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FEBRUARY 15, 2009: SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
I Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1:4-45

Do we really understand all the implications of Paul’s I Corinthians statement, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ?” Where does our imitation start and where does it end? When Paul speaks about our acting “in persona Christi,” he isn’t supplying a biblical argument for those who would ban women from the priesthood, saying that only those who have the same sexual organs which the historical Jesus possessed can be other Christs. He’s referring to the risen Jesus, not the historical Jesus - else he wouldn’t have employed the title Christ, the way he normally refers to the Jesus who is alive among us. When the Apostle tells us all Jesus’ followers must be other Christs, he’s teaching that we achieve this title by imitating Jesus’ mentality, his outlook on everyone and everything around him. Today’s Marcan gospel pericope helps us both appreciate and step back from one aspect of that mentality.

Those who study Jesus’ gospel personality agree that the one aspect of his frame of mind which always got him into trouble was his belief that in God’s kingdom there are no “ins” or “outs.” Everyone is in. Mark demonstrates this disturbing character trait in the very first chapter of his gospel, presuming his readers will keep it in the back of their minds and in front of their eyes as they listen to the next 15 chapters.

It’s important to notice that Jesus not only cures the leper, but even before be cures him, he “stretched out his hand and touched him.” No one in Jesus’ day and age was more out than lepers. Just a glance at our Leviticus reading shows what Jesus and his contemporaries were taught about such unfortunate individuals. “Those who bear the sore of leprosy shall keep their garments rent, heads bare, and shall muffle their beards; crying out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ . . . They shall dwell apart, making their abode outside the camp.”

The consequences of being a leper are so horrific that one always had to worry about an enemy-inspired whisper campaign labeling him or her a leper. That’s why only a priest could officially declare someone leprous or free from leprosy. (Notice that Jesus always sends lepers “to the priest” after curing them.)

Mark’s Jesus demonstrates that by reaching out and touching someone who’s out, we bring that person in. Remember what I mentioned in my commentary two weeks ago. Evangelists use miracles not to prove Jesus is God, but to show us what kind of God he is. In this situation, we’re dealing with an all-inclusive God.

Note what Paul tells the Corinthians immediately before he mentions our being imitators. “. . . I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” The Apostle is convinced that his following of Jesus revolves around what he can do for others, not for himself.

Having grown up on the Illinois side of St. Louis, I quickly learned to obey a different set of social regulations when we crossed the Mississippi. I couldn’t go into just any “men” bathroom. I had to first check for the adjective “white” or “colored” before I opened the door. I also discovered there were certain department store lunch counters at which we could eat, some we had to avoid.

Arbitrarily putting certain people outside our white culture deeply bothered me. One day on the bus ride back to Illinois I demanded to know from my mom what made black people so different from us that we had to use separate (and unequal) bathrooms and lunch counters. Her reply was perfect: “You’re right. It’s wrong to separate us into two groups. When you’re old enough to change it, you change it. But in the meantime, when we cross that river, you’d better obey their laws.”

We Christians are 2,000 years old. How much older do we have to be before we’re old enough to turn the outs in this world into the ins Jesus intends them to be?