Loving the Leper

Mark 1: 40-45

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 19th February 2006

Have you ever begged for grace?  Have you ever found yourself kneeling, pleading in desperation for healing, for mercy, for someone, sometime, just once to notice you, to see you, to be on your side, to be your advocate?  Have you ever felt that all your friends had abandoned you?  Rejected by your family, your neighborhood, your church?  Do you know what it’s like to be all alone, where people are afraid to touch you, on the edge of existence, unwanted cut, off from the land of the living, left for dead?  Then you know something of what it was like for this leper.  And if you don’t, well you can thank God – I guess.  Or maybe you need God’s mercy, mercy because you’ve been sheltered from knowing the extremes of human existence, mercy to at least imagine what it feels like.  It’s the sheltered and privileged who have the most difficult time being open to God’s grace.  Because, as we find in scripture again and again, it’s those folks who are on the edge, weighed down, marginalized, victimized, and isolated who are always more open to the grace of God, who can embrace the radical liberation of God’s kingdom – because life would be hell without it.

This nameless leper appears begging, pleading, kneeling in deference to Jesus, asking to be healed, “If you choose, [Jesus,] you can make me clean.”   Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  Soon, “immediately,” the text says, the physical deformities were gone, he’s well.  Now, we need to pay attention here.  A surface reading would lead us to say, Jesus is a healer and he likes to heal, so of course he chooses.  But Jesus knows he can’t technically say to the leper, “You’re clean.”  According to Jewish Law, only a priest can declare someone clean, ritually pure.  In fact, Leviticus 14 has fifty-seven verses that clearly delineate the complicated steps required in making one clean.  Only a priest can do this and only then can one be allowed back into community.  Community is central.  The unclean, the ritually impure were forced to live outside of family and community – which was one of the worse possible consequences of being unclean.  You lived outside the walls of the town or village, in the wilderness with the rest of the unwanted of society.  It was believed that leprosy was highly contagious (today, we know it isn’t), which was another reason why they were isolated.  If you lived alone or with others inflicted with leprosy you were cut off from your family and you had to beg for food because you couldn’t work.  You were also cut off from the temple; you couldn’t worship God – in fact, if you were a leper you probably believed that God had thrown you away, just like society had done.  As we saw a couple of weeks ago, the ill and physically damaged were at the bottom rung of Jewish society, assumed to be far away from God.  If you believed God threw you away, where else would you turn?  Even God, as represented by God’s religious institutions were against him.  Where else could he go?

And this is when Jesus really starts to get angry.  The leper knows he’s supposed to go to the chief priest to be declared clean.  Jesus knows the laws, knows the rules – he knows what’s at stake; he knows the risk he’s taking.  When the leper says, “If you choose, you can make me free,” he’s at the breaking point, at the point of desperation, because more than likely he has already been to the priests and they turned him away.[1]   That’s probably why Jesus is moved with “pity,” when he sees the leper.  Not because of his condition per se, but because even the religious authorities would do nothing to help him, would do nothing to alleviate his suffering and isolation.  Jesus is furious with the way religious institutions use their rules and laws to oppress God’s children, where the institution matters more than God’s people.  Jesus is livid with the way religious legalism sucks the life out of people (and institutions) and actually hinders what God wants accomplished in the world.  Indeed, the whole society is broken, set up to reinforce its own sense of protection – the community thinks it is keeping itself clean by purging itself of the leper.  He becomes a scapegoat.  But when this happens, the religious institutions and the ordinary people of society don’t realize the considerable damage they are inflicting.  They aren’t pure; they aren’t clean – because they are complicit in the dehumanization of people.   Jesus is incensed over the damage that is inflicted upon people all in the name of God, and it’s making his stomach churn with disgust – and I’m not exaggerating.

