Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:40-45
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Here are a few headlines I found online regarding the topic of the day:

Restaurants reach out to smokers treated as 'lepers'
We're beginning to feel like lepers, say Toronto residents
Sex offenders: Virginia's new lepers?
Turning Legal Gun Owners into Social Lepers

Asked to generalize about these headlines, a few things would come to mind first: Each of the headlines I highlighted appears to be metaphor, using leprosy to represent something else. And without identifying the newspapers, there are clues in each of the headlines that would lead you to conclude that these stories concern developed places, North America to be exact.

You might also notice that in all but one of the headlines, the use of leper is really a synonym: using ‘leper’ in place of ‘social outcast’ or just plain old ‘outcast.’ The exception is the second headline: “We’re beginning to feel like lepers, say Toronto residents.” The story was about a man who tried to book a cruise during the SARS crisis, only to be rejected the moment the booking agent discovered he was from Toronto. This is not really a metaphor. The sting of injustice the man felt is closely aligned with the other entire set of newspaper headlines I discovered and did not share Mostly from India and involving the continuing scourge of leprosy.

So the first insight here is that with good healthcare, something as tragic as leprosy can become a metaphor. Removed from the realm of everyday medical concern, leprosy was freed to represent something else. Somehow those of us who use the language were unwilling to set this word aside, deciding instead to adopt it for other uses. The same cannot be said for rickets, however, a disease related to poverty and a critical absence of Vitamin D that is gone from our part of the world but still stalks the developing world.

So immediately we have an issue: why did leprosy transform into metaphor while rickets did not? All those foods fortified with 14 essential nutrients drove away childhood rickets from our shores, but no one stopped to create a ricket metaphor. The answer might be in the Bible. Stories about lepers have been in the popular consciousness from centuries, and therefore had a much greater change to become metaphor. It is like a linguistic popularity contest.

The other answer lies in the headlines themselves. Notice that the metaphorical lepers (smokers, sex offenders and gun owners) were responsible for their situation. Having rickets is a calamity, but not a choice (unless you are a college kid living on Pop Tarts). All of our metaphorical lepers made the choice to smoke or own guns, and therefore became the outcasts they are today.

I can see in your eyes that you are worried about apples and oranges. Or you are wishing I didn’t write a DMin thesis on metaphor. Either way, this would be the appropriate moment to begin to wonder about the association between leprosy and personal failing. How is it that a terrible disease that no one would choose to have is so readily transformed into a metaphor about choosing to become an outcast. The answer is in the Bible.

One of the most famous question in the Bible is found in John 9:

Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that caused him to be born blind?"

Talk about your loaded questions. And without preaching the wrong sermon, the question itself tells us more than any answer ever could. At the time, you see, someone was to blame. Any calamity, any disease, any deformity was a punishment for something. The disciples thought so (they asked the question). The population thought so (they shunned the sick and the lame) and the religious authorities certainly thought so. It was a generally held assumption that lepers were not only sick but also culpable.

So the healing unfolds. The sick man began “If you choose, Sir, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, the text says, Jesus reached over and made him well. He said “I chose to make you clean” and he was made clean. Jesus issued a stern “tell no one” (more on that in a minute) and sent the man for an examination before the one who determines ritual cleanliness. On the way he told everyone.

My heart goes out to the people trying to learn to speak English. When I say “You could help me if you want to” you may discern that I am saying much more than I need a little help. “You could help me if you want to” is the kind of thing you say last, or next to last, when anger and frustration have come. “You could help me if you want to” says you could help me if you were different from everyone else, or less inclined to run with the crowd. It says that I will hold out the possibility that you will be different, but I don’t really believe it. It is amazing how much you can say in eight short words.

Jesus, of course, could read all of this. And Jesus was different from the rest. “Friend of outcast and sinner” was printed on his business card, right below his name and just above his P.O. box in Capernaum. “Friend of outcast and sinner” was more or less his own personal mission statement, right up there “The truth will set you free” and “All you need is love” (or something close). The man in our story had the good fortune of meeting not only the local source of God’s own healing love, but also the local source for solidarity. “I help the people who need help” Jesus said on another occasion, “and not the people who don’t need my help.”

I remain curious about this tendency we have to make lepers. It seems that we love the metaphor so much that we can spend all sorts of time extending it to anyone who has fallen on hard times and seems to have role in their misfortune. Smokers, drug-users, people with HIV-AIDS, the poor, dropouts, and on and on: we could spend the day making lists and feeling smug. Maybe the only bright side to the current economic disaster is that people are forced to rethink their view on the jobless. In good times, we tend to judge. In bad times, we tend to sympathize, knowing full well that we may be next.

I don’t normally dig into the original languages, but since my wife Carmen is here, I’ll throw in a little Greek for the biblical scholar. The Greek verb in our passage (splagchnizomai) is normally translated ‘moved with pity’ as in, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” It seems to sum up our sense of the situation rather well. But there is a problem. It seems that splagchnizomai can also be translated “moved to anger,” a version that put a whole new spin on the story. Suddenly the preacher has something explain, since anger in the text is something that is awfully hard to ignore. Luckily, there is always a scholar to the rescue. The same person who highlighted the issue give us her own translation: that splagchnizomai literally means “his intestines turned,” the kind of reaction that comes with great distress.

To say Jesus had pity would be an understatement. It would be much bigger than an understatement, but I don’t have a word for that. Jesus was moved to the point of symptoms of physical illness when he discovered the plight of this poor man. His sense of solidarity was visceral, literally “in his gut.” His sense of solidarity was sometimes playful (“Come down Zacchaeus”) and dramatic (“Who touched me”) and always real, so real he could feel it in his gut.

The work of disciples is to do our own occasional ‘gut check’ and figure out who needs our help. It happens downstairs, and it happens in the many other places we volunteer our time. It happens when we try to understand rather than judge, and it happens when we reach out rather than turn away.

The ultimate ‘gut check’ is coming too, when we begin the slow climb up to Jerusalem. It will be most plain in the garden at Gethsemane, and in the Upper Room, and on the narrow street pilgrims now walk. The ‘gut check’ Jesus does, in the weeks leading up to what we call Holy Week is this: In his gut he knows that rejection will come. That he too will become a leper among friends, that he too will be an outcast on a lonely hill: that he too will be cast out all the way to the cross. That turning sensation is solidarity for a man with leprosy, but it may also be a turning in his gut for himself. He and that leper are brothers, and their brotherhood will become most obvious very soon.

Jesus died to save us: leper, outcast, sinner, smoker, user, and every one of us in need of healing. Thanks be to God.


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