NRSV Mark 1:40-45 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.
There are several curiosities about this brief story in the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel. The first has to do with word choice in the translation. Verse 41 states that when the man with leprosy comes to Jesus begging to be made clean that Jesus was moved with compassion. A text note states that other ancient manuscripts read that Jesus was moved with anger. Quite a different emotional state. New Testament translators have at their disposal a variety of ancient manuscripts, with slight discrepancies, that they put alongside one another to determine what might be the best reading; and, in this case, some of the manuscripts, the majority, state the Jesus was moved with compassion, others state he was moved with anger. Even though the minority of manuscripts use anger, some scholars observe there’s a good chance that this was the original reading, since it is the more difficult one, and it’s easier to imagine scribes agreeing to change anger to compassion, rather than changing compassion to anger. What’s your preference?! A compassionate Jesus, or an angry Jesus?
If Jesus is angry, what or who is he angry at? Is this a story like the Syro-Phoenician woman where Jesus seems to be showing some initial contempt for the one seeking healing, even though he does choose to heal? Might Jesus be angry at the leprosy itself, or the unjust stigma that it carried, how it created a class of unclean people not able to fully participate in the life of the community? Is Jesus angry with the crowds following him, sure to make him out to be a wonder working magician? Angry with his disciples for some reason? Is he just having a bad day?
We know that Jesus does express anger later in the gospel, that final week of his life, when he enters the temple and drives out the money changers and those selling doves to be sacrificed, crying that the temple, the house of God, was to be a house of prayer for all nations, but that it had been made into a den of robbers.
Are we dealing here with an angry Jesus or a compassionate Jesus, and is there a way to be compassionately angry, or angrily compassionate? In this story, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we have to accept at least the possibility that Jesus experienced anger more than just that one time in the temple.
Whatever emotion it is that moves Jesus to do so, he reaches out and touches the man, who was immediately made clean. Imagine that. Touch results in physical and social healing.
But then we are given another curiosity. Verse 43: “After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone.” This is a double-barreled curiosity. First, we have Jesus “sternly warning” this man. This is the same language used later in the gospel when a woman comes to Jesus and pours a jar of very costly ointment over Jesus’ head. Those who see it are upset, and they scolded her, they sternly warned her, same Greek word. It’s also the same language used in John’s gospel when Jesus is told that his dear friend Lazarus has died. Twice, it says, Jesus is greatly disturbed, a slightly different sense with the same word. This word used for these cases is charged with emotion, anger, contempt, grief.
Jesus sternly warns this man, and then sends him away and instructs him to tell no one. Curious. This man is forbidden from spreading the good news of his own being made clean. Barred from testifying on Jesus’ behalf. Banned from evangelism. It’s odd, but it happens all thoughout Mark’s gospel as Jesus repeatedly tells people to keep quiet about what he is doing. “Tell no one” echoes even that final mysterious statement of Mark as women flee from the tomb Easter morning, having discovered it empty. Mark says, “so they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” End of story.
Except that this man is disobedient to this strange stern order from this still obscure rabbi. He’s been made clean! One touch and his skin has cleared up. He’s been delivered from the despised class of outcasts. Jesus is emphatically cautioning quiet, but this man shares a similar story to that of the Psalmist: “O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to God’s holy name” (Ps. 30:3-4) How can he be silent? He goes out and spreads the word, proclaims it freely. The result is that Jesus can’t even go into a town openly without being swarmed with crowds of people. Is this what Jesus was trying to avoid? An intentional, yet failed, strategy of evading celebrity status?
There is another curiosity in this story. There is one group to whom this man is allowed to testify. Jesus tells him to go and show himself to the priests, to go and make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to that temple that will eventually make Jesus so angry. This man is to undergo the cleansing ceremonies, led by the priests, that the book of Leviticus instructs for the children of Israel. Even though he is already clean, Jesus tells him to go and make it official, to get certified clean, by the priests – as a testimony to them. Imagine that. A man healed in the marginal land of Galilee by this independent rabbi, far away from the temple, instructed by his healer to go and be a missionary to the organized religion of the day.
There were many memorable moments from last weekend’s Mennonite Arts Weekend. There is one particular exchange of conversation that I have been replaying in my mind throughout the week. It happened during the first workshop of Saturday morning, in the chapel where Julia Spicher Kasdorf was reading her poetry and asking the question of what it means to be a Mennonite poet. Is there even such a thing as Mennonite poetry? When she opened the floor for comments, a young woman toward the front spoke up and talked about her own aspirations for writing and poetry. She is a graduate student, studying and writing, hoping to have her first book published soon. She shared about having a lot of rage with the church and that her professors have told her that she can either leave the church and get in touch with her rage and write good poetry, or stay in the church and probably do neither. This is not a Mennonite University. She is currently not living close to a Mennonite church so doesn’t have the option of being a part of one right now. But she is wondering if she will have to stay away from church to do what she wants to do.