How do we know this?  Because of the Greek word Mark uses to describe Jesus’ reaction to the leper.  Words like “pity” or “compassion” are not strong enough.  Twelve times the gospel writers use a specific word to express the depth of Jesus’ emotion – splagchnizomai.  Five times in Matthew, three times in Luke, four times in Mark, including here, where it can be translated “moved with compassion.”  But that seems tame.  The word has associations with the entrails used in blood sacrifice in early Greek temple rites.  It can also refer to the heart.  It is associated with extremely strong human passions, such as anger. Later Greek versions of Mark’s gospel omit splagchnizomai and insert the Greek word for anger; still, a strong passion.  Significantly, splagchnizomai is never used in the pre-Christian Greek world to mean mercy or compassion.[2]  This is an example of how the encounter with Jesus actually transforms language, because a new vocabulary is required to adequately articulate the meeting of God in the flesh.  So we might say, Jesus’ pity or compassion have their origin in his stomach, the anguish of his gut in response to the suffering of God’s people.  Such is the depth of Jesus’ emotion.  That’s also where the anger is born within him, anger over the entire religious structure and a society that supports it that is missing the mark, missing the message.  Anger yields compassion; compassion yields anger.  The depth of Jesus’ anger, his passion, is directly related to the depth of his compassion. Anger at the sight of such oppression calls Jesus’ to risk responding with compassion.  For the kingdom requires such a risk.

“If you choose, [Jesus,] you can make me clean.”  The leper at the point of desperation is going around the system, bypassing the religious authorities, the authority of Leviticus 14, the authority of the priests, and confronts Jesus with quite a dilemma.  “If you choose, Jesus…”  The leper has nothing to lose by going to Jesus.  Jesus has much to lose.  Jesus knows what scripture says, what is required.  He knows he shouldn’t even be near the leper because should the leper touch him, he then becomes ritually unclean.  Jesus would then become like him, forced to live on the outside of society until clean.  “If you choose, [Jesus,] you can make me clean.”  If Jesus chooses to heal the leper, he would be taking on the entire religious establishment, especially the purity codes of Moses, and even subverting the social norms of his world.  “If you choose, Jesus, you can make me clean.”  If you choose…  If you choose… His stomach churns at the state of a world that has lost its bearings, the vision of the kingdom stirs in his gut and takes shape, he has a choice:  either to allow this victimization in the name of a false God continue or in the name and authority of the Living God take action to change it.  If you choose… The kingdom, the reign of God’s grace and justice are what matter the most.  This is what Jesus was sent to proclaim, a new world breaking into our lives through him.  The reign of God is more important, far too valuable to let religious legalism and distorted social values stand in its way.[3]  It’s the people and God’s vision for them that matter.  With his stomach churning with anger and the depth of compassion Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him.   With his stomach churning with anger and the depth of compassion – see the very heart, the gut of God – and like Yahweh in the wilderness who with “a strong and outstretched armed” delivered Israel from its oppressors, Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him becoming unclean – and note that Jesus touches first and then heals, he doesn’t heal and then touch him – identifying with the leper’s suffering and experience says, “Yes, I do choose.  Be made clean!”  And he was clean.  And then, “snorting indignation,” as one translator put it, Jesus directs the leper to go back to the priests “and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded,” this time as a testimony against them – because they got it all wrong.[4]

With this act though begins the unraveling of the religious system that oppressed the leper.  He doesn’t go back to the priests.  He ignores Jesus’ direction and begins to proclaim what happened to him freely, telling everyone.  Word spread so much that, Mark tells us, “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly.”  Jesus stayed out on the country, on the edge of society, because he was a marked man.  But that didn’t prevent people from going to him. And they went – probably putting their own lives at risk.  Everything is being churned up, a world turned upside down and inside out.  That’s what the reign of God does – and probably why the church is guarded about kingdom talk, a kingdom that might be on earth as it is in heaven.

