12 February 2012/Epiphany 6B – Mark 1:40-45
The Reverend Kirk A Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
The Choice Is Ours
It is told that when a certain Hasidic Rebbe was jailed in Russia, the Chief Jailer came to visit him. Indeed, the Rebbe was so deep in meditation and prayer he did not even notice the Chief had entered his cell. The Chief Jailer had questions to ask about the Bible, and finally asked, “If God is all knowing, why is it that in the Garden God asks of Adam, ‘Where are you?’” The Rebbe replied, “Do you not believe that all scripture is true for all persons, in all places at all times?” The Chief acknowledged that yes, this is true. “Then rather than asking why God asks Adam, ‘Where are you?’ isn’t the question really ‘Where are you? Where are you in your life? After 46 years, how far along are you in your life?’” The Chief was shaken. How did his holy man know he was 46 years old? He thanked the Rebbe and left the cell pondering the Rebbe’s question.
This episode of Jesus with the “leper,” and all of Mark’s Gospel really, means to function much the same way demanding of all of us who will listen, “Where are you?”
At one dimension it is about a man who has by virtue of some non-specific skin disease (leprosy or Hansen’s disease was unknown in the middle east of the Bible) has been separated from the life of the community. According to the law of Moses recorded in Leviticus 13:45-46, “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. He shall live outside the camp.” Isolated from family and friends, excluded from public worship and thereby isolated from God, the “leper” is alone in the most radical social sense just because of a rash or flakey skin. Lest we think this is primitive stuff, it is not long ago that TV ads warned us of the “heartbreak of psoriasis.”
We are struck by Jesus reaching out and touching one of the untouchables. And we might mistake the story as one more demonstration of God’s power to heal and cast out demons. Our attention may be drawn, however, to the man’s plea: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” He does not ask to be healed per se – he wants to be made ritually clean again. That is, he wants to be restored to the life of the community – he seeks to be made socially acceptable once again.
At one time or another we all feel alone, isolated, separated from others, set adrift from the community of faith, on our own. Sometimes it is by our own choice – either a desire to be alone, or something we do or say causes a rift. Often times others write us off without so much as a word or an explanation. The most deeply rooted truth of Judeo-Christian religion is the fact that we are irreducibly social creatures. Such alienation eats away at the very core of who we are and who God has created us and wants us to be.
So it is that God sets forth, as Mark proclaims at the outset of chapter 1, “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God….” At the core of the good news, and the focus of nearly the entire first chapter of Mark’s gospel, is God’s intention to end such human alienation; to end social isolation; to restore those who have been set “outside the camp,” the Bible’s metaphor for the all too human tendency to banish those not just like ourselves. This is the essence of being “made clean” – we are restored to unity with God, with others, and ultimately with our own selves.
The man’s opening words to Jesus, however, offer perhaps our most important insight – “If you choose….” If the Kotzker Rebbe is correct, and there can be no doubt about that, and all scripture is true for all persons, in all places and in all times, then these words are aimed at us: If you choose. Do we, like Jesus, choose to reach out and touch those we fear the most? Do we choose to work on behalf of healing relationships, healing lives, healing brokenness in the community, healing creation?
Because that is just what God in Christ chooses to do. Jesus chooses to break with all tradition, set aside all fear of contracting whatever skin condition the man has, and touches him. Can we see, that it is the act of touching the man that makes him clean again? Which act of touching is a metaphor for acceptance - acceptance of those not just like us, of those we fear, of those we do not particularly like, of those who interrupt us when, like Jesus, we are trying to get away from it all.
The text in Greek, by the way, does not say that Jesus was, "Moved by pity," but rather that he responds out of anger! The translators just cannot bear it. Why is Jesus angry? Because Jesus knows getting involved with this man is going to cost him - it is going to make it even more difficult for him to get away on his own, and it is going to bring him into conflict with the authorities who have a monopoly on the health care delivery systems - those who are "authorized" to declare people "clean." Our text makes clear that he could "no longer go into a town freely, but stayed out in the country." Another euphemism - the Greek says he remains in "the wilderness places." Ironically, as the man is restored to life in the community, Jesus is driven to remain "outside the camp," the dwelling place of all those consigned to cry out, "Unclean! Unclean!"
Yet, Mark's is a story that begins in the wilderness with John baptizing, continues with Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness sorting out what it means to be God's beloved, and now already in chapter one has Jesus having to retreat to the wilderness to avoid the crowds.
"Wilderness" in the Bible is also a metaphor - 40 years in the wilderness God taught the people how to be God's people, what it means to love your neighbor, what it means to welcome resident aliens, what it means to be wholly and fully dependent upon the God of the Exodus, the God of Creation, the God who provides daily bread, the only God who can release you from whatever binds you to sin.
On page 855 in our Book of Common Prayer, in our Catechism, it states that the ministry we all share as lay persons is to "continue Christ's work of reconciliation in the world." This work begins with answering the question God puts to Adam in the Garden: Where are you? Where are you in your life? Where are you when it comes continuing Christ's work of reconciliation? And it continues with our response to the invitation the man with leprosy shouts out, "If you choose...."
Do we choose to reconcile and build up the community of faith, or not? Do we wish to participate in God's work of repairing a broken world, or not? The bold truth of the Garden is that God gives us the power to choose. We know how Jesus responds even when it does not suit him to do so. How we choose will make all the difference in the world. Just ask the man in our story today! Are we, like him, ready to "spread the word" freely wherever we are? Amen.