“Dis-Graced for the Cure”
March 8, 2020
40 A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
In 1927 Time Magazine named Charles Lindbergh their very first man of the year. The editors failed to feature him following his daring trans-Atlantic flight and they wanted to save face. 93 years later the tradition continues of naming the year’s most influential figure. Most often it is a single individual – a political figure, a scientist or humanitarian. But every now and again it’s a loose collection of people bound together by a cause or crisis. In 2014, Time’s person of the year was the Ebola Fighters.
The magazine told the story of how a ragtag collection of unconnected and under-resourced volunteers held the line in west Africa as this disease ripped through Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone while governments and world health organizations failed to respond effectively. The article has been on my mind as the specter of Coronavirus has lengthened.
In Monrovia – the capital of Liberia – Dr. Jerry Brown first heard that Ebola had gained a foothold in the rural areas. As medical director of the Eternal Love Winning Africa hospital he began preparations for the virus to travel into their crowded capital. Knowing little about the virus except that it was not airborne – that it required bodily contact for transmission – they resolved to prevent it from spreading. An isolation ward is what they needed.
With no money or time to build one – Brown fixed his gaze on the small chapel where the staff gathered for worship. This was not a welcome idea: “Why should we turn the house of God into a place where we put people with such a deadly disease.”
Dr. Frank Fankhauser – a volunteer physician from California – had a ready answer to the objection: “Jesus himself treated patients in the house of God.”
I wonder if he had the first chapter of Mark on his mind.
We only read one of the stories, but Mark’s first chapter is largely devoted to a series of healing stories. Jesus heals Peter’s Mother-in-Law in the privacy of her home. But then Jesus goes to the very public space that is the synagogue and casts out a demon right there in front of everyone. Jesus is quickly gaining a reputation as a local healer. Mark concludes the chapter with one more healing, except this one is different from the others.
In the first two, Jesus initiated the healing. But here, the man with “leprosy” approaches Jesus openly. I say “leprosy” because this is not likely the disfiguring disease we know as leprosy but rather a basic ailment that causes scaly skin. Yet still, approaching Jesus like this is a big no-no. Leviticus 13 clearly states that one with a skin disease is to wear torn clothes, leave his hair disheveled and announce his presence from afar, yelling at the top of his lungs: “UNCLEAN, UNCLEAN.” That was the ancient version of maintaining quarantine.
But of course this man does none of that – instead he rushes right up to Jesus and says “If you choose you can make me clean.” I read this as a bold challenge to Jesus, almost as if he’s saying “You talk about the reign of God changing everything – but does it really go all the way?” With a touch, Jesus says “it does.”
For a Gospel known for its brevity I find it fascinating how Mark narrates this moment. With his succinct style, Mark could have said “Jesus touched him and healed him,” but instead Mark goes to the trouble of saying “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” It feels like the narrative device that filmmakers would later translate into Slow Motion. If you want to communicate that a particular moment really matters in a film, you slow down the frame rate to highlight it – think “Chariots of Fire.” (Ooh-chk-chk-chk…doo-doo-doo-doo-doo)
I think Mark is doing the same thing here. He’s slowly savoring the detail of this pivotal scene – Jesus stands before this wisp of a man wasting away with sickness; the hand hangs at his side and you see Jesus rub his thumb and forefinger together, steeling himself to do what he really should not do. It gives the hearer of the story a second to think “Don’t do it, Jesus…don’t touch him – you’ll become infected,” and then the hand reaches out all the same and gently touches the man’s head – “I do choose. Be made clean.”
Then there’s the matter of Jesus’ motivation. Herein lies one of the most famous textual variants in all of the Gospels. The NRSV version reads “Moved with pity,” Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. Study Bibles will show a footnote there indicating that other ancient manuscripts read “moved with anger,” Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.
It’s an interesting variant isn’t it? It begs the question – what is Jesus angry at? The man – for bothering him? I don’t think so.
I wonder if the object of Jesus’ anger is more this entire concept of Clean and Unclean – this social construct that allows some privileged priests to determine who is in and who is out. This was a quarantine that went beyond public health and drifted into the realm of pure oppression.
That kind of righteous anger is what makes sense of the next scene.
Jesus tells the man “Shhhhhh…Don’t.Say.Anything. But go to the Priest and offer what Moses commanded in the law” – and then Jesus just can’t help but add the phrase “as a testimony to them.” It might just as well be “as a testimony against them.” It seems to me an invitation to shove the Priests’ ‘Unclean’ status right back in their faces – perhaps Jesus’ way of saying “You want to exclude? Well I’m here to include. How do you like them apples?”
And still, every time I read these five short verses there’s always some new wrinkle that unfolds. I believe we’ve mentioned before that we read the week’s preaching text at staff meeting and discuss it on Tuesday. Is this an attempt to glean some gold for the sermon?
You bet it is!
This week, I was sitting next to our finance person, Katharine Yager, and she turned to me and said “So…Moses command an offering? How much did it cost?” Of course, Katharine thought to ask that!
We went digging and found ourselves in the 14th chapter of Leviticus: when a person is deemed to be clean after having a leprous skin disease he is to bring two male lambs and an ewe and a grain offering and a log of oil. That’s kind of a lot for someone who’s earning potential has been a bit compromised while living as an outcast.
