12 Feb 2012
“Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” (Mark 1:41-42) In the name …
Today we continue with the theme that was broached a couple of weeks ago in the account of Jesus’ visit to the Capernaum synagogue where Jesus confronted us with a new teaching and with authority. Last week we spoke about the ancient belief that God was responsible for both the good and the bad in the world because He was the All-Mighty. Everything that happens, happens because the All-Mighty-God intends. This came into stark detail when we read the pitiful words of suffering Job. But when Jesus held the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and helped her up, an equally clear message was sent. It was a new teaching and with authority that reversed the old idea of the All-Mighty causing such things to happen. Now, in the person of Jesus, God stands with us in our times of suffering.
And today that new teaching with authority takes another step forward. In today’s first reading we get a feel for the religious stigma associated with certain kinds of illness. Not only did such a person suffer the physical anguish of the disease, the one afflicted also suffered from the spiritual and social anguish that they were to blame for their condition. This comes across loud and clear in the Old Testament laws pertaining to the disease of leprosy. The disease wasn’t only judged a physical ailment, but also a spiritual one. The one who suffered was judged ritually unclean. They could not be a part of the holy people of God; they had to live outside of the camp. God, it was implied, was offended by the disease and by the person. The one afflicted with leprosy was compelled to yell out “Unclean, unclean” about himself at any chance encounter with another person.
These were the laws that were still in effect when Jesus began His ministry in Galilee, and these are the laws that compel the man with leprosy to beg of Jesus: “‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’” (Mk. 140) The man pleading for mercy is not sure if Jesus, the man of God, would see his suffering or his sin. The man with leprosy was taught that his affliction had a moral overtone, that it was sinful, that he was sinful. Would Jesus see him as a sinner or would Jesus see him in mercy?
Then an utterly unexpected turn of phrase is found in the Bible, one that is actually erased in the re-telling of this story. It’s still listed as a secondary reading, and you can find it in the footnotes, but it’s much more important than a footnote. Bible scholars work with the premise that when you come across alternate readings of the text you can choose the one that is better attested, that appears more frequently, or you can choose the one that is harder to explain. The logic behind the second method is why would any copyist or editor create a difficult passage. It’s easy to explain an easier word or phrase, but why create a difficult one? It must be because the difficult one is the authentic one. And the difficult reading of the verse that follows the leper’s plea for mercy reads: “Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him.”
Why was Jesus angry? It can’t be because the man with leprosy dared approach Him. Jesus can’t be looking upon the man’s disease as a sin, and this is obvious because of what Jesus will do. So what makes Jesus angry? It has to be the religious and social treatment of this person in need. Jesus is acting with anger against the whole convoluted religious system that would add to a sick person’s agony by telling them last week that is was caused by God and now this week that their physical torment is a symptom of their spiritual sickness, that God looks upon their infirmity as offensive to His holiness. Remember that this man was supposed to yell out “Unclean, unclean” because to come into contact with him transferred his ritual sinfulness. Knowing this law full well, Jesus doesn’t only heal the man; Jesus first touches him. Jesus touches him while he is still afflicted, which means that the man’s ritual uncleanness is passed to Jesus – and Jesus does not care. Jesus is rejecting the whole religious system of ostracizing people in the name of God, especially the people who most need God, especially the people frowned upon and avoided by society at large. This again is part of Jesus’ new teaching and with authority.
We are the church of Jesus. We are called upon to continue and to advance the teachings and example of Jesus. But we are not always faithful in this particular area. Too often the church excludes those who are already excluded by society; and too often we justify this behaviour with the same religious, legal bias as the one that made Jesus angry when He encountered the man with leprosy, the man who was terrified that not only had his neighbours abandoned him, but so did his God. As church we too often label as sinners those who don’t fit into the neat and tidy descriptions of what the holy should look and act like. We have, for example, excluded women from the priesthood because they are not the moral equal of a man. Women are the descendents of Eve; men are the descendents of Jesus. And so we suffer through a lack of vocations. And this second example isn’t going to win me any points, I know a lot of people disagree with me, but we exclude good people on the basis of their sexuality, people who are in loving and committed relationships, people who are raising families. There are historical and moral arguments that can be made for these exclusions, but very often I also hear words of prejudice distorting these discussions. We have to be honest about the issue. Do we just not like the practice, or do we really think it’s immoral? And if immoral, why? If it’s based on the letter of the law, then remember the outcast leper, the man whose religion forced him to yell out, “Unclean, unclean,” and remember the anger of Jesus. The Rev. Martin Luther King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When we exclude someone from the community of God, it does not affect only that person. It defines us as church. May Jesus guide us so that as church we may reflect His will, popular or unpopular, and for this we pray in His name. Amen.
Fr. Randolph Calvo