Mark isn’t writing his gospel to provide merely an historical account of what happened a long time ago.  Mark was writing to his church, to his community of disciples so that their lives together could be shaped by Jesus’ vision of the kingdom, a community where Jesus stood at the center of its life, where the shape of its ministry was the very life of Jesus – a life that was willing to take risks for the sake of the kingdom because it’s the most valuable entity of our lives, worth more than all the gold in the world.  Mark’s gospel was written from within his church and preserved for the ages in order to speak to every church – from church to church.[5]  The historical circumstances are different, the issues are different, but the importance of the kingdom hasn’t changed.  Jesus is this kingdom who embodies the radical reign of God which seeks and saves the lost, the broken, the thrown down, and the thrown away.  The designation “leper” can be exchanged in any number of ways.  Who is the leper today?   Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s me.  Maybe it’s anyone wounded by the church, when the church as the body of Christ becomes a place of hurt instead of deep healing.  Maybe we Christians are the lepers put at odds by the rest of society because Christians are odd, or supposed to be odd. We are odd with our talk about forgiveness and mercy, grace and peace – and the world doesn’t tolerate this talk for long or us it seriously.

 

When Jesus stands at the center of our community it will put us at odds with the rest of the world.  When we see the world through Jesus’ eyes and look out with compassion upon the world, we just might find ourselves getting angry, snorting with indignation, livid at the appalling state of the church today and the world that will not seek the welfare of God’s people and stands in God’s way.  With Jesus’ eyes we might discover the level of our passion is closely related to the depth of our compassion.  And that this anger and compassion must begin here in our guts.  Maybe we’re not compassion enough because we’re not angry enough.  Or to put it in a positive light, maybe we become more compassionate when we in touch with our anger.  Years ago I came across a button at the General Assembly that read, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”  Maybe we’re not angry enough because we can’t see what’s going on around us (or won’t or don’t care).  Yet, it seems to me that’s where the vision of the kingdom takes shape, in Jesus’ gut or the stomach of God.  Maybe that’s where it begins in us, as well.

Can we risk responding as Christians for the sake of the kingdom?  How important is the kingdom to us?  Jesus was willing to take that risk – are we?  Am I?  I don’t ask the question without including myself, this is something I wrestle with this all the time.  And I take heart from those Christians who have come before us, who have taken risks for the kingdom.  This year we commemorate the centenary birth of theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).  He was one of the great minds of the 20th century, who died at the age of 36, shot by the Nazis near the close of the war for his involvement in an assassination attempt of Hitler.  The church is blessed to have a collection of his papers and letters written to his good friend, Eberhard Bethge (1909-2000), smuggled out during the course of his imprisonment in Tegel Prison in Berlin.  In his letter from Tegel, 21st May 1944, he wrote to Bethge a reflection on baptism and the kingdom, all in the midst of an Allied bombing raid on the city. We are baptized into kingdom work.  “There is no place for sentimentality on a day like this.  If in the middle of an air raid God sends out the gospel call to his kingdom in baptism, it will be quite clear what the kingdom is and what it means.  It is a kingdom stronger than war and danger, a kingdom of power and authority, not a kingdom of the heart, but one as wide as the earth, not transitory but eternal, a kingdom that makes a way for itself and summons men to itself to prepare its way, a kingdom for which it is worth while risking our lives.”[6]

Can the church risk responding as Christians for the sake of the kingdom?  What would it look like?  I’m not exactly sure, but I know we need to talk about it.  How important is the kingdom to us?  Jesus was willing to take a risk for it.  Bonhoeffer did and countless others.  Are we?  Am I?  If you choose…  If you choose…


[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man:  A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, 1994), 152ff.

[2] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 548ff, cited in Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary website:  www.girardianlectionary.net.

[3] Cf quotations from the worship bulletin reinforcing this point, Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254), “In the Gospel, Jesus is autobasileia, the kingdom himself.”  Willem Adolph Visser’t Hooft (1900-1985), “Jesus did not say that it would be a great thing if the kingdom of God existed.  He announced that the Kingdom was at hand.” None Other Gods (1937)

[4] Myers, 153.

[5] Richard Lischer, The End of Words:  The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972), 304 (emphasis added).  On 30th June 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations. (342)”