Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Purity to Compassion in Three Stories From Mark (Part I)

When I left professional ministry last October, I didn't exactly know what I was going to do. I certainly didn't know my relationship to the church. Both vocationally and spiritually I was starting over.

Providence led my family to Fourth Ave UMC, in Old Louisville. Coincidentally, when Sami and I first got married we lived just two blocks from that church, in an old rat hole of an apartment. Now we get to see our old haunt at least once a week.

At Fourth Ave I am blessed to teach a Sunday School class full of teenagers who have never studied their faith before. Each week I get to read the Bible with a room full of people who are seeing its contents for the first time. What a way to break through all of my biases and see the text with fresh eyes!

For this season of Lent we have been looking at Mark's portrayal of Jesus. A friend of mine once called Mark's Gospel the comic book Gospel, because our hero (Jesus) sweeps in from out of nowhere, performs some miracle (be it a healing or an exorcism or some other extraordinary feat) and then quickly leaves, ordering all who witnessed the event to say nothing to nobody.

So my reading of Mark has always been colored by that approach. I've always seen it as a series of improbable miracle stories with little to say to those of us who've never seen a miracle, and find stories about them incredulous.

Now I'm not saying that Jesus didn't perform miracles; that he couldn't have performed miracles. What I'm saying is that whether he did or not, that in and of itself has little to teach me. If I look to the life of Christ as some model for who I should behave, what can I learn about myself from stories of his miracles? Until recently, very little.

Reading through Mark with a room full of functionally agnostic teenagers, trying to show them the reading the Gospel can help them to come alive, I've been forced to see the text of Mark through new eyes. In this post I will do my best to lend those eyes to you.

I can't recreate my lessons, because strictly speaking, they aren't my lessons. Rather, they are our discussions. So much of what happens is context dependent. I respond to their comments and questions as we respond to the text. But what I can do is share some of the observations which came up in the context of our discussions on the text.

The centering theme for our approach to much of Mark is borrowed from Marcus Borg, who argues that Jesus' ministry can be seen as a shifting of the focus of religion (in his case Judaism, in our case Christianity) from purity to compassion.

The religion of Ancient Israel could, according to Borg, be summed up in this command:

Be holy as the Lord your God is holy.

Holiness is here seen as being both pure and set apart. It is also both personal and corporate. Individuals are called to be pure and set apart, and the community is called to be both pure and set apart. If any individual in the community is impure, then their impurity makes the entire community impure.

We will return to this idea when we dive into the stories.

Jesus, however, inverts this focus on purity, shifting it toward compassion. His approach, according to Borg, can be summed up in this command:

Be compassionate as the Lord your God is compassionate.

Jesus reimages the defining trait of God, and as such changes the focus of religion. As we look at these three stories we should keep this theory in mind.

Our first story comes from Mark 1:40-45, the story of Jesus healing a leper. The NRSV translation reads:

A leper came to him [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity [or "anger"], Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying 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." But 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 corner.

This story is so full of treasures that we discussed it for an hour and didn't even begin to cover what was in it. Before I go into our discussion of it, and how that connects to Jesus inversion of the religious values, and the shift from purity to compassion, let me briefly point out some interesting bits that we couldn't cover. Mine them for yourself:

1. Some manuscripts have Jesus moved by "anger" rather than "pity." This is, in fact, the version preferred by Bart Ehrman, because it presents us with a more challenging statement. Why, he wonders, would scribes change the text to present us with an "angry" Jesus? It seems much more reasonable to assume that scribes saw that the text said Jesus was moved by "anger," and thinking that that couldn't possibly be right, changed it to say that he was moved by "pity." (A simplification of his argument.)

If the best texts indeed have Jesus being angry in this story (and this is a very open question which cannot be resolved by Ehrman alone), does that pose an interpretive problem for us? When answering this question, here are a few additional questions to consider:

i. Why is Jesus angry?
ii. At whom is Jesus angry?
iii. How can this be seen in light of Borg's thesis that Jesus shifts the focus of religion from purity to compassion?

2. Why would Jesus not want the man to talk to anyone about what happened, and why would the man disobey the order to keep quiet?

Our discussion focus more on the act of the healing itself, and how we can respond to it. I mentioned earlier that for me miracle stories pose a problem, in that I have never seen much less performed a miracle. If Jesus' life is to be a model for us (and for theological reasons I think that it is), how then can we who don't see much less perform miracles have our actions be informed by such miracle stories?

In considering this we must look more closely at the problem in this story. The man who approaches Jesus is identified as a leper. This does not necessarily mean that the man had what we call "Hansen's disease," leprosy properly speaking. Rather, it means that he had some sort of a skin condition, identified by a priest in accordance with the laws in Leviticus 13. Such a skin condition made one "unclean" or "impure" in a society in which purity was godliness. And being impure in a society driven by religious purity laws, in which the impurity of any member of the community made the entire community impure, you can see that there would be disastrous social results.

