|The following is Rev. Meeter's sermon for Feb 16, 2003|
Uncleanness is Next to Godliness |
|6 After Epiphany, Mark 1:40-45|
Properly to understand this story we must keep it in the context of the whole of chapter 1. Please remember how Jesus opened his ministry. Jesus initiated his campaign in the north, in Galilee, announcing this: The time i s fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, believe the good news and repent (v. 15). Jesus brought his kingdom in with power and authority. Jesus was liberating Galilee from that which was oppressing it, not only from unclean spirits and physical sickness, but also from ignorance and confusion about God and what God wants (as his namesake Joshua had done in the same region, liberating the landscape from the greedy gods and bloodthirsty goddesses). We have seen that Jesus' healing came out of his teaching. In Mark's gospel, the content of his message is demonstrated by its effect.
And now here comes a leper. His disease is incurable, and he might as well be dead. The effect of his disease is to disfigure and dismember him, and also to disenfranchise and disgrace him. He is unclean, unkosher, untouchable, and exiled to the empty places. He is cut off from his family, he is cast out from the synagogue, he is no longer one of God's people. But he believes the good news that the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand. So when Jesus passes through the empty place, the leper beseeches him on his knees, like a prisoner before a prince. He dares to say, "I know that you can do it if you want to, so do you want to?" Jesus says, "Yes, I want to." And he touches him and says "Be clean."
His time was fulfilled. How many years had it been since anyone touched this man? In terms of emotional response, the modern equivalent of leprosy would be AIDS. But Jesus was not wearing rubber gloves. And he touched him. It's normally the case that the infected person contaminates the uninfected. Here the process is reversed. You were taught that cleanliness is next to godliness. Here it goes the other way. They were taught that the unclean would have no place in the kingdom of God. But the prince has just included him.
Jesus broke the law by touching him. Then Jesus upheld the law by ordering him to go see a priest, that is, to submit to the whole long ritual of absolution, eight days long, under the supervision of a priest, down in Jerusalem. Jesus was not being legalistic. It was for the man's own good, to complete the effect of the healing, because the ritual would certify his cleansing and effectively restore him to the community. The point of the healing was not the healing in itself, but the resultant reconciliation.
And Jesus' other purpose was the man's repentance. Believe the good news and repent. That's the reason he had to do it in silence, for self-examination and awareness. Well, he skips the whole repentance part. Who of you, when you get a new computer, registers it right away, and fully reads the software agreement before you click that you accept it? You want to plug and play. So does he. And it must have been frustrating for Jesus. His miracles were so much more attractive than the harder work of self-examination and awareness.
Every English translation I know of backs off from the literal pungency of three Greek verbs which Mark employs. And our translation today is pasteurized and homogenized. You see, if you take the three verbs literally, you get a Jesus who does uncomfortable things. In verse 41, according to our best textual evidence, he is not "moved with pity," rather he is "angry." Angry at what? The leper? The leprosy? Mark doesn't say. Such uncertainty we don't like. We do like Jesus to be nice, not angry, or angry only at bad guys.
And verse 43 says literally that as soon as the leprosy left the man, Jesus snorted like a horse and thrust him away. He made a loud emotional noise and shoved him off. "Get out of here." How rough. What are we to make of that? Why didn't Jesus minister to him, comfort him, and talk to him?
Why is Jesus angry here? Is he angry at the evidence of human suffering? Is he angry at the effects of the disease? Or is he angry at his own predicament, is he angry because he knows that now the crowds will only multiply the more, not for his message, but for his miracles, so that he might make changes for them instead of them making changes in themselves? Or is he angry at the incapacity of ordinary people, like this man, thoroughly to repent and truly and completely to be reconciled? Or is he angry at the incapacity of ordinary religion to heal the sick and raise the dead? Is he angry at the gap between what God wants and what God does? Is he angry at God, and God's government of the world, that lets such suffering go on? The challenge the leper puts to him-what if Jesus puts that same challenge to his father in heaven: "If you want it, you can do it." If you want the world to be right, you can make the world right.
Why don't you, O God? Why do you let this go on? If I didn't know better, God, I might think that "you can't always get what you want." But Jesus demonstrates that if you want it, God, you can do it. And so, if you want peace on earth, and good will on humankind, why do you let nations keep going to war? I'm angry about that.
I can imagine that Jesus is angry, but Mark doesn't tell us why. No doubt the ingredients of his anger are multiple and complex. There is probably in him even what psychologists call transference-that Jesus is picking anger from the leper, anger which the leper might no longer feel nor be aware of, a rage and frustration deeply internalized and long suppressed. Or, maybe, most troubling of all, is Jesus' anger the anger of God? Is God emotional? Wouldn't we prefer a God who is distant and unfeeling, if that would give us a God who was never angry? A nice clean philosophical God.
There is reason to believe that Mark makes use of these strong and troubling verbs not so much to make a point as because that's actually what happened. The tradition tells us that Mark wrote his gospel based on the memories of Simon Peter, and if Simon Peter was an eyewitness to this event, then, from what we know of Simon Peter's personality, such actions on Jesus' part would have made a deep impression on him. Is this what our rabbi is like? And then, a year or two later, is this what the Messiah is like? And then, eventually, three and more years later, can this be what God is like?
Can you imagine that this is what God is like, in these verbs, heated, snorting, pushing? Connection, transference, emotion, feeling . . . loving. There is a surplus of emotion here that suggests there is more than just a emotion going on. Can we detect herein a passion that is deeper than pity, and an identification that is stronger than good advice? Can we accept this surplus of emotion as being appropriate to God, and can we detect in this surplus the passion of God's grace? This is grace here, this is love, this is a universal God who is overwhelmed by the individual case of one small person who has been excluded from the community and given up for dead. The desire of God is clearly demonstrated here.
What God wants, God doesn't get, and that too is a sign of grace. Not because God can't, but because God doesn't, because God gives freedom, to us, and to the world, and God lets the world take its course. Yes, God does occasionally intervene, for only very specific purposes, which we don't often understand. Yes, God does heal, even today, but every one of us will have at least one disease which God will not heal, our last one, the one we die of. God does not command us to be healed. But what God does command us to be reconciled. As individuals, be reconciled. You might get healed, you must be reconciled. As a congregation, reconcile. Touch the unclean. Restore them to fellowship.
In 1991 I attended worship at a church in the West Village in Manhattan. It was a pivotal experience for me. There were as yet no medications for HIV and AIDS, and the gay community was still reeling from effects of the disease. The sermon was great, the music was good. Then we came forward to the chancel for Holy Communion. Many of the men were obviously very sick. They came up on canes and crutches and even on walkers. They had to be helped up the chancel step. We held out our hands to receive the wafer. Then the deacon offered the common cup to each one of us in turn. The men who had the virus didn't drink from it. Out of respect for the uninfected, they simply reached forward and touched the chalice. I was so moved by this act of love. The guy next to me just touched the chalice with his finger. I drank from it after him. I had been reconciled to him, and we were both inside the kingdom, in the community of God's people.