How many of you have ever listened to someone in a conversation go through a laundry list of all the things going on in their lives? Or better yet, all the things they are worrying about? A conflict with a parent or a sibling. A personality clash at work. The school not following through, the contractor not sticking with their schedule, the dog getting old. Not to mention various aches and pains in their own life that make daily tasks and chores a struggle.
In the mind of the person speaking and sometimes the one listening, the list of things to worry about adds up to quite a bit. Yet no one worry seems consequential enough to be potentially life changing. Certainly none of them appear life threatening. As a result, the person who is doing the talking reaches the end of their list and offers a mea culpa which sounds like this…
I’m going through a lot I’m nervous about how it will turn out, but I’m sure God has other things on God’s mind. God has more important things to think about than all my troubles, so I’m not going to bother God right now…
If the truth be told, that often sounds like a wise decision to both the speaker and the listener. Why pester God with minor issues when God has much bigger fish to fry?
Many of us learned from an early age not to go overboard with our Godly appeals and complaints. If our parents and our teachers were too busy to listen to our requests, then imagine how much busier God must be. As a result, we figured out early how to weigh our prayer requests. Handle the little stuff on our own. Save the really big, important stuff for God. It’s an idea that doesn’t fit with the notion that God always listens to human beings. Nevertheless, we find ways to justify rationing our prayers so God can focus elsewhere.
In today’s passage near the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus encounters a leper who hasn’t gotten the same memo. This leper has no problem at all pestering Jesus. He wants Jesus to heal him and he refuses to take “no” for an answer…
By way of setting the stage, consider all that has previously occurred in the first chapter of Mark. Skipping over any kind of Christmas story, the writer of the Gospel of Mark launches right in with Jesus being baptized. Immediately thereafter, Jesus begins to preach, he calls four disciples to follow him, he casts out demons from a man with an unclean spirit, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and finally he comes face to face with a huge crowd of people who were battling sickness.
As Jesus and his disciples set off across Galilee just prior to this morning’s Scripture lesson, Jesus has worked his way through a full agenda. And he’s barely even started his ministry.
All this activity sets the stage for Jesus and the leper…and the one word in the passage that I find particularly fascinating. Verse forty-one, the New Revised Version of the Bible reads as follows. “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…” Namely the man with leprosy.
But if you look carefully, the word “pity” has a footnote above it. A footnote that is clarified at the bottom of the page. “Other ancient authorities read anger.” In other words, verse forty-one translates in other sources as “moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…”
Was Jesus moved with “pity?” Or was Jesus moved with “anger?” Did Jesus feel compassion towards the leper or was the leper irritating to Jesus in some way? Without a doubt, it’s easier to imagine Jesus moved with pity. It fits our image of Jesus more closely. Not only our idealized image of Jesus but the image of Jesus that’s borne out on the pages of the four Gospels.
On the other hand, I’m intrigued by the possibility that Jesus was angry with the leper. Even if it was only for a split second. Because for me, anger sounds like a perfectly reasonable human reaction. It may not be the ideal reaction. But it’s an understandable reaction.
As I mentioned a few moments ago, Jesus and his disciples had just set off on a mission to preach the Word of God across the land of Galilee. Inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, Jesus had momentum. He was determined, focused, ready to go and spread the Good News. And then just as Jesus kicked this preaching tour into gear, the leper appeared out of nowhere and interrupted Jesus. Disrupting Jesus’s plan right at an inopportune moment.
Is it really that hard to picture Jesus impatient and in a hurry? It’s as if the leper has suddenly caused Jesus to miss the green light and now he’s stuck in traffic. “Come on, my brother, what do you want? I don’t have all day. I have things to do and people to influence and places that are waiting for me.” Maybe Jesus was slightly annoyed.
Or maybe Jesus was angry because the man was a leper. In ancient society where there was no access to modern medicine and little understanding of the way in which germs and viruses and disabilities worked, people were scared of disease. And leprosy was one of the scariest diseases of all. As a result, lepers were outcast. They were stigmatized and excluded and isolated.
For Jesus to even talk to a leper would have raised eyebrows. For Jesus to physically touch a leper set him on a collision course with the religious authorities who did not sanction any interaction between the ones ancient society considered clean and the ones considered unclean. Perhaps Jesus was angry because he knew the leper was setting him up for inevitable conflict with the men who made the rules.
Or Jesus was angry because he could see the course of his life taking shape before his eyes. The leper was a sign for Jesus that he would never get away from people who needed him. There would always be people bumping into him, seeking him out, pinning him in a corner and barely giving him room to breathe. You can’t really blame the people in the Gospels as far as looking to Jesus for help. But the needs of those people were unrelenting. And Jesus could have been annoyed because he recognized in those moments with the leper what he was in for over the long run…
Jesus spent his entire life dealing with interruptions. And to a lesser degree, you and I do as well. It seems like something or somebody is always looking for our attention. We’re constantly needed, or so it seems, and some days it’s really hard to find any free time or free space. Plus, it’s hard to maintain balance. How do we juggle the hours we need to spend getting our work done with the hours we need to spend nurturing our marriages or raising our children? What do we do when we see somebody by the side of the road with a flat tire and we’re late for a meeting or a soccer practice?
It’s a natural human inclination to feel angry, frustrated, slightly annoyed. At least for a moment or two. We have too much to do and not enough time and when we have to slow down for some reason, our knee jerk reaction is often to throw up our hands.
But notice how the story in Mark’s Gospel unfolds. Jesus reaches out his hand, touches the leper, and heals him instantaneously. It’s entirely possible Jesus was angry at the leper at first. Yet he moved past the anger and offered compassion, never letting his initial impulse control his eventual response.
You and I get caught up believing that the right way to follow Jesus starts with having the right emotions and the right response. We should be peaceful and quiet when we’re in worship. We need to have sympathy for everyone in need. We have to pray for people even when we don’t like them. We ought to embrace change even when we’re apprehensive about it.
In this morning’s Scripture lesson, Jesus reassures us that it’s okay to love God and to love our neighbor despite the fact that we might get a little angry when somebody sidetracks us from doing what we need to do. Discipleship invites us to respond faithfully to the curveballs life throws us, even when we’re not in the mood and the timing is not what we would have chosen.
We’ve all learned the lesson that we shouldn’t pester God any more than we need to. But the truth is there is nothing you and I need to do to earn God’s attention or God’s abundant love. And the promise of today’s story is that Christ is always ready to turn toward us. Just as the leper in the story was a child of God who mattered, you and I are children of God who matter.
So in the end, the challenge for us is to go and do likewise. When life offers us endless interruptions and distractions, can we think of them instead as opportunities? Opportunities to slow down and turn our attention to the things and the people in our lives that need healing. Knowing that when we do, chances are good we will see Jesus right alongside us. Amen.