Texts: Mark 1:40-45
Last night, after watching the last little bit of Tennessee putting the hurt on Florida, I watched some of the local news which mainly reports crime or tragedy of the day. They reported a terrible fire that had devastated a lovely home last night. Fortunately, the family was saved from harm. The grandfather was filmed making this statement: “The Lord takes care of those who love him, and the Lord sent someone to save my family.”
What goes through your mind when you hear someone say things like that? Perhaps, for you it doesn’t register as something to ponder, living as we do in this predominantly evangelical culture. Or, perhaps it does. Did other people who died in other fires not love God? Or did God not love other victims of terrible accidents? What provokes God to intervene? Does God intervene at all? Do the people who make those sorts of statements realize how callous and unfeeling their remarks may feel to others? And of course, a big question that may arise—and has for many people over the centuries—what kind of God saves some people but lets others die terrible deaths of suffering that seem absolutely unmerited by any behavior of their own? Oh, I know that people say things like that because they are so incredibly thankful that their family has been spared, but wouldn’t it be nicer if they said just that they are so grateful, and left God out of the equation?
These questions that frame the problem of suffering, the problem of theodicy, have driven many a person away from religion, especially monotheistic religions that profess belief in a supposedly omnipotent God.
The 5-verse story in Mark’s Gospel that we just read always raised these questions for me when I was very young. If Jesus chose to heal this leper, why did he only choose to heal this one? Why not eradicate the world of leprosy, I would wonder. In my childish understanding, I wondered if, as Isaiah promised, the time would come when God would make the blind be able to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, and if Jesus was the fulfillment of those prophecies, why did we still have so much suffering in the world? I knew, as a child, that my godparents loved God, yet their youngest child died at age six of leukemia. It didn’t make sense. That’s why many tragedies and much suffering can only be described as “senseless”—without sense, but with deep reality.
In one way it would be wonderful if, by our own merit, our own goodness, our own love of the Lord, we could believe that God will take care of us in this life time, as well as what God may have in store for us on the other side of death. But if you dig deeply behind that concept, you see an attempt being made to be able to control God, and to blame people—however innocent they might be—for their suffering. It’s a notion as old as humanity to believe that people somehow bring their suffering on themselves. Such manipulation really prevents God from being God, and God becomes instead our puppet, or else a very fickle, prejudiced, and biased divinity. After all, who can be good enough?
One of the things that I often say about our little congregation is that it is full of smart people, all of whom are smart enough to know that none of us, not one, is without a lot of flaws, or has it all together. Isn’t that the truth???
So, does this story of the healing of the leper have anything to say to us about this big issue of the problem of suffering?
Let’s take a look at it and see what it might tell us. The story of a man with leprosy is a story of reversals. If you have been paying attention these last few weeks to these short readings from the first chapter of Mark you will have noticed that Mark has Jesus moving us from religious space—the healing of the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue of Capernaum, to a private space in the house of Simon and Andrew, where Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law; to the public space of the countryside, announcing the good news: which was given to us in vs. 15 of chapter 1: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
From the synagogue, to the private home, Jesus is now in the open—out where the impure ones wander, those who are excluded from the community of ritual in the synagogue and from the community of neighbors in the city. All such skin diseases were deemed to be leprosy, at that time. Anyone found to have such a disease was required to wear torn clothes, let his or her hair grow and be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, “Unclean! unclean!” They were required to move outside of settlements, leave their family, and live alone. Living a precarious existence on the edge of settlements, prey to robbers, begging for sustenance, dirty, wild looking—this is the kind of person Jesus encounters when he meets the leper.
Jesus has been alone in a deserted or isolated place to pray; and the next thing Mark tells us that happens is that Jesus encounters one who is forced to live in isolation, a deserted life. There may be no better definition of what pain and disease can do to you than to describe it as a life deserted of all but the disease or pain.