What’s more – and fair warning, this is odd – but the healed person is also supposed to bring two living birds so that the priest can slaughter one of them, dip the living bird in the blood of the dead bird, shake it onto the healed person seven times, then set the living bird free – at which point the cured individual must then shave off all the hair on his body…including the…eyebrows – and then wash himself thoroughly and then he may return to his family and society. I’m not kidding you on this – Leviticus 14, check it out – it’s all there.
So WOW! Given all of that – you can see why the guy bypassed the priests and said “Forget all that – I’ll just mount my own PR campaign and tell everyone that this Jesus guy made me clean.” That decision has two effects.
The story ends by telling us that Jesus could no longer go into the town openly – that’s because Jesus himself is now ritually unclean according to the law. By touching the man, Jesus may have cured him, but he also becomes unclean himself. Jesus is literally disgraced for offering the cure. That’s the first effect of our blabber-mouth ex-leper evangelist.
The second effect, though, is that nobody cares anymore. Whether Jesus is clean or unclean does not matter – the people want to be wherever he is. Those religious authorities – the ones who hand out that “unclean” label – can do nothing as the people push past them in to the wilderness to be with a ritually impure Jesus?
In that sense – Jesus did succeed in toppling an unnecessarily oppressive form of quarantine.
Now – this story is not going to offer the best advice during a public health emergency. Jesus absolutely flouts common sense precautions when it comes to communicable diseases. I mean, we’re not even supposed to touch our own faces, much less that of someone who is infected. By the way – I’ve never been so aware of how much I WANT to touch my face until I’m told not to. Anybody else?
This text is no “How-To” for navigating a hot zone, but still we must reckon with the fact that Jesus is there, risking it all regardless of the infectious consequences, just to be human for a moment and touch the untouchable.
Earlier this morning, I met with the small group of Church members who were planning to board a plane tomorrow and head to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to visit our partners in ministry there. We were discerning whether that was wise or not in light of a travel advisory published by the State Department just this past week – less about Coronavirus and more about some unrest in the country.
As I have held this team in prayer, my mind drifts to the first time I traveled to Haiti 22 years ago with the Campus Ministry group.
One of the mornings my small group piled into a flat bed truck and drove into the heart of the city. We jumped out in front of a crude cinder-block building with a painted sign that read “San Fils Home for the Destitute and Dying.” Inside we met some nuns, Sisters of Charity, the same order as Mother Theresa. They handed us latex gloves and then walked us into the main chambers where we saw cot after cot filled with wisps of men withering away from disease. Many of them had AIDS, often compounded by Tuberculosis, Dengue fever, Filariasis.
We were instructed to either offer the men shaves or to rub their skin with lotion to take some of the fire out of their fever. But always with our gloves on.
One of our trip leaders – Ann – she was tending to a young man who was absolutely emaciated and radiating heat from a high fever – he was barely conscious. I remember Ann snapping the gloves off her hands and rubbing lotion on to this man’s pencil-thin arms and legs. “I knew his time was just about up,” she later reflected, “and I just wanted him to feel a human touch one more time – no gloves – skin to skin.
It wasn’t what she was supposed to do. It may not have been the healthiest thing she could do but it was the holiest thing she could do.
As those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus – we must walk that very thin line between faithful and fearful. This past Friday we sent out a letter to the congregation explaining some adjustments we’re making here at Church in this season of increased vigilance because of the Coronavirus.
The letter reminds us, though, that in Scripture, whenever an angel shows up, they always say “fear not.” Angels don’t say that because there’s nothing to be afraid of. If anything, there’s plenty of reason to be completely terrified.
The angels say “do not be afraid” because we live in the power of perfect love that casts out all fear.
That’s why it doesn’t surprise me in the least that when Ebola virus was ripping through west Africa, the people who stood in its path were not powerful governments or well resourced world health organization…it was ordinary Christians with the courage to put themselves in mortal danger on behalf of complete strangers. Christians who have a story like this one about Jesus touching the untouchable tucked in their pocket.
One of those 2014 Persons of the Year in 2014 was Foday Gallah, an ambulance driver in Monrovia, who spent his days transporting infected people to makeshift isolation hospitals. In early September of that year he was summoned to the same house three times in one day. First for the mother and two children, then the grandmother, father and two sons – all of whom would die from the disease.
Coming back a third time was no surprise, for he knew the one remaining member of the family was a four year old child – completely orphaned in a matter of hours – who had become symptomatic.
Foday quickly put on his protective gear and scooped the child in his arms and rushed him to the hospital in time to save his life. Foday would later learn there were many reasons he really shouldn’t have touched that child, but he was living in the power of perfect love that casts out all fear.
That Time article concludes with a chilling epilogue:
“this won’t be the last epidemic. And when the next one comes, the world must learn the lessons of this one: Be better prepared, less fearful, less reactive. Run toward the fire and put it out together. Even more important, though, when the next one comes, remember the Ebola fighters and hope that we see their like again.”
As long as somebody has this story of Jesus tucked in their back pocket, I pray that we will see their like again. Thanks be to God for such tender mercies. Amen.