Leprosy, then, entailed two problems:

1. A physical problem: that is, the disease itself.

2. A social problem: that is, when one is identified as being impure, which comes with this skin condition, one is no longer welcome in the community.

The physical problem may be a very real and serious problem, but the social problem was akin to social death. If you were identified as a leper then you could no longer have any sort of human contact, for fear that your impurity would make others impure as well.

In this story Jesus, in the way in which he heals the leper, addresses both problems. Through the way in which he heals the leper we can see how we, who are certainly not imbued with miraculous powers of healing, can participate in this act of healing.

Simply put, Jesus heals the leper by touching the leper. This was beyond taboo, for two reasons:

1. The disease itself was considered to be contagious, and so per the understanding of the day, in touching the leper Jesus risked catching the disease.

2. The act of touching that which is impure makes one ritually impure. So, in touching the leper Jesus took that impurity into himself.

In this story, then, we see Jesus' inversion of the dominant religious values. Placing compassion above purity Jesus makes himself unclean in order to help out another person.

How can we relate to this? We certainly can't go out and heal someone's physical disease merely by touching them. But we can, in our own way, touch and heal lepers.

I asked the teenagers to identify people in their own lives who are lepers, and to come up with ways in which to touch them. Their responses were, frankly, moving. In such a vicious social world these kids, who'd never taken their faith very seriously, deeply engaged the social problems around them, and came up with creative and compassionate responses to those social problems. The challenge is for us to do the same thing in our social world.

So the questions I take out of this story, as I try to allow it to inform my moral actions, are:

1. Who, in my life, is a leper?

2. How can I touch them?

If anyone is interested, please address these questions in the comments.

I was planning to deal with all three stories in a single post, but it is clear now that won't work. This is getting too long, and I'm almost out of time to write.

The good news is that I'm leaving shortly to go on a vacation. The bad news is that, while I am becoming a better person, I am not yet as good as I wish I were. Sami's grandmother - as those of you who read this post and this post well know - died earlier this year. Since then her mother, who lived with and took care of her mother for the last two decades or more, has been very lonely.

My mother-in-law and I have never really gotten along. The first time I met her she forbid me to ever see her daughter again, and I'm not sure we ever got past that moment. But she was my leper. Living alone in the country she is on a social island, with few if any human contacts. She calls us a lot, and generally just gets on my nerves. But in the wake of her mother's death I have started to learn how to have compassion for her.

Thinking myself a better person than I really am, I invited her to go with us on our vacation this year. Now a few days of rest and relaxation to the woods is turning into a festival of stress. No one should feel sorry for me. I'm not a pitiable character in this story. If anything, I'm the villain, still wishing my mother-in-law were someone she's not rather than accepting her and *gasp* loving her for who she is. This week, on our vacation, I will be getting a steady does for her. Now I can finally learn true compassion.

Perhaps I will find, as Jesus did, that when I touch the leper they will no longer be a leper, but just another human being worthy of love and compassion.

When I get back I'll post my treatments of the final two stories. In the meantime consider the questions raised here, and try to leave a comment for discussion.


crystal said...

About that word translated as either pity or anger ... I read a homily a while ago that talked about that word, used for the woman with the newly dead son ...

"... To know how Jesus chose you only have to take a look at a word at the heart of today’s gospel—it appears here buried under the weak translation, ‘Jesus felt sorry’. ‘Felt sorry’. Some translators say ‘pity’ and others ‘compassion’ and in some places it’s ‘anger’. It’s an awkward Greek word with the sense of what you feel in your spleen. Jesus feels sorry for the woman—but powerfully, passionately… something convulses his bowels, turns his stomach over—that’s why he puts out his hand and brings a corpse to life.
Luke uses the word in only two other places: he uses it when the prodigal Father can’t help but rush down the road to meet his returning son; and he uses it in the story of the Good Samaritan, where the wrong person is stirred up to do the right thing.
Three events. Three characters who can’t help but act because they have experienced something so powerfully it grabs them in their guts. They experience the need, the pain, the joy, the life, of another human being and feel it like their own—in their innards. It takes a particular kind of weakness to let that happen. A real vulnerability. You don’t learn that vulnerability from a distance. You only learn it through your own pain, your own need, maybe only through failure … when our natural insulation one from another can no longer cope and the barriers go down."

Sorry this was so long. Have a good vacation :-)

Liam said...

The anger of Jesus is a challenging idea. I'm thinking of him driving the moneychangers out of the Temple with a whip -- it seems to go against the turning of the other cheek, forgiving someone seventy times seventy, etc. I've never quite known what to do with that image of Jesus.

But I like the anger Crystal is talking about. I'm thinking of a medieval expression: "the merciful bowels of Jesus." It has something to do with medieval ideas of physical psychology, but it also describes that sense of compassion that is so intense that it is felt physically and compells one to act. That brings out the human and divine natures of Christ in a special way. So close to Holy Week, I find it very moving to think that that kind of impulse was in Christ as he underwent the passion.

May your vacation go well.

Brian Cubