Lord, Let us be filled with the presence of the great compassion towards ourselves and towards all living beings. Amen.
For the third Sunday in a row, we witness Jesus engaging in a healing ministry as he inaugurates his public proclamation. These appointed Gospel texts are all from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. To refresh your memory, if you have been here the last couple of weeks, or if you haven’t been with us, to put today’s Gospel in some context, two weeks ago Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and freed a man of his demon. Last Sunday Jesus was at the home of Simon and Andrew where he healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Word spread and by that evening the whole city had gathered outside the door of Simon’s house and Jesus cured many more who were sick with various diseases. In the passage just read, Jesus reaches out to heal a leper. Lepers were shunned. Those who had been diagnosed as lepers were required to separate themselves from the community. Lepers were considered impure before God. Sadly, this made many religious folk particularly righteous and lacking in compassion. Leprosy was no respecter of class or position. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses, Miriam, and Naaman (a high ranking commander in the Syrian army) were all afflicted and healed of leprosy. This was a condition that caused isolation, loneliness, and loss of friends, family, and community regardless of a person’s previous position.
Perhaps you’ve experienced isolation in your life, if not because of illness, for other reasons. We witness the daily drama of once powerful people—some quite like Naamen—who fall from grace overnight because of scandal, a terrible error in judgment, or turn of unforeseen events. Tom Daschle and Michael Phelps have both had a tough couple of weeks. A friend of mine who was a seminary dean lost his job over a dispute with higher ups in the university administration. It was clearly a situation with two sides to the story. The loss of job and academic standing were hard enough, but what pains him to this day is how colleagues, former students, and peers in the church avoided him and his wife throughout and after the ordeal.
Divorced persons often report lost friends and strained relations with family and colleagues in addition to a lost spouse. In this current economic crisis when so many people are losing jobs, do others of us consciously or unconsciously avoid them because we find their situation too uncomfortable or even threatening? It’s hard to believe, but terminally ill people often report that some friends keep their distance because they just don’t know what to say or do.
It is in this context of social isolation, that the leper in today’s Gospel approaches Jesus, because he recognizes in him God’s ability to heal. Kneeling before him, as if in prayer, he says to Jesus, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Notice that he’s not so much asking for healing on his own behalf, as he is making a statement of faith that places his trust in God’s will for him. In this case, Jesus touches the man—another social/religious barrier broken—and makes him clean.
This encounter is similar to Jesus’ own prayer the night before he died when in the Garden of Gethsemane he prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” As we know, in this case the cup was not removed. Surely both the leper and, later, Jesus desire a miraculous turn of events to remove the burden of their situations, but in both instances their prayers simply ask that God’s will for them be done, no matter the cost.
Physician and priest, Dr. Anne Brower, who is part of our clergy team and oversees the healing ministry at the Cathedral, talks about the difference between cure and healing in her book I’m not Ready to Die Just Yet. First, “Disease is not punishment from God, it does not result from lack of spirituality or effective prayer, and you are not guilty, bad, or out of sync with God when you suffer from disease. True, disease is a process or entity that prevents us from experiencing optimal health.” Yet, she suggests, “that disease might also be part of the natural order of the universe. After all if we don’t die from a traumatic event, each and every one of us will die from disease. We all die. The question is, what do we die to? Nothingness? Or Newness? Then what is the cure?” She writes, “As a physician, I wish to cure you of your disease; we are cured of disease when we are restored to our original state of being. A cure may or may not lead to healing. But I believe that in the scheme of the infinite, cure is unimportant unless it leads to healing.”
“So what is healing? Healing is a lifelong process involving change, growth, progress, regress, and new beginnings. Healing demands of us love and surrender. Healing is not limited to disease. Healing is our life. Healing is living with, through, and beyond brokenness: brokenness from disease, divorce, loss or change of job, relocation, loss of friend or family. Healing is moving out of the box we may be stuck in; healing is always moving toward a closer union with God. I believe Jesus’ life is a story of healing. Healing is about knowing you are with God.”
So is this story of Jesus and the leper about a cure, or a cure for the purpose of healing? We’re told that, moved with pity, Jesus says to the leper, “Be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left the man. Jesus also tells the man to say nothing about this to anyone, but to go and show himself to the priest and offer for the cleansing what the law demands.
Now in the original Greek we read that rather than having pity, Jesus becomes angry when he encounters the leper. The story gives no indication that he is upset with the leper in any way. He reaches right out and touches him. What Jesus’ actions and subsequent ministry bear out is that he is angry at the religious and social systems that shun and stand in judgment of this man and keep him isolated from human community and compassion.
Throughout the Gospel, we see Jesus getting angry anytime people let their fears, prejudices, anxieties about not knowing the right thing to say to a neighbor in need, or their religious beliefs cause then to treat others as outcasts. Anyone who worked in the HIV/AIDS community or had a loved one suffering from this disease in the early days of this pandemic knows how similar that situation was to the plight of this first-century leper. As churches were busy pointing fingers and screaming about sin and God’s judgment, they refused to see that the real sin was bolted doors, stirred up prejudices, and unfounded fears that resulted in hate, violence, and a shocking lack of compassion. I have no doubt that Jesus was very angry with large portions of his Church during that dark time.
Jesus is angry when he encounters the leper because such separation and isolation are not the way God intends the human family to live. We’re called to live lives of forgiveness and reconciliation with one another and thus with God. Today the walls that separate most of us are a lot more nuanced than leprosy or AIDS. But their devastation is just as insidious. Our materialism, workaholism, and socio-economic prejudices are tearing at the fabric of our families and the human community causing disconnection with one another and God.
We will never know why in the providence of God’s healing power, sometimes the gift of healing is also accompanied by a cure. It is clear that Jesus’ never had as his goal to grandstand, impress, or draw attention to his power. Instead he spent his ministry inviting people to follow him and grow in faith. In this story he instructs the leper to tell no one. We can hardly fault the newly clean man for wanting to shout it from the rooftops, but Jesus knows that outside of faith, no one will really get it. This is not magic; Jesus is not showing off.
But Jesus’ anger at the leper’s isolation gives us a clue to why this healing also involved a cure. When he makes the man clean, Jesus does tell him to present himself to the priest. Jesus has restored him to life in the community. No longer will the fears, prejudices, and laws of the religious establishment and society keep this beloved child of God shunned from God’s family. The leper’s cure seems intimately related to his healing and wholeness.
There is one final note about this story that has relevance for our discipleship. In setting this man free, Jesus gave up some of his own freedom. As the man went about ignoring Jesus’ instruction to keep quiet, exuberantly proclaiming his cure, his healing, his freedom to all who would hear, his testimony gave the authorities more “evidence” to build the case against Jesus that would eventually lead him to the cross. But then that is what self-sacrificial love is all about. That is the love prophets and martyrs know about, it’s the kind love that Martin Luther King, Jr., knew about. It is the love that you parents have for your children. And perhaps this is why the leper was cured of his disease but in Jesus’ final petition at Gethsemane his cup was not lifted. The sacrificial love of one resulted in resurrection for both, and God’s purpose was accomplished. That is exactly the self-sacrificial love God through Jesus has to this day for each and every one of us.
Jesus, the physician, heal us. For you all things are possible; yet not what we want but what you want.