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Breath of the Spirit

Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.

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Jesus’ gospel miracles are always significant. But it’s important to understand that our four evangelists employ them not so much to tell us what Jesus did as to show us who Jesus is.

FEBRUARY 15, 2015: SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings:

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

Jesus’ gospel miracles are always significant. But it’s important to understand that our four evangelists employ them not so much to tell us what Jesus did as to show us who Jesus is. Today’s gospel cure of a leper provides us with a prime example of how our sacred authors use specific miracles.

We need only glance at our Leviticus pericope to discover how devastating leprosy was in the biblical world. “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard he shall cry out, “Unclean, Unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him . . . he shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” The heart-wrenching scenes of the Jerusalem leper encampment in the classic movie Ben Hur are probably quite accurate. A hell on earth. Lepers were the outcasts of the ancient world.
 
The consequences of leprosy were so dire that only the local priest could determine whether someone was infected or not. Whisper campaigns or anonymous accusations weren’t to be accepted. That’s why, even after the gospel Jesus cures someone of the disease, he still must send the person to the priests to receive a clean bill of health.

Though no one knew anything about germs until the end of the 19th century, the biblical belief was that leprous demons not only possessed these unfortunate individuals, but that a simple touch could trigger them to leap from a leper to a non-leper. That makes Mark’s mention that, even before Jesus cured this particular leper, “He stretched out his hand and touched him,” very significant.

Two Sundays ago I mentioned that Jesus’ first Marcan miracle – the exorcism of a demoniac – set the theme for the entire gospel: Jesus and his followers are consumed with a passion to eradicate evil from this world. Today’s gospel miracle presents us with an essential step in following through on that mission: bringing those who are outside the community into the community.

Already as little kids we knew some people were “in” and others were “out.” We could associate with certain individuals and were expected to avoid others. When we asked, “Why?” the answers varied. It could have been because of their social status, their moral reputation, or even just the color of their skin. There always was a reason.

It’s an understatement to say that Jesus of Nazareth’s contemporaries had a huge problem with his conviction that everyone was in. How can anyone live in such a world? It goes against our human nature.

Yet it’s clear from today’s I Corinthians passage that Jesus’ first followers actually tried to create such a world. Paul encourages his readers to relate well with everyone. “Avoid giving offense,” he writes, “whether to the Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” If Jesus could do it, why can’t we?

One last point. Most Scripture scholars believe Mark didn’t originally write that Jesus was “moved with pity” before he cured the leper. The gospel’s oldest and best manuscripts describe Jesus at that point as being moved with “anger,” not pity. Why? Simply because of his passion to bring everyone in, to eradicate outcasts.

More than any other evangelist, Mark mentions Jesus’ anger. When this Galilean carpenter experiences something which goes against his convictions about God’s plan for God’s people, his emotions flare. Why then do we so calmly and dispassionately tolerate injustice today? We’ve obviously discovered it’s easier than imitating Jesus’ devotion to inclusiveness and enduring the consequences which flow from it.

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