How many times over the course of your life have you heard someone say, “I don’t really want to bother God with this because God has so many other, more important things to worry about?” Or some version of that statement. God has too much on God’s plate already. God helps those who help themselves. I’ll save my prayers and my hopes for the right time when I’m at the end of my rope and God can help the most.
If our parents or teachers or friends or spouses are too busy to listen to our constant stream of requests and complaints, just think of how much busier God must be…or so we rationalize. It doesn’t matter how often someone affirms that regular prayer and talking to God is a healthy part of a faithful Christian life. Or how many times somebody points out that prayer is not meant to be rationed or conserved or hoarded because God is always listening. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter. Given a choice, most people would rather not “bug” God…
Today’s Gospel story, in contrast, is a prime example of someone who has no problem pestering God. Before we get to today’s tale, however, a little background. In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we hit the ground running when it comes to Jesus. Although Mark skips over any kind of Christmas narrative and picks up with Jesus as an adult, the first chapter goes full speed from one event to the next.
Jesus begins to preach in the first chapter. He calls four disciples to follow him. He heals a man with an unclean spirit. Then he heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Then Jesus heals a great crowd of sick people and people possessed by demons. Finally, in spite of whatever exhaustion he may have felt at the end of these rapid fire accomplishments, Jesus rises before dawn and sets off on a preaching tour that will include numerous stops in neighborhoods and synagogues across the Galilean countryside.
All this in Chapter One before we even arrive at this morning’s Scripture passage. The culminating story in the chapter when Jesus and his disciples set out in the early morning darkness and Jesus runs into a man with leprosy.
I don’t know how carefully you heard or followed the wording in this morning’s passage, but the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which we use in this sanctuary, translates a particular Greek word in a specific way. Upon encountering the leper, the NRSV version of the Bible tells us in verse forty-one that Jesus was “moved with pity.”
If you look closely, there is a footnote in the NRSV version of this morning’s Scripture lesson. Go down to the very bottom of the page, in small print, and it states that other ancient authorities and Bible translations use the word “anger.” Meaning if you were to substitute, Jesus came face to face with the leper and he was “moved with anger.”
“Moved with pity” versus “moved with anger.” Two emotions that are hardly synonymous. In fact, the two translations paint a picture of this encounter between Jesus and the leper that makes a huge difference. It’s one thing for Jesus to feel compassion for the leper. It’s another thing altogether for Jesus to feel annoyed or downright ticked off at the leper.
The image of an angry Jesus is not one that’s prevalent in the Gospels. Nor is it one that springs to mind for most people when they think of who Jesus was and how he lived and acted in the world. When Jesus overturned the tables in front of the temple, he was undoubtedly angry. When his disciples stumbled and bumbled their way through his ministry, failing to understand, failing to trust, and ultimately failing to stay loyal, Jesus probably grew irritated.
But when Jesus interacted with people who were sick and nameless and lost, the ones Matthew’s Gospel refers to as the “least of his brothers and sisters,” Jesus comes across as merciful and gentle in ways that are unique in the Gospel. When it came to dealing with people on the margins of society, Jesus appeared anything but angry…
Then again, Jesus was human. And the notion that Jesus was angry at the leper, even if only for a split second, is intriguing, at least to me. Because anger makes Jesus more accessible. If he was capable of getting angry, Jesus is easier for me to relate to.
Going back to this morning’s story, it’s easy to see why Jesus would have been moved with pity towards the leper. The leper had probably been sick for a long time. The leper likely had obvious physical deformities caused by his disease. And there was a certain desperation in the leper’s voice, coupled with a certain desperation in his decision to essentially throw himself at the feet of Jesus and beg for healing. To assume and to translate the way Jesus felt about the leper as compassionate is hardly a stretch.
But if Jesus was moved wth anger instead of moved with pity, the story takes on new meaning. A few minutes ago, I outlined all the things that have already occurred in the first Chapter of Mark, and by the time we get to the end of the chapter, Jesus is ready to go. He’s a man on a mission. He intends to lead his disciples from town to town spreading the Good News across the land of Galilee. And all of a sudden, the leper interrupts him.
How many of us can relate to that scenario? We have a long list of things we need to do. We’re running late and looking to make up time. We’re trying to stay focused, trying not to get distracted, trying to keep our eyes on the end goal and everything we need to do to get there.
But the light turns quickly from green to yellow to red. Someone won’t get off their cell phone or they’re driving too slowly or they have too many items in their cart in front of us at the grocery store. We’re in a big hurry yet before long it starts to feel like a conspiracy where everybody else is moving in slow motion.
The way the story unfolds, the leper appears out of nowhere and falls to his knees in front of Jesus. Such that Jesus has nowhere to go and no choice but to stop. It’s hard to fault Jesus for being a little impatient. Maybe in his head Jesus was thinking, “let’s go. I don’t have all day. I’ve got sermons to preach and crowds to see and you are slowing me down!”
Jesus could well have been angry, at least momentarily. Then again, set aside the notion that Jesus was impatient. Perhaps Jesus was angry because he knew that speaking to the leper and touching the leper was a surefire way to rile up his opposition. As he proved often throughout his ministry, Jesus was willing to risk condemnation by the religious authorities. But having any kind of contact with an unclean, outcast man came with a cost.
So Jesus could have been angry because he was ready to get on with his mission. Or he could have been angry in a righteous way, knowing he was about to incur the wrath of the powers that be simply for trying to do the right thing.
Or possibly Jesus was angry because this encounter with the leper was an early sign of things to come. We know from the rest of the Gospel that Jesus’ life and ministry would be burdened by the unrelenting needs of people in pain around him. Over the course of his lifetime, that human need never stopped. Time after time, desperate people called out to Jesus from the roadside, they touched the hem of his garment, they were lowered on a sickbed through the roof right in front of him.
And for a fleeting moment right here at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus realized his life would not be his own. Rather, his days would be filled with constant requests and overwhelming needs. And Jesus had no choice but to deal with it.
Jesus was angry because he was impatient. Jesus was angry at a system that too often valued rules over people. Jesus was angry he knew he was going to have to share much of his time and his energy and his gifts and his life with others…
One of the most helpful pieces of advice my father ever gave to me during my seminary days was this. “Ministry happens in the interruptions.” He was so right. In the grocery store, in the bank, at the gas station. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with people in this community have taken place when I’ve been in the middle of something else.
You and I always have plenty to do. We’re perpetually trying to balance hectic schedules and people and situations that clamor for our attention. The question is whether you and I can handle those daily interruptions in a faithful way. Despite the fact that our initial inclination might be anger or disappointment or frustration, can we move from there to sympathy and compassion and caring…?
Once there was a leper by the side of the road who pestered Jesus. Jesus thought fleetingly about ignoring the leper and walking by. But he turned toward the leper and stopped instead.
Then he reached out his hand to heal the leper because Jesus believed that every person was precious and wonderful in the eyes of God. He reached out his hand because Jesus knew that interruptions also contain within them moments of profound blessing and opportunity. And he reached out his hand in healing in the hope that all who follow him would learn from his example.
Let us go and do likewise. Amen.