Sorry, I’m not sure what happened last week. I wrote a post, and when I came to post it, it was gone.
And just as I am frustrated by my inability, this week we hear of Jesus’s frustration in relation to his own ability and inability.
The readings begins with a challenge. The reading from Leviticus tells us of the rules about leprosy. The key line is “he is in fact unclean.” It’s tempting to blame the Old Law for everything, as if Leviticus is cruel. But Leviticus isn’t cruel, leprosy is cruel. It is a horrible, deadly – and until recently incurable – disease. As our Gospel reading makes clear, Leviticus has policies not only for banning lepers, but also for bringing them back to the community. But leprosy is not Leviticus’ fault, Leviticus is merely trying to manage a bad situation. Leviticus doesn’t cause the leper’s isolation, leprosy does.
That’s true about the Old Testament’s dealings with sin, too. Leviticus is just trying to manage a horrible situation, and in so doing, it reveals how horrible that situation is.
That is the context for this week’s Gospel reading, the last verses of Mark chapter 1 and the first major physical miracle Jesus works. The first words of the reading are “a leper,” and all the horribleness of leprosy comes before us. But the next words (actually the first words in Greek) are “came to Jesus.” Our awful situation meets Jesus.
The leper’s words are direct: he kneels down and begs, because he knows how objectively horrible things are – but he professes, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” He doesn’t even ask, he just says, “You can.” That is the heart of faith: to believe that he can. Jesus is powerful. (In Greek, “can” and “power” are the same word.) Hope is the trust that this God who can, does wish to do it.
He does wish, he can, and he does.
Next, we come to Jesus’s emotions. Our translation has, “Warning him sternly.” But that might not be stern enough. The Greek evokes something like snorting with anger. At the end of this first chapter, already Jesus is frustrated, he knows what is happening, and what is going to happen. He wants – “he wishes” – that the man will keep things quiet. The Greek is great: ‘don’t tell no one nothin.’
But of course, he “began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad.”
Compare this snorting anger with the emotion just before: “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, I do will it.” “Moved with pity” is the great Greek word, splagchnizomai, which sounds like guts and means he felt it in his guts. Jesus’s stomach churned with pain for the man. And he didn’t just touch him, he grabs hold, fastens himself to the man.
How deeply Jesus feels his love for the man – and his frustration at the stupid way he will respond.
The word for what the man does is kerusso. It’s the same word Jesus said last week, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach [kerusso] there also. For this purpose have I come.” It’s where we get the word kerygma: it means, the thing you preach, the central content of the teaching.
Jesus says he has come to preach. But what does he preach? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near. Repent, and believe the gospel.” And subordinate to that, “Come after Me and I will make you fishers of men.”
That is not the former leper’s kerygma. He says only, “He can!”
Jesus’s power over physical illness is part of the message. He tells the man to follow the regulations of Leviticus for healed leprosy, a way of subordinating physical things to the spiritual and moral requirements of our relationship with God. “That,” Jesus tells the former leper, “will be your witness.”
But the man doesn’t subordinate things. He disobeys Jesus and preaches his own gospel, a gospel of physical healing.
The final line is wonderful: “It was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” For Jesus, nothing is impossible. He can cure leprosy, he can rise from the dead, he can heal our moral ailments.
But the frustration of Jesus is that we refuse to hear his Gospel, his call to the kingdom and to repentance. Just as the leper is “in fact unclean,” so Jesus “in fact” cannot preach to us when we are busily preaching an alternative Gospel. He “cannot.”
Our reading from First Corinthians gives us the proper moral spin. Paul says that he has become an “imitator . . . of Christ.” That means he does “everything for the glory of God” and seeking the “benefit . . . of the many, that they may be saved.” We need only to be open to letting Jesus transform us, through his preaching (his Word, his Gospel) and through his touch (his sacraments) – and to stop preaching our alternative gospels of worldly success.
This Lent, what can you do to set aside false gospels of worldly success and instead let Jesus heal you for the kingdom?