Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle on February 12, 2012
(Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B)
Jesus! What are you thinking?!
That guy is unclean! He’s outcast!
You know, you touch him and you’re unclean, too; you’re outcast.
You don’t have to do this you know. You remember when Elisha healed Namaan. He didn’t even come out of the house! He just sent a messenger to tell him what to do. Say the word and this guy will be healed. You don’t have to risk your own holiness for his sake!
Oh. Right. Holiness. And risk. That may be the shocking message of this story. And I have always missed it. Usually I get stuck somewhere when I try to come to terms with this story. Sometimes I stop with the miracle. Wow! This guy just says, “If you choose, you can heal me” and Jesus does.
Other times I get stuck on the “choosing” part. Why would Jesus choose to heal some and not others. What about all the other lepers? What about all the people who pray for healing and continue in their suffering; People, good people, of deep faith praying fervently. I could get angry about it – especially with all the truly horrific things we see happening in the news or in our communities; innocent children suffering, dying.
If you can choose to heal some, Jesus, why not choose to heal all?
Some of the ancient manuscripts say, Jesus was moved with anger, and scholars ask, anger at what? Was he angry with the man for interrupting him?
Was he angry at the disease and its devastating, disfiguring effects?
Or was he angry at the systems and the religious authorities that marginalize and ostracize such people?
Translators struggle with this particular line. While some manuscripts say anger, others use a word that could be translated pity or compassion, although neither is adequate. However it is translated, it is about an intense emotion that propels Jesus forward; compelling him to act; to touch the untouchable. In so doing, he challenges the religious authority. The challenge continues as Jesus angrily instructs the man to go back and show himself to the priests, and offer the appointed sacrifice as a witness against them.
So maybe this story is not simply another miraculous healing. Mark is galloping along at breakneck speed, setting the stage for what is to come. It’s still just the first chapter and already:
- Jesus is identified as the Son of God
- John the Baptist preaches & baptizes
- Jesus is baptized and tested in the wilderness
- Jesus preaches and teaches with authority
- He calls the first four disciples
- In the Synagogue, Jesus teaches with such authority that even the demons obey.
- In a home, he cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever.
- And in the countryside, Jesus violates Jewish purity law, touching a leper, and challenges the authority of the religious establishment.
It’s not surprising what comes next. Chapter 2 begins with an explicit question about authority. Who has the authority to heal and to forgive sins?
Jesus violated the holiness codes – those that define what is clean and unclean; holy or defiled. The expected result was that both would be defiled. And according to the “rules,” I suppose they were. Except for one thing. The leper was cleansed.
When Jesus touched him, both became Holy.
When Jesus touches us, we become Holy.
He touches us in the incarnation itself in becoming human.
He touches us in the water of baptism, in the bread and wine of communion, in the oil of healing, and through the hands of other people.
And by extension when we serve others, especially when we reach across the boundaries to touch the untouchable, we both are made Holy.
Holiness involves risk and it requires action.
One might have asked, “How can he be Holy if he touches what is not holy?” But Jesus shows us that the actual question is,
“How could he be Holy if he did not?”
How can we be Holy if we do not?