15 February 2009
O God, give us the help of your grace. Amen.
I’d like to begin this morning in a way that may seem a bit foreign to most Episcopalians, but please, bear with me.
Take our your pew Bibles. You know, the other “red book”.
Don’t worry – I’m not about to unleash some kind of strange southern-born preaching style from my youth. But open your Bible and turn with me to the text that we just read – Mark, chapter 1. You’ll find it in most of the pew Bibles on page 1181. Look down on the left column. This morning we read verses 40-45. I want to call your attention particularly to verse 41. The leper has just asked Jesus to heal him. The text says, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’”
That’s really one of the nicer stories in the Bible. We get one of the more solid images of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. This poor man, afflicted by a terrible disease that affects both his physical and social standing, comes to Jesus seeking help. Jesus, as we would expect, gets a kind of warm, tingly feeling and says to himself, “yeah, I can help this guy.” So he does.
It’s nice! Isn’t it?
At least that’s what I was thinking, before I looked a little closer. It would be easy to overlook, but you’ll notice, there’s a little footnote about that word “pity”. If you read the fine print, all the way at the bottom you’ll see, “other ancient authorities read anger.”
Well that changes things significantly. Let’s read that again, but this time with the substitution.
“A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with ANGER, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’”
Where is our gentle Jesus, meek and mild?
This shift is really troubling. Of course there are other instances when Jesus gets angry. He overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. He tends to rebuke Peter whenever he puts his foot in his mouth – which we all know is pretty often. But those occasions of anger always seem somehow appropriate – or at least merited. But how could he be angry now? This defenseless outcast has come to Jesus seeking help, and Jesus responds with anger?
As you might imagine, I spent quite a bit of time looking for answers to this riddle. Something seemed out of place.
I’ll spare you all the gory details, but it seems that what we have here is one of those occasional casualties of translation. The Greek word that is used here is one that doesn’t have a very clear English equivalent. It’s something like pity, and something like anger, but not really either of them. What the writer is trying to convey here is that kind of anger that grows out of pity – the compassion that moves us to defiant action.
Some of you may have heard or read Bishop Gene Robinson’s prayer at the opening of the inauguration festivities a few weeks ago. Among other things, Bishop Robinson prayed that God would “Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad…”
I think this is the kind of anger that moved Jesus to heal and make clean the diseased man. The spiritual leaders of their world could do nothing for him. They could pronounce him clean after the cleansing had already happened, but no one that he had encountered could make him clean. No one, at least, until Jesus.
We find this story at the end of a three-week cycle of Sunday readings from the first chapter of Mark that all have to do with different kinds of healing. Two weeks ago we heard about Jesus commanding an unclean spirit to leave a possessed man. Last week we heard about Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law who was suffering from a fever. And today, we hear about Jesus responding in pity-filled anger at the plight of a social outcast. He makes him clean and sends him back to be reunited with his community.
One of the delightful quirks about the Gospel According to Mark is that it tends to tell the story of Jesus with a child-like, eager anticipation. In Mark there isn’t a lot of fluff. It gets right to the crux of the matter at hand as soon as the telling is begun.
In this first chapter of Mark, the story of Jesus does not begin with elaborate genealogies or birth narratives. Even Marks’s account of the baptism of Jesus is just a few verses long. Instead, Mark jumps headfirst into the life and ministry of Jesus. To the degree that there is any setup at all, it is in this first chapter. In the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus is like a debutante, and this first chapter is his ball. He dances around the Ancient Near East and is shown to be the Holy One of God. He is recognized as the Holy One of God, not because of his lineage or because of a miraculous birth, but on his own merit.
And just as the first chapter of Mark is, in some ways, the story of Jesus’ first appearance in polite society, so, too, can we see that “coming out” narrative expressed in the progression of Jesus’ healings as they are told in Mark.
The first healing – that of the possessed man in the synagogue – is a kind of moment of truth. Jesus, we might imagine, could have been hoping for a quiet life as a teacher. John the Baptist had been arrested and Jesus steps in to fill his shoes. But the unclean spirit saw something more in him. Perhaps only on instinct, Jesus orders the unclean spirit to leave the man. To the surprise of everyone in the crowd, the spirit obeyed – it had no choice but to obey – because Jesus spoke with hitherto unseen authority.
From that episode of inward, spiritual healing we move on to the story of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. The stakes are a bit higher this time. Jesus is clearly established as a spiritual leader – he teaches in the synagogue and expels unclean spirits. But in this story his powers are extended to the physical realm. Simon’s mother-in-law is afflicted with a fever – an unseen force within her that threatens her survival. Without words, Jesus touches her and the fever wanes.
Word begins to spread.
Though the people probably had not yet wrapped their minds around that fact that the unclean spirit could see from the start – that this Jesus is the “Holy One of God” – they knew that something powerful was in their midst.
And that brings us to the story we hear today. A leper presents himself to Jesus. He has heard of the great things that Jesus has done and he believes that he might be offered the same kind of reprieve from his own affliction.
In the Ancient Near East, the diagnosis of leprosy was given to any number of skin ailments – anything as common as eczema or acne to other potentially fatal diseases of the skin. No distinctions were made. It was among the worst classifications of disease, because in addition to its physical implications, its sufferers were considered unclean according to the Levitical code. As such, they were ostracized from their communities until after the disease was cured and after the priest had certified their restoration. A leper’s existence was pitiful, to be sure.
But in faith, this leper came to Jesus.
With a passionate response somewhere between pity for the man and anger at a social system that counted him as “other”, Jesus was moved to intervening action. He reached out to the outcast and touched his untouchable skin and said, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
There was no turning back. He had upped the ante again – physical healing, but this time, also a kind of social healing. After this, Jesus could never be just another teacher in the synagogues. He was called to something more. He was called to bring comfort to the suffering and to rise up against the powerful forces of society that separated the people from one another and from their relationships with God. God had blessed him with anger.
In the weeks ahead, as we move toward and into Lent, we will walk with Jesus as he encounters the cost of his calling. Those powerful forces of society that separated the people from one another and from their relationships with God will not give up as easily as the unclean spirit did. And they still do not.
We are still called to reach out to the outcasts of our own societies and to touch those who are most untouchable. We are still called to build bridges wherever people are separated from one another and from God. And the powerful forces of society still cringe every time we do it.
But we do it, despite the cost, because, like Jesus, once we have answered God’s call in our lives there is no turning back. There is sickness and discrimination in the world and God has blessed us with that peculiar passion somewhere between compassion and anger, and there is no turning back. Amen.