February 12, 2012
I always appreciate it when someone says to me "Have a blessed day." But I never know quite know how to respond. "Thank you" is a polite response, but I'm being offered a blessing, not a compliment. "I intend to," sounds too snarky. And "Accepting God's blessedness means sharing it with others" sounds way too preachy. But that's the gist of our passage from Mark this week. Jesus blesses the leper's day and the leper squanders the blessing in disobedience. More on that later.
At various times in our lives we have prayed for others, for our family, and for ourselves. In doing so, we are in good company with all the petitioners of the gospels. In the gospels sometimes people petition Jesus for healing on behalf of others, as, for example, the case with Jesus and the friends of the paralytic (Mk. 2:1-2) and Jesus and the centurion (Lk. 7:1-9), Sometimes they petition Jesus on behalf of their children, as is the case with Jesus and the Syrophoenician mother (Mk. 7:24-30) and the father of the boy with the demon (Mk. 9: 14-29). And sometimes people petition Jesus for themselves, as, for example, the blind beggar Bartimaeus (Mk. 10:46-52). This is the case with our text for this week. The leper came to Jesus, begging for healing for his leprosy.
Leprosy in Jesus' day referred to any of a number of skin diseases that the Old Testament considered unclean. Those afflicted by them were isolated and prevented from participating in the religious life of the community (Lev. 13:45-46). Leprosy was considered to be a punishment for sin, as we see in the cases of Miriam (Num. 12), Gehazi (2 Kgs. 5), and King Uzziah (2 Chr. 26:16-21) (Aaron, 36-37). So the leper, who is not named, is one who is ostracized from the community and made to feel responsible for his own physical affliction. If we identify with the leper, we need to ask ourselves what it is in our lives that makes us feel cut off from community and ashamed at the presence of some condition, habit, or secret in our lives. As agents of Jesus' healing, we need to ask ourselves who is it in our community who feels cut off and ashamed?
We need to give the leper credit for being proactive, as approaching Jesus must have taken some degree of courage. Kneeling before Jesus, he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." At the same time that he is proactive, he is tentative: "Lord, if you choose." He has no doubt that Jesus has the power to heal him. He's just not sure Jesus will be willing to heal him. Note that he asks to be "made clean" (katharisai). This is a reference to both ceremonial and physical cleansing. His request indicates the religious significance of the disease for the community (Thurston, 27).
The NRSV translates verse 41 as "Moved with pity." It makes sense that Jesus would have empathy for the man. Some older manuscripts have "Moved with anger." New Testament scholar Bonnie Thurston points out that, in her view, the more difficult reading is more likely the more authentic one. Why would Jesus be angry? Says Thurston, "Anger was an appropriate response to a devastating disease, especially one that leads to social ostracism" (Thurston, 27). Maybe he was angry at the purity laws that isolated this man from the community and made him think less of himself. Maybe we don't need to choose between the two emotions, anger and pity. Pity and anger can intermingle.
I can be angry that human laws put someone in the position of appearing pitiful to others. I can pity someone while being angry at the need to pity them. Jesus' anger, if it was that, doesn't seem to be directed at the man but at the purity laws that make him doubt, even for a moment, that Jesus would be willing to heal him.
The theme of resistance to Jesus' ministry from both human and demonic forces threads through Mark's gospel. God's kingdom of justice and peace breaks through in Jesus' teachings, healings, exorcisms, and miracles. At the same time, just about every scene in Mark's gospel reflects a struggle, a tension between God's goal for wholeness and peace and the forces that resist that goal.
This scene of the healing of the leper is no different. The man's own doubt that Jesus is willing to heal him is one obstacle. Jesus overcomes it quickly. Then, after he has been healed, the man's own disobedience is an obstacle to Jesus' ministry. After he makes the man clean, restoring him to community, Jesus sends him to the priests to present proof of the healing. Jesus "sternly warns him" to keep quiet about the healing. The healed leper immediately goes and blabs it to anyone who will listen. The result is that Jesus' ministry is limited.