Sunday, February 12, 2012

Choosing To Heal

The Gospel reading for this Sunday's liturgy, what we used to call Sexigesima Sunday, 60 days before Easter, is Luke 1:40-45.

"And a man with a scale-disease came up to him and saying, 'If you choose, you are able to cleanse me.' And he,  becoming incensed, stretched out his hand and touched him and said, 'I do choose; be cleansed.' And immediately the scale-disease left him, and he was cleansed. And Jesus, snorting with indignation, immediately cast him out and said to him,  'See that you say don't say anything to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.' But he went out and began to proclaim it all over and to spread the news abroad, so that Jesus was no longer able to go into a city openly, but had to remain out in deserted places. And the people came to him from everywhere.

Where does one go with a text like this? Let me say right up front that I'm using the translation of Joel Marcus in his Anchor Bible commentary on Mark. The reason: seems that over the centuries various commentators have "softened" up some of the meaning of several key words which describe Jesus' state of mind. Instead of "moved with compassion" in v. 41, Jesus was actually expressing some anger, though not at the man, certainly. And in v. 43 "sternly" doesn't capture the classical Greek sense of snorting like a horse, or letting go an explosive breath, or growling. This is more than pickiness over small details. The differences in the accuracy of the words really affect the message here.

There are a lot of dynamics to the story which, in our culture, tend to be missed. First of all, this isn't a story about Jesus curing someone with Hansen's Disease, which we call leprosy. The term "scale-disease" covers a range of afflictions of the skin which were prevalent in Jesus' time. In either case, however, these were afflictions considered to threaten the cultic purity of the community, and thus there were strict Jewish laws about what such folks could do or where they could be. In effect, such people were "corpses". If you touched one of them, you were judged defiled. The afflicted had to run about in ragged clothing and with disheveled hair, and cry "Unclean!" if anyone approached. They were banished to live alone, outside the community.

So, this man, in approaching Jesus' venue and asking for healing, was where he should not have been and was at risk of defiling people around him. Jesus, too, did the unusual, actually the forbidden, by reaching out and touching the man while cleansing him. Undoubtedly, Jesus was quite aware of exactly what he was doing, and in a nod to Jewish law, he very emphatically sends the man straight to the priest in order to make the offering required by Mosaic Law for having been cleansed.

But in a remarkable reversal of situations at the conclusion of the story, the healed man goes out onto Jesus' "turf", among the people, and begins to tell anyone who'll listen about his miraculous cure. Meanwhile, because of this and because of all the publicity it engenders, Jesus is essentially consigned to "deserted places", and to have people come to him.  And they do, says Mark, "from everywhere".

A few observations: the man with the skin disease obviously has heard of Jesus and his healing power. He appears to have and to express faith. Now what about the anger thing with Jesus? As I said, it's not directed at the man, unless you want to see it as Jesus being bothered because he felt the man presumptuous, or because it was an inconvenient time. I seriously doubt that! I believe that Jesus, at that moment when this outcast of society comes to him, becomes so consumed by his loathing of all the elements of evil -- cultural, societal, the religious establishment, prejudice, etc., which have conspired to demean this human being, that he reacts, simply reacts, out of  his deep sense of righteousness and compassion. "I do choose, deliberately and decisively, to cleanse you into freedom from all that oppresses you." Further, I can imagine Jesus still grinding his teeth and growling as he sends the man off to the religious authorities who've made not only the man's, but Jesus' life also, so miserable. Nevertheless, and knowing that the Law with all its observances is only temporary and will be superseded soon in his dying and rising, Jesus humbly submits even to this.

This passage makes me think of two very immediate situations. The first is that just yesterday my son came out of a two-week stay in the hospital...again! I've lost track of how many times this has happened since his illness began almost 12 years ago. It makes me want to snort like a horse each time it happens! He gets so tired of it, and I know that I do. Yet, over and over, like the man who was cleansed, I have to keep saying to Jesus: "If you choose, you are able to heal Andrew." In ways that I don't understand and may never know in this lifetime, I know that Jesus does choose to bring healing.

The other example is occasioned by the tragic premature death this weekend of Whitney Houston. Again, I can't count the times even in my lifetime that this sad scenario has played itself out with other celebrities. It enrages me, it makes me growl, to see beautiful, talented, good young people end up throwing their lives away, whatever the reason, though many of the very same societal institutions, as in Jesus' time, bear some responsibility in all this. 

When all is said and done, I'm convinced that Jesus does choose to deal with the enormity of all our human misery. Perhaps his expectation of me is to rise above my own anger and disgruntlement, and to choose to do what I can to not be the occasion for anyone else's misfortune, suffering, oppression, or downfall. Somehow, I don't think Jesus will hold it against me if, in doing this, I go out and proclaim this message all over and spread the news abroad!   

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