Touching a torn soul
Week of Sunday 12 February - Epiphany 6
Gospel: 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.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying 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.’45But 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.
This is a hard reading.
Who is this Jesus?
There is a textual uncertainty that makes it even more difficult. Does Mark’s original story say that Jesus was orgistheis; angry, or that he was splagchnistheis; filled with compassion? There are manuscripts with each of these readings.
Some commentators suggest that the notion that Jesus was angry is the more difficult reading and so we should accept it as the original. (The Gospel of Mark, Anderson (Eerdmans) 76). Metzger says
It is difficult to come to a firm decision concerning the original text. On the one hand, it is easy to see why orgistheis ("being angry") would have prompted over-scrupulous copyists to alter it to splagchnistheis ("being filled with compassion"), but not easy to account for the opposite change. On the other hand, a majority of the Committee was impressed by the following considerations. (1) The character of the external evidence in support of orgistheis is less impressive than the diversity and character of evidence that supports splagchnistheis....
If you don’t have Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the GNT, you can see this quote, and further discussion , on Brian Stoffregen’s page for this week. It’s clear, from Metzger, why the NRSV goes with the translation “moved with pity.”
What Mark actually said here makes a huge difference to what he meant!
Why would Jesus be angry? Was he angry because the man broke all the rules and approached him when, as a leper, he should have stayed away. Was Jesus frightened for his own safety? Leprosy was a fearful thing. We see the horror it invoked when Miriam becomes leprous. (Numbers 12:12)
Do not let her be like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb.’
Yet even this angry Jesus still heals the leper. He is decisive; it’s not as though Jesus is in two minds about things, angry, and reluctantly forced into healing. There is no hesitation. I do choose. He reached out and touched him, that inclusive healing gesture of Jesus that we have been seeing. This is a feat of courage as much as it is a feat of healing.
The anger continues.
After sternly warning him he sent him away at once... And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away, says the old King James. But look at the underlying Greek! It’s something like “and in thundering to him immediately he cast him out...”
Is this just a stern warning to remain silent? That is, verse 44 is the reason for this warning that is somewhere between stern and thundering in verse 33. As I read English, verse 44 is an addition to the thundering. It’s after thundering that Jesus adds the warning about seeing the priests and remaining silent.
Some suggest the anger is Jesus being indignant at the disease and the exclusion of this man from society. Well, maybe, but if so, Jesus is blaming the victim if he is being angry at the man!
I don’t like this Jesus. I’m inclined to go with the Jesus who full of compassion. This, of course, risks reading into the text. We should, Anderson says, choose the more difficult reading, other things being equal. He is correct.
Other things are not equal, apparently, and Metzger’s committee thinks we should go with Jesus being filled with compassion. I’m glad, although it makes the problem of his later anger even more difficult.
When I read of this Jesus who was moved with pity or, full of compassion, it is like a long warm hug on a day when my soul has been destroyed. This leper is barely able to ask for help. He is no impudent breaking the rules; he is desperate, begging. If you choose... if ever you may be willing, says the Greek of the interlinear bible I am using. This is heart breaking pain and misery, which many of us understand too well.
If ever you may be willing...
I do choose, says Jesus, I am willing, and reaches out and touches him. Love in three words.
Why, then, is Jesus thundering?
We see that Jesus is not wanting to draw attention to himself; good theology that, it’s all about the Kingdom of Heaven, not Jesus. He wants to spread the message. We see that he is observant; he wants the man to do the right thing by the law.
But there is a mystery in this anger about which we can only speculate. One author suggests
Jesus’ reaction here is probably to be thought of as ambivalent (similar perhaps to his ambivalent attitude to the Syrophoenician woman in 7:24-30): so far from rejecting traditional orthodoxy on the subject of leprosy ... I think we should assume that up to now he had unquestioningly accepted it. It was when actually confronted by a leper ... who had need of his help that his good nature got the better of his orthodoxy, and regardless of what he had always been told to believe, he gave the help he was asked for. (Mark’s Gospel and Literature and History David Bruce Taylor SCM 1992 p 92)
It remains speculation.
What is clear, is that in the face of horror, and total exclusion from society, Jesus shows a compassion that is even greater. He reaches out his hand and touches him...
In the contemporary world we view disease as a malfunction of the organism which can be remedied, assuming cause and cure are known, by proper biomedical treatment. We focus on restoring a sick person's ability to function, to do. Yet often overlooked is the fact that health and sickness are always culturally defined and that in the ancient Mediterranean, one's state of being was more important than one's ability to act or function. The healers in that ancient world thus focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function.
Anthropologists carefully distinguish between disease -- a biomedical malfunction afflicting an organism -- and illness -- a disvalued state of being in which social networks have been disrupted and meaning lost. Illness is not so much a biomedical matter as it is a social one. It is attributed to social, not physical, causes. Thus sin and sickness go together. Illness is a matter of deviance from cultural norms and values. [p. 210, italics in original]
Perhaps, I said, we unconsciously preserve some of this when we say people who are not helped by our “biomedical treatments,” are invalid.
Jesus reaching out and touching has been a profound symbol of acceptance for me; offering restoration, validation, and inclusion. I’ve been thinking a little about the nature of illness and healing, and offer this excerpt from The Road Less Travelled (sent to me by my wife)
Paradoxically, a group of humans becomes healing and converting only after its members have learned to stop trying to heal and convert. Community is a safe place precisely because no one is attempting to heal or convert you, to fix you, to change you. Instead, the members accept you as you are. You are free to be you. And being so free, you are free to discard defenses, masks, disguises; free to seek your own psychological and spiritual health; free to become your whole and holy self. ~ Dr. Scott Peck, from The Road Less Travelled