1 Feb 2015
“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” (Mark 1:41) In the name …
If it’s a Friday and you say to someone, “I’ll see you next Sunday,” does that mean in two days or in nine days? The next Sunday is actually two days away, but I think a lot of people would understand it as the Sunday of the next weekend. We got a little bit of snow this past week. Sure nothing like they were predicting or like they got out east of us, but some of you may still have been dreaming of flying south for a vacation to get away from it all, maybe even snorkeling underwater. Well, underwater should mean the ocean floor. That’s what’s literally under the water. When you’re snorkeling, you’re not under the water; you’re in the water. Language can be a funny thing.
Take today’s Gospel, for example. A man stricken with leprosy approaches Jesus. Already we have to stop right there. We have to go back to the Old Testament and read something that Jesus and all of His neighbours would have known automatically. In the book of Leviticus we read: “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!’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (13:45-46) Can you imagine how lonely it would have been to suffer from this disease? Can you imagine how repulsed other people would be by it? With this in mind, we need to hear again that a man with leprosy approached close to Jesus. What was this man thinking? He’s supposed to remain away from other people. He’s supposed to yell “unclean, unclean” in case anyone even by chance happens to come near to him. And yet here he is intentionally approaching Jesus.
I imagine him to be a man who is absolutely desperate, a man who has heard about Jesus as a miracle worker, a healer, but also a man of God. The man stricken with leprosy would have heard so often of his spiritual uncleanness that he would have started to believe it himself. When he approaches Jesus, he is, therefore, conflicted. There’s the hope of a healing, but also there has to be the fear that this man of God will condemn and shame him as a sinner. This is why, kneeling before Jesus, break-ing the sanction of staying away, he can only stammer: “‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”
This is where language can be a funny thing. There’s a standard and an alternate reading of the next passage based on one word. The standard one is what I have already read twice, that Jesus was moved with pity because of the man’s request. This fits in neatly with the Jesus we expect. But there are other ancient manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel that use another word, often footnoted, and that other word seems to have more plausible arguments in its favour. The first of those arguments is that the word is unexpected and strange. This means that no one would have had any reason to forge it. The alternate reading states that Jesus was moved with anger at the man’s request. Anger. Second, it does make sense that an ancient Christian scribe would read that original word anger and then decide to change it instead to pity because it feels more orthodox. Plus, when Matthew and Luke re-tell Mark’s Gospel, when they come to this passage, they simply leave it out all-together. This tells us that they may also have felt bothered by the word anger, and their response was to skip right over the problem-word. [Mk 1:41//Mt 8:2-3//Lk.5:12-13]
So if “moved with anger” is what Mark actually wrote, our next question is why Jesus was angry. It could have been that Jesus was offended by this unclean man’s approach. It’s true that he was breaking all kinds of religious taboos, but we immediately find out that this can’t be the reason. If Jesus was angry because the man with leprosy dared to come near to Him, then Jesus would not have done what happened next. He touched him. Jesus could have cured the man with words alone, but Jesus touched him. This man who was so desperately alone finally felt the touch of another person, and that may say more about Jesus than the actual miracle. And when Jesus touched the unclean man, He Himself became ritually unclean, but Jesus didn’t care. So ritual uncleanness could not have been a major concern to Jesus.
This leaves us with the only other alternative. Jesus was angry with a religious system, not a Jewish system but any religious system, that shunned those most in need of God’s grace and presence, and also the sympathy, compassion and care of God’s people. Jesus was angry with a system that added moral indignity to physical anguish. Jesus was angry with the callous judgment that was being carried-out in God’s name. And all of this is revealed through one word, through one powerful, strange, unexpected and footnoted word. Language can be a funny thing.
I think this account of Jesus’ anger is one of the most compelling stories about our Saviour in all the Bible. This is a Jesus who inspires and challenges. Jesus isn’t categorically rejecting religious rules. That would be a definite overstatement. He, for example, followed religious convention by telling the man to make an offering to God for his healing as the Law commanded. But when Jesus saw a tradition that was harmful and hurtful, He rejected it. He ignored it. At another point in the Gospel Jesus complained: “‘For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.’” (Matt. 15:6) To be a person of faith is not as easy as following the rules. It means thinking about the “why” of the rules, and thinking about them demands that we think about who Jesus is, what He stands for and what He expects of us. Conscience is that important. On this First Sunday of Pre-Lent, we begin a time of contemplation. This is our chance to understand the why of the cross. I think if we stop at Jesus died to forgive sinners, we’re going to run into the angry Jesus. I think we need to give time to the mystery of the cross as the final act of a life devoted to bringing a loving God closer to us. May this time leading up to Holy Week be our chance to re-discover Jesus and why we choose to believe in Him. For this we pray in His most holy of names. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo