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February 12, 2006: SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

When those who study biblical manuscripts give examples of scribal mistakes, today's Marcan passage about Jesus curing the leper is always in their top ten list. The scholarly consensus is that the evangelist originally wrote, "Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him . . . ." That's how the oldest and best manuscripts of Mark describe Jesus' emotion during the miracle; a day and night difference from the "moved with pity" which we have in our modern lectionary. Erasmus, who gave us the first printed edition of the Christian Scriptures in Greek in 1516, simply used a manuscript of Mark which contained the error. Our modern translations of the Christian Scriptures are based on Erasmus' text.

One of the reasons scholars believe anger is preferable to pity in this passage is that it's easier to explain why a Christian scribe would adjust the text to read pity than to read anger. Most of us are uncomfortable with a Jesus who shows anger.

No one's certain why Jesus is angry in this situation. Some think it's because the leper challenges him with the remark, "If you wish you can make me clean," not knowing about Jesus' constant quest to rid us of evil. Others believe his anger is a reaction to the community's isolation of lepers.

We need only listen carefully to today's Leviticus pericope to understand the horrible exclusion lepers experienced in the not too ancient world. "Those who have the sore of leprosy shall keep their garments rent and their heads bare and shall muffle their mouth; they shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean! . . .' They shall dwell apart, making their abode outside the camp." No wonder only a priest at the local shrine or temple could verify either someone's leprosy or its cure. An unfounded, anonymous accusation could destroy someone's life.

Knowing these regulations, we can appreciate the impact of Jesus touching the man, something no clean person would ever deliberately do. Only lepers touched other lepers.

In this context, Paul's statement at the end of our I Corinthians passage takes on a biting significance. "Imitate me," he writes, "as I imitate Christ." The Apostle has just finished three painful chapters, encouraging his community to get rid of anything which would isolate certain people in the community from others. In this case, the isolation springs from one group eating food which others, on theological grounds, refuse to eat. That's why he begins his summary of the problem with the command, "Whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God." Any action which would cause some people to be on the "outside looking in" is to be eradicated from a Christian community. Paul would have understood why the historical Jesus could be angry because of the leper's exclusion.

Coupling this emotion with Paul's command to imitate Jesus might embarrass some modern Christians. Like the scribe who changed Jesus' anger to pity, we prefer a calm, balanced and peaceful Jesus. Such a picture of him lets us other Christs off the hook. We're not expected to be angry about situations in our communities or churches which either mandate or accept exclusion for whole groups of people; exclusion rooted in race, gender, theological beliefs or social status. On the contrary, those with "level heads" warn us that such anger is counter-productive.

As disturbing as it might be for some full-of-pity Christians, perhaps the best way at times to imitate Jesus might be to imitate the Peter Finch character in the movie Network. I wonder what would happen if one or two of us stood up in church next Sunday and yelled, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" We'd certainly run the risk of being excluded.