Sunday, February 12
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Divine Physician, healer of bodies and souls, stretch out your hand and touch us. Cleanse our hearts from the sins that separates us from you and one another. Recreate us in your own image, and restore us in Christ, so that we may run the race and receive your prize of everlasting life. Amen.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, 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!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
All Readings For This Sunday
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
1. How do you feel when your schedule is interrupted by someone asking for money, or complaining about a situation, or needing your time, right then?
2. What difference does it make to read the words "moved with pity" as "moved with anger"?
3. With what sort of power is Jesus contending?
4. What does faith feel like to you--like confidence that God can do something good, or that God wants to do something good, or that God will do something good?
5. Where are the places in your soul where this story touches your own pain, your own need, your own thankfulness?
by Kate Huey
Tension builds. Plans have to be adjusted along the way. Dramatic healings and exorcisms apparently don't fit into a nice, quiet ministry of tending the flock. Jesus has to leave the crowd at Peter's house (last week's reading) and travel on to the neighboring towns. First, he spends some time alone, in prayer, in a deserted place; perhaps he's just a little bit thrown by the response to his ministry of preaching and healing. Perhaps he doesn't want to be seen as a magician, or even to be known as a worker of miracles if that keeps people from hearing the message he proclaims, from coming to understand who he is, from coming to true belief.
And then, right in front of Jesus, there appears a "dead man walking": a leper who begs to be made clean, if Jesus wills it. Fred Craddock describes the leper's loneliness, living as "a corpse haunting the edges of the community he could no longer enter." He was considered "unclean" because his physical imperfection violated the Holiness Code of his people, found in the Book of Leviticus. In other words, this was a matter for the priests, not the doctors.
A matter for the priests, not the doctors
In their own day, in their own way, the priests were key to holding the community together, to making it work and keeping it safe. Richard Swanson elegantly explains that "ritual tends the network that communities establish to balance the world....[to] make life as comprehensible as it can be in the middle of ordinary chaos." This chaos reigned around a "still point of the universe," tended by the priests: "the place where God's finger touches the world and holds it still." Laws were not cold-hearted, meaningless regulations. Swanson observes, but helped the Jewish people stay centered and safe. In the Temple, the priest had an important function for the sake of the whole community in regard to the leper, "to tend to the ritual of reincorporation," by which the leper was brought back into the community. Keeping that in mind will help us understand why Jesus sends the healed man to the priests, for what Swanson calls "the ritual of reincorporation."
Have we progressed beyond treating some people as unclean and untouchable because of disease? I wonder about that. Swanson says that we're tempted to assume that Jesus, being who he is, has knowledge of how safe it is to touch the man; in other words, he has a modern, informed perspective on disease. But don't we post-Enlightenment, scientifically minded folks know people we'd rather not see, let alone touch? Skin disease is difficult enough, but for a long time people with cancer and later those with HIV/AIDS have experienced a distance that surrounds them once they're diagnosed.
What about people with mental illness? There are probably no lonelier people, even among our church members, than the families of people who are mentally ill. Our awkward silence and discomfort in the face of their suffering enable us to avoid letting our lives touch theirs. Are we afraid that we might "catch" their pain and their problems? Swanson says that in every age there are "unclean" people and things "that have been touched by the inexorable, the uncontrollable, the uncanny." This kind of uncleanness pushes them to the edges of the community, like that leper. But we're not so far away from that same fate: how many Americans, for example, live one paycheck away from homelessness, or welfare, or bankruptcy? How many folks are just hanging on by a thread, and one stroke of bad luck, one terrible diagnosis, could push them over? We could so easily find ourselves on the margin, too, where most folks wouldn't want their lives to touch ours.
No gentle healing
Once we sense how the leper might have felt, we have to deal with Jesus' reaction to his plea. "Moved with pity" sounds nice until we see a footnote that other ancient texts read "with anger." While the thought of Jesus being angry at a leper asking to be made clean may disturb us, it's probably the accurate translation. As texts were copied over and over, scribes sometimes substituted a more acceptable word for any that might not fit with their image of Jesus. Every copy made from that edited version would then preserve that change, but those made from unedited copies would preserve the earlier word. So scholars tend to go with the more difficult translation when there's a conflict between texts, and then try to understand why it was used. We commonly say that a person's pain touches our heart, but scholars tend to connect compassion with the gut rather than the heart. So Jesus felt something powerful, something physical, when he looked at this man, an emotion better translated, Richard Swanson says, as "Jesus felt his stomach turn." That this was no gentle healing, no "balm in Gilead," is indicated by other phrases in the text, translated as "sternly warning," and "sent him away at once." Swanson says that "snorting" and "casting him out" would be closer to the real meaning Mark was trying to convey. Perhaps Jesus was angry at the interruption, or at the added suffering of the man's isolation. Or maybe there is something more.
