. The moments of this awakening are bliss, heavenly vision, the ultimate witness. O Lord, we are infinitely grateful to be your witnesses, testifying to what we have seen and touched.