6th Sunday after the Epiphany
Our Reading today appears to be a short and simple episode about healing. It is short…but simple, it is not. In this short story Jesus is approached by a leper whom He heals. Jesus sends the leper back to receive the certification of the priests that he is indeed clean and able to re-enter uninhibited public contact. And this former leper now begins spreading the word about Jesus.
The problem with this is that Jesus had commanded him to remain silent about what had happened. And by his disobedience to Jesus’ command, whatever the man’s motive may have been, the man’s disobedience makes it impossible for Jesus to go openly into the towns of Galilee.
The scene opens with this leper who falls on his knees, asking Jesus to heal Him. “If You will, You can make me clean.” Then our translation notes that Jesus is moved with pity. Sounds simple enough. Sounds like Jesus. Except…that in some key manuscripts of St. Mark’s Gospel, the word here is not “pity” or “compassion.” Some manuscripts have the Greek word for “anger.” Jesus is moved to heal, not out of pity for the man, but out of anger. Now that’s a whole different kettle of fish!
This alternative reading is reinforced by the language of the story when, after Jesus has healed the man, “He sternly charged him, and sent him away at once.” St. Mark’s language is rather strong in that verse. Literally, the words mean that Jesus “snorted” at the recently healed leper. The Greek word expresses great distaste or anger. St. Mark uses that word only one other time when the Twelve disciples scold the woman who had “wasted” her money by anointing Jesus with her very expensive ointment.
But it’s easy to understand why the Twelve would be angry, and why they snort at that woman. They didn’t get it. They didn’t understand what she was doing in preparation for Jesus’ burial, as He said. But why would Jesus be so angry at the leper? What’s more, adding to the puzzlement of Jesus’ reaction, the verb used in that sentence says that Jesus “cast out” the healed leper. He threw him out!
It’s the same verb used earlier in this chapter, when the Holy Spirit drove out Jesus from His baptism, cast Him out into the wilderness to be tempted. It’s the same verb used to describe Jesus’ actions with demons. So Jesus shakes his head in anger, snorts out a reply, and throws the healed leper out, demanding that he tell no one how he came to be healed. It’s so un-Jesus like!
Now had Jesus been doing an exorcism, this kind of reaction might have been expected. We know that later in the Gospel, when Simon Peter rebukes Jesus for even thinking about going up to Jerusalem if it means suffering and death, Jesus’ reaction to Peter is also harsh…very harsh. Jesus links Peter’s misconception with Satan. And as He does with demons, Jesus “casts out” Peter’s suggestion for the demonic thing that it is. “Get behind Me, Satan!” Oh, St. Mark often surprises us with the intensity of Jesus’ emotions…His negative emotions.
Ah, but this anger on the part of Jesus is not so much directed at the leper personally, any more than Jesus was personally attacking Simon Peter. It’s not as if by the end of this first chapter, with its frenzy of activity, that Jesus needs a good vacation, that He has grown short-tempered because of all the stress. No! In St. Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ anger is always the palpable reality of His determination against the dark powers which oppress humanity.
Now of particular interest here, is the reversal that takes place in this story. It foreshadows the crucifixion in Mark’s Gospel. The realities of the leper and Jesus are switched within a few verses. The leper who, by Law, could not enter a community without being freed from his foul ailment, now returns to his village and to a fuller role in his life. While Jesus, becoming like a leper, is suddenly unable to enter a village and is kept from His calling in life. The very reason He has come into Galilee—to proclaim the kingdom in word and deed—has now closed Galilean cities to Him.
Already with this first chapter St. Mark is showing us something about Jesus. He shows us a Jesus who is able and willing to heal all sorts of human woes, from illnesses to demonic possession. And St. Mark makes very clear, that these healings are signs of God’s kingdom come in Jesus; that in Jesus, mankind is no longer captive to the powers of evil at work in this world.
We see it in Jesus’ intense confrontations with the demons who know who He is. We hear it in His frequent insistence that it is His calling to destroy the power of evil which is so hostile to God’s kingdom. And it peeks out from Jesus’ anger.
But…by the end of this little story, St. Mark has shown us what it costs Jesus to do all of this. Jesus begins as the one who is free to wander and proclaim His message, gathering the crowds to hear it, and giving them the signs of the kingdom come. But by the end of the story, it’s the former leper who is wandering freely. The healed leper is proclaiming what the Lord has done…while Jesus Himself has become isolated.
You say, “Well of course, then, He’d be angry!” But you see, Jesus’ anger in St. Mark’s Gospel, is never directed at the people. His anger is directed at those powers of evil which have distorted human life; those powers which again and again in Mark get in Jesus’ way! Thus to make room for more and more and more people in this kingdom come, Jesus Himself is crowded out more and more and more…until He ends up crowded out of Jerusalem to the cross, giving up the last of His freedom for the isolation of crucifixion. And there too, as St. Mark does in this healing miracle, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Mark uses the language of willingness. Jesus’ is not captive to His own desire for “the hour to pass from Him.” His will is what His Father “wills,” His Abba, Daddy.
Well why, then, does Jesus command—so sternly, so angrily—why does He command the cleansed leper to silence, as though He’s dealing with one of the demons? In a sense He is, though not the man himself, but the evil which had imprisoned that man, socially and physically, in his leprosy. Until Jesus goes to His cross, until Jesus defeats the power of evil one final time, this particular healing, like all the others, will only be an isolated, miraculous event. None of Jesus’ healing miracles have any meaning apart from the great healing for all mankind on Good Friday and Easter.
You say, “but the healed leper wouldn’t have known that!” Of course, so it’s understandable that he tells everyone what happened, even though Jesus commanded Him not to do it. It’s understandable when we, like Simon Peter, think to do our Lord a favor and end up getting in His way, dreaming up all sorts of ideas and actions which sound so pious, but which can actually detract from the Jesus who heals, who sets captives free, who suffers Himself to be crowded out onto an isolating cross.
So in St. Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ anger (if the translators don’t dilute it and perpetuate that old stereotype of Jesus as a soft figure), Jesus’ anger comes burning through again and again in this Gospel against the misguided helpfulness of His followers, but only because of the evil which is at work in that misguided-ness.
Charles Dickens, this past week’s 200 year old birthday boy, wrote in his novel, Oliver Twist, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Like Mr. Dickens, St. Mark shows us that Jesus’ anger is not directed at the people who have become that hungry. His anger is at the power of evil which has created the slavery of such desperate hunger. Jesus’ anger is against those powers which, in these days, so enslave humankind to our own desires, that we will not let God appear before us unless He is dressed in the buffoonery of our passing fads and fancies.
So like a first century Charles Dickens, St. Mark helps his reader see that out from some rather grotesque figures…like Jesus’ in His snorting anger, like the cross…so reminiscent of Mr. Dickens’ grotesque poverty in Oliver Twist…from such grotesqueries emerge the true freedom of life and its joy which comes by Jesus Christ.
St. Mark startles us with Jesus’ anger, here and in so many places throughout his Gospel, so that having startled us, he might then lead us to that greater joy, to that freedom of life which is ours, because this startling Jesus was willing to be crowded out onto a cross.