And then right when she is done sharing, another young woman, younger, a member of the Goshen choir, on the other side of the room, said, “Please don’t leave.” It was a remarkable moment. It would have been different if it were an older person asking her not to leave the church, a similar kind of dynamic that probably happens just about every generation. The older generation fears for the continuation of the church and asks the younger generation not to leave. But this was a different dynamic. Leading the workshop was this accomplished writer and poet, published and tenured, someone who has found her voice. Then speaks a woman who is in the process of finding her voice, wondering if that can even happen inside the bounds of the church. Then there is a younger woman, just beginning this journey of finding her voice, looking out there for whose voice she can identify with her own, asking this other woman to please stay in the church because she needs her.
At this point Ted Swartz speaks up from the back of the room and says that things have changed, for the better, in the last 20-25 years. That there are places in the church where this young woman will be welcome, this voice of rage and frustration and creativity and pushing the boundaries.
And he’s right. Things have changed. There are spaces in the church where these kinds of voices are welcome, and I’m so pleased that Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship is one of those places. Things are changing. You can bring your questions and your wounds and be given voice. Being loved is more important than being right. We are learning. You can say “She” and be talking about God. You can be gay, and be out. You can love Jesus and love Buddha. Things are changing and we are learning. You can struggle with depression and mental illness and not be stigmatized. You can bring all of the strange and delightful work of art that is your life. We are changing and learning and growing. We are learning some things about being communities of healing and hope.
But we’ve got some big challenges. It’s hard to be a healing community for each other when we’re so spread out and live such independent lives. It’s challenging to love and care for one another when we don’t know each other very well. We struggle to know how best to reach out to each other when we’re hurting, and how to fully welcome and bring in to our life people who are new, looking for a healing, loving community.
How are we doing with all this? How are we doing at being a community of healing and hope?
The lectionary gives us this gospel story about this man who was healed outside the boundaries of the official religious structures of the day. Well beyond the turf of the temple where the priests and pastors hang out and where people offer worship, God was bringing healing. The man didn’t need a temple, a church. He needed a healing touch. If we can follow those alternative ancient manuscripts, where Jesus is moved with anger, and if we can put this story alongside that Arts Weekend exchange, we might imagine that the anger/love of Jesus is directed toward the place he asks the newly-made-clean man to go: to the temple, the functioning, or non-functioning of the church of the day. There would not be such charged anger if there was not a deep love and faith for what the institution could be. Deep in his Jewish soul, Jesus would have rejoiced in the gift of Torah, perhaps even the beauty of temple worship. These gifts to his people. These holy words on the scroll, these priests performing the rituals of worship and restoration and healing for the people. But not carrying out their mission so well. Not being the house of prayer for all peoples that was its vocation. Not being a place of healing. The leper has been made clean, doesn’t really need the priests and their symbolic certification process of being cleansed and restored. Doesn’t really need the church. But Jesus tells him to say nothing to anyone, but to go show himself to the priests who will offer the cleansing called for by Moses. Do this as a testimony to them. Maybe he’ll remind them that they are a place of healing. The church needs him.
In case you’re wondering, had this man gone to the temple, this is what would have happened, as prescribed in Leviticus 14:
Leviticus 14:1-9 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2 This shall be the ritual for the leprous person at the time of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest; 3 the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall make an examination. If the disease is healed in the leprous person, 4 the priest shall command that two living clean birds and cedarwood and crimson yarn and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be cleansed. 5 The priest shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel. 6 He shall take the living bird with the cedarwood and the crimson yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. 7 He shall sprinkle it seven times upon the one who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease; then he shall pronounce him clean, and he shall let the living bird go into the open field. 8 The one who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, and shave off all his hair, and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean. After that he shall come into the camp, but shall live outside his tent seven days. 9 On the seventh day he shall shave all his hair: of head, beard, eyebrows; he shall shave all his hair. Then he shall wash his clothes, and bathe his body in water, and he shall be clean.”
That is the first half of the ritual. There is a whole other set of rituals to be performed on the eighth day.
If you think all of this is tedious and bizarre and unnecessary, then perhaps you would have been like the man in the story and skipped out on the whole thing to run and tell your friends how great it is that the leprosy, that stigma and burden of all those years, is gone.
If you think all of this is interesting and fascinating then there are 26 other chapters in Leviticus of thrilling reading awaiting you.
Why would anyone stick with church when they can get so much of the good stuff somewhere else without all the obscure church traditions and messiness of relationships with church people? Or, why would anyone who has never been associated with church want to come and be a part of it? These are very live questions.
What do we have?
We have community. We have scripture, a story of a people of God and God’s love for them, which turns out to be for the whole world. We have prayer. We have ritual, these holy symbols which embody in them in concentrated form the presence of God, the meaning of our faith. We have our own love/anger journeys with the church that must be shared and heard and honored. We have these treasures, which help us to be a community of healing and hope.
From time to time, during our worship, we give an opportunity to receive anointing with oil for those who wish to pray for some form of healing for themselves, or on behalf of another. And that is what we’re doing this morning. This is one of our rituals, one of the acts that we do that help us pray for one another. One of the ways to acknowledge God’s healing presence among us. So, if you wish to receive an anointing for youself or on behalf of someone dear to you, you can come forward during the song. You can speak your concern or come in silence. I’ll anoint your forehead or, if you wish, hold out your palm and it will be anointing.