Stephen L. Cook sees in this cleansing a much bigger picture, a vision of God healing and restoring all of us, not just this one leper. Here in the first chapter of his Gospel, Mark already has Jesus doing the things that will create tension between him and the religious authorities of his day. Cook says that the priests "lack the spiritual imagination" that would open their hearts and minds to the deeper meaning of the Holiness Code, the kind of health and wholeness that Jesus understands. From a distance, we can criticize our faith ancestors until we reflect on our own limits and expectations about how God will and should work. Cook urges us "to think much more 'out of the box' than these ancient priests," and to reclaim that ancient biblical image of a "broad, inclusive road" on which God will bring us all home, safe and sound, healed and restored. God, he says, is "washing clean all Zion's children, soaking out all our muck and scrubbing it away." His words remind us that what happens in this story is more a cleansing than a healing, although the man's restoration to his community is itself a healing.
Trying to keep things quiet
Ironically, as the leper is restored to his community, Jesus himself becomes a kind of leper, banished, in a sense, by his own popularity and power, the overwhelming needs of the people, and perhaps the rumbles of tension between him and the priests. It's no wonder that he tries to keep things quiet by telling the now-clean man not to tell anyone what has happened. Fred Craddock says, "The publicity created audiences, not congregations, and Jesus had to avoid the towns, keeping himself in the countryside." But it's no use, because word continues to spread. Mike Graves contrasts the women at the tomb at the end of the Gospel with this former leper: "So while Mark ends with a commission to tell, given to followers who don't tell (what might be called 'the great omission'), the Gospel begins with a leper who is warned not to tell but does."
With the man on his way home to his people, bursting with the news, Jesus heads out beyond the edge of town, but the people come after him anyway. At this point in his ministry, Jesus is in turmoil, despite his success, or perhaps because of it. That's one reason it's a good thing to read the entire Gospel of Mark: you get a sense of the speed, the drama, the intensity of Jesus' ministry. The Marcan Jesus feels a little less like the gentle, good shepherd and more like the man on a mission for whom things don't always go as expected, a man who knows how to get upset, angry, and even frustrated by the response of the crowds and the injustice around him. When Christians are tempted to reduce their faith to merely a source of comfort and inspiration, the Gospel of Mark pulls us out of our quiet places and sends us out into a world of outcasts and injustice, a world in need of a healing presence, or perhaps better, a healing force. This didn't exactly fit the expectations of some who looked for God to send a different kind of deliverer. What do you hope for, in Jesus?
How might the earliest Christians have heard this story, and how did it shape their understanding of ministry and of themselves as a compassionate community? In this very first chapter of Mark's Gospel, we've already watched Simon's mother-in-law become the church's "first deacon," and now this former outcast is preaching to the crowds! One of the most moving experiences I had as a pastor was watching folks come into the church, in need, and find a healing community in which they could in turn be a healing presence to others. When a person's heart has been broken open, it has more room for the suffering, and joy, of others. It must have been that way for the earliest Christians as well.
Even a personal faith isn't a private one
We must also ask how the church hears this story today, and how it shapes our understanding of ministry, our understanding of ourselves as a compassionate community. We're tempted to keep our faith personal, that is, a private relationship with Jesus that changes our lives, at least on the inside, but more than that is expected of us in response to God's healing touch: we're called to share that healing, that joy, with others, in community. We need one another, a community of faith, in which we can better understand who Jesus is, and what that means in our lives, that is, what it will mean to follow Jesus faithfully. We're called to serve and heal and make whole, to restore and rebuild and reach out.
This call, however, while it sounds beautiful, is not always easy. We're not always healed in every way that we would like to be, and many of us bear wounds and long-term suffering, losses and heartbreaks even as we continue to follow Jesus and seek to reach out to others who suffer as well. It's often hard to know the right words, the right gestures, for those on the margins, those whose lives are marked by pain. When we in the church get it right, however, it is a beautiful and powerful experience.
The final challenge on this text comes from GÈrald Caron, who questions the way we objectify one another with labels such as "the sick, the lepers, the poor, the downtrodden." Isn't this a powerful way to draw a line between "us" and "them"? We are "we," and they, well, they are not "they" but "the," almost a something instead of human beings, sisters and brothers. Caron also suggests that we think twice about using the word "wholeness," as if people who are sick "are not whole persons. It is as if wholeness and impediments, physical or otherwise, were incompatible." However, his even greater challenge is to the compassionate community itself to be healed in a very real sense of its own illness, for illness is one way to understand alienation and brokenness, and sin as well. And so we hear this story, just as those early Christians told it and heard it, and, like them, we let ourselves and our lives be shaped and cleansed and remade, so that we too might be restored.
For Further Reflection
Wendell Berry, 20th century
Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.
Willa Cather, 20th century
The miracles of the church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.
Norman Cousins, 20th century
It is reasonable to expect the doctor to recognize that science may not have all the answers to problems of health and healing.
Hippolytus, 3rd century
The wish for healing has ever been the half of health.
Yoko Ono, 20th century
Healing yourself is connected with healing others.
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Sunday, February 12