In this first chapter, in these three vignettes in the synagogue, in Simon’s home, and now out in the open places, Mark points out how “the kingdom of God has come near.” The Greek work for “come near” may also be defined as “within grasp”, that is to say: it is literally touchable. So in the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus takes her by the hand. In the story of the leper, Jesus touches him.
For Mark, “…the radical proclamation of Jesus disrupts the social order by breaking the boundaries of social space. … Jesus’ hand,” [Orfelia Ortega writes in the wonderful new commentary series, Feasting on the Word (p. 358),] “is the supreme expression of mercy that transcends the laws of the purity of religious dogma. This hand is a sign of mercy and shared life ….”
The NRSV says that Jesus touched the man because he was “moved with pity”. Pity is “a sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy.” Its synonyms are compassion, commiseration (to share in the misery of another), condolence, sympathy, the capacity to share the painful feelings of other. The phrase, “moved with pity”, brought to mind William Blake’s famous quatrain:
For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Jesus is that reflection of God’s great pity and commiseration with us.
However gentle this encounter may sound in our English translation, the Greek word translated as “pity” actually suggests a gut-wrenching emotional response that compels the one feeling compassion into action on behalf of another. It is also the case, as the NRSV footnote suggests, that some ancient manuscripts of Mark’s gospel say Jesus was filled with anger. “I am willing” he says; “be clean!” It’s as if Jesus is saying, “I am angry—that you are excluded from the fullness of life. I am angry—that religious systems can be so pig-headed sometimes in whom they include and whom they exclude. I am angry that you are suffering from this disease.”
So too the next part of the story, where Jesus warns the man sternly, or, as other scholars translate it, “snorts” at the cleansed leper, not to say anything to anyone but to go back to the priest and make the required offering for cleansing,” and here’s the important phrase, that we miss: “As A TESTIMONY TO THEM.” The leper was asking not so much for healing but for cleanliness, which is to say he was asking for inclusion in the temple and society. Jesus sends the healed man BACK to demonstrate that holiness now happens not by adhering to codes or laws, but by being in touch with God and God’s agents.
The unnamed leper does not do that, but becomes, in effect, one of the first preachers about Jesus. And Jesus, the text says, could no longer go openly into a town. Again, we non-Jews miss the point here. Jesus could not go into a town for seven days, because the one who was unclean is now clean, and he, Jesus, who was ritually clean, is now ritually unclean. He has taken his unholiness, the leper’s supposed sinfulness, upon himself.
But now we have to go back to that matter with which we began: human suffering. The healings, as I have noted, are not the critical issue for Mark. He wants to demonstrate, over and over again, that Jesus will not use magical powers to heal, but has come to show pity, love, compassion, as the way God works among us.
The problem of human pain and suffering remains:
Here’s what I have come to be able to say in a lifetime of struggling with this: God offers us who follow Jesus no answer to the question of why some are saved, and some die; of why some suffer, and others receive some manumission from whatever has maimed, crippled, and caused them to be excluded from life’s health and wholeness. Job, you will recall, receives no answer in his encounter with God over these very issues. Even Jesus will suffer and die an awful death. God’s essence is not power, not magic– but love and sympathy, and abiding presence, that even death cannot destroy or bury.
So if the story has any answer to our question it is this: in Jesus, we see God’s anger, sorrow, and sympathy for suffering; and in Jesus, we see God entering it fully to share it with us, to be with us in the isolating and exclusion, the hurt, and loss, and pain. And in whatever suffering may come our way, we learn who God really is and are forced to give up our wish for magic and power, in exchange for love that endures everything with and for us, even terrible suffering, grief, and finally our own deaths.
In that strange answer, which is not what many people want, also may be found a vocation for us as the church, the body of Christ in the world today: to be those willing to reach out and touch the unclean, the unholy people and things of this world; to be those angered at the exclusion of people from adequate health care; to be willing to be excluded ourselves because, like Jesus, we choose to help make people whole, and in being like him in our compassion, we are drawn into the very heart of God.