Today’s Scripture lesson is Mark 1:40-45 as found in The Message Bible.
A leper came to him, begging on his knees, "If you want to, you can cleanse me."
Deeply moved, Jesus put out his hand, touched him, and said, "I want to. Be clean." Then and there the leprosy was gone, his skin smooth and healthy. Jesus dismissed him with strict orders: "Say nothing to anyone. Take the offering for cleansing that Moses prescribed and present yourself to the priest. This will validate your healing to the people." But as soon as the man was out of earshot, he told everyone he met what had happened, spreading the news all over town. So Jesus kept to out-of-the-way places, no longer able to move freely in and out of the city. But people found him, and came from all over.
We’re in high school forever. We’ve all had to endure the strange, awkward teenage years and go through this experience. As one person put it, High School is the mouse race that prepares you for the rat race. In fact, every ten years we gather in survivor groups and try to figure out what the heck it was all about!! I will use this shared experience--some of you are still going through this time--to talk about today’s gospel lesson.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us (aside from a lucky few) were literally a sack of hormones and confused emotions. We see in the gospel TEXTS that Jesus had some confused emotions. I say TEXTS with an S, plural, meaning MORE THAN ONE TEXT. If you gather up all the ancient texts of Mark 1:40-45, you’ll discover that they say Jesus had three different reactions to the leper. The text we heard this morning says that Jesus was “moved with compassion”. I would imagine that would sound like this… “Yeah I choose..”
Another text says Jesus was moved with pity. Here I picture Jesus looking at the man, with tears welling up in his eyes saying “Yeah…… I choose.” And the third reaction is Jesus was moved with ANGER. ANGER? “OHHH Yeah… I CHOOSE!” That’s quite a variety of mixed emotions! So which is it? Compassion, pity or anger? What’s at stake?
There was A LOT at stake, not only for Jesus, but esp. for the leper. You see, people were scared to death of leprosy. And in Jesus’ time, Leprosy just meant Skin Disease. Imagine that, if you had bad acne, warts, goiters, or even what we know as leprosy, you were made into an instant outsider. The law in Leviticus was clear: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ And he shall live alone, his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Lev. 13:45-46)
So if you had leprosy you lost everything — job, family, place in the community — everything. The leper who approaches Jesus shows his desperation by breaking the law, by coming into the city, and getting close enough to Jesus that he could talk to him. He’s lucky he wasn’t stoned. I picture that Jesus is just surrounded by people and this leper shows up and the people just part away from him… they can’t believe their eyes! I’m thankful we here in the modern world don’t have any lepers… if someone like that showed up here, right now, we’d all jump up to help them, wouldn’t we? I don’t think we would… and I’m reminded of a similar story from my high school experience.
There are always groups in high school. There are the jocks, the smart kids, the in-crowd who were all beautiful and talented and everyone wanted to be like. I know most of you here were in the in-crowd, right?… lucky dawgs. I wasn’t so special... I was in the class of kids who were the ‘tweeners, those people who were somewhat tolerated by the cool kids, but there was just enough weirdness to keep us in our own separate group. Then there was the untouchable class in high school. Those are the modern day lepers of the high school culture. There was one kid in particular at my high school, his name was Bob.
Bob was from a really poor family. He was working part-time jobs all the time, so his grades suffered. He always had a worn and dirty look. I remember his ears sometimes would just be caked with dirt. He was really asocial. One day Bob is walking the halls with his books in his distracted manner and he trips and spills, books flying out. To make matters worse, it’s in front of the prettiest girl in high school, Katie.
Now Kate (my wife) didn't go to my school, so we had to play the hand we were dealt, and the queen in our deck was Katie.
Katie is surrounded by her friends who upon seeing who is lying at their feet immediately scatter and screech “EEEWW!!” An untouchable is in their midst. But Katie doesn’t flinch. She bends down and starts to collect Bob’s books. He looks around… everyone is watching the situation unfold and everyone is just as shocked as he is. He collects himself and stands up just in time to accept his stack of books from Katie. Just as Katie hands the books to Bob, she reaches out and squeezes his arm and says “It’s gonna be alright Bob.” Then she walks on and a heated discussion follows with Katie yelling at her friends and asking them why they didn’t help her. Bob goes about his day, but I noticed a little spring in his step. Now I wish I could say that there was a great change in Bob’s life from that day forward but this is a true story… and ideal endings are few and far between. Bob ended up going to the public school mid-semester, and I haven’t been in touch.
This is the modern story of what’s going on in our gospel text. Katie felt all of those emotions, I’m sure, Compassion, Pity, and Anger. Compassion at the outcast lying at her feet, pity at his helpless situation and that no one was helping him, and that filled her with anger and she acted! This too must have been Jesus’ feelings… it’s shown in his response.
Jesus’ immediate response—to touch the man and then declare his choice to heal him—reflects his belief of wholeness, embodied in his ministry of good news, hospitality, and inclusion. Jesus’ mission, as noted in John’s gospel, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly” is an explicit challenge to all people who think sickness of mind, body, and spirit results from God’s will and divine punishment. Jesus NEVER blamed the victim for her or his ailment. Illness was an opportunity for healing rather than judgment, guilt, or blame.
Jesus was fully human, he could feel the exact range of complex emotions we do. Jesus felt a compassionate anger. Jesus wasn’t mad at the man or at his request. Maybe he was angry at the social situation the man found himself in. Both anger and compassion are related emotions: both arise from a strong sense of connection with or on behalf of others. Our care for others can inspire righteous anger toward unjust social systems and the ongoing practices of racism, sexism, and all the other –isms. This holy, compassionate anger, can inspire us to imagine and, then, enact alternatives to what’s currently unjust and harmful, whether in a family, congregation, community, or nation.
So if you ever hear or think that someone is suffering because of something they’ve done, or you think that about yourself, I’m here to say that Jesus would disagree with you. You are included as a child of God regardless of the social stigma. The stigmas of sick, poor, widow, orphan, uneducated, or whatever so-called disgrace you or others put upon you has been lifted. Jesus welcomes us all into a new community, smashing down barriers that divide. Let us, as the community of Christ, follow his radical example.
If you see injustice… whether it is starvation, mistreatment on the basis of race, gender, or ANY OTHER DESIGNATION, stand up! In God’s kingdom there are no lepers! If you’re black, white, Hispanic, native, Jew or gentile, you’re welcomed into community! Jesus doesn’t care how the authorities tell you how to act, or how the authorities divide us up. You. Are. Welcomed.
What social laws are dividing us up today? What is keeping us apart? What is holding us back? Let’s get a compassionate anger at these injustices in the world… and let’s do what Jesus would do! Let us take the example of the leper and tell the world! AMEN!
Anchor Bible Commentary, C.S. Mann “Mark” page 219.
Bruce Epperly’s commentary found at http://www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/YearB/2008-2009/2009-02-15.shtml
Dr Jeffery K London’s sermon “The Laughter Barrel” found at http://www.lectionary.org/Sermons/London/OT/2Kings_5_Laughter.htm