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FEBRUARY 12, 2012: SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
I Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1:40-45

During a recent Krista Tippett NPR "On Being" show, Walter Brueggemann made an insightful observation. "I've given up using theological arguments to show that Scripture doesn't condemn homosexuality as we know it today. The problem is psychological, not biblical." The well-known Scripture scholar is convinced people simply don't know how to integrate chaos into their lives. He believes all of us have an image of a perfect world in the back of our minds. For many straights, it's a world in which everyone is straight. Gays bring chaos into such a world. We feel better when we can exclude them from messing up our image.

Today's three readings show us that, even if we ignore gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals, throughout history there've been other people who have wreaked havoc with our perfect world view - women and blacks, for instance. During Jesus' ministry, lepers were near or at the top of everyone's exclusion list.

Our Leviticus reading demonstrates the consequences of being a leper were so horrendous that a person's whole life could be destroyed simply by a "whispering campaign." That's why only a priest, trained in what was and what wasn't leprosy, could legally declare someone a leper, not a leper, or a cured of leper. (Notice how often Jesus, after curing a leper, sends the individual(s) to "the priests." Until the latter complete the "paperwork," the cure isn't official.)

Lepers were forced to "keep their garments rent and their heads bare;" to "muffle their beards and cry out 'Unclean! Unclean!'" And worst of all, they had to "dwell apart, making their abode outside the camp." The disturbing scenes in Ben Hur's first century CE Jerusalem leper colony were probably close to being accurate.

Because of Mark's theology, it's no accident that one of Jesus' first miracles is the cure of a leper.

My students know that the evangelists employ miracles, not to prove Jesus is God (something their readers already believe), but to show what kind of a God he is. It's clear from this pericope that Mark's convinced Jesus is a God who constantly reaches out to those who live outside the perimeters of our perfect world.

Beyond the obvious, two things are especially significant in this narrative. First, notice Jesus touches the man before he heals him. According to Jewish law, it's permissible to touch him after the cure, but not before. Those who touch lepers are expected to suffer the same social consequences as lepers. Jesus' action makes him one with someone who inhabits the space outside our ideal world.

Second, the best ancient Marcan manuscripts don't have the words "moved with pity." Instead, they read "he angrily stretched out his hand." Probably some well-meaning, pious scribe changed Jesus' "anger" to "pity."

Anger fits Mark's Jesus. The evangelist frequently depicts him as being angry. In this situation his anger seems to spring from the exclusion this leper suffers. Many experts believe the Galilean carpenter's personality trait which most bugged his historical enemies was his refusal to operate from a list of "ins and outs." For him, everyone was "in." Religious authorities simply didn't know how to deal with such complete inclusion.

This inclusive characteristic was also part of Paul's "other Christ" personality. Today's short I Corinthians reading occurs at the end of the Apostles' plea that those in the community who operate from "strong consciences" accept those who have "weak consciences." As the Body of Christ, one group can't "excommunicate" the other. Both represent the risen Jesus, as disruptive as that might be to some.

Today of all days, our sacred authors force us to examine our conscience. Who, among us, tests our image of a perfect world? If our biblical writers are correct, it's the aggravating people who bring chaos into our lives with whom the risen Jesus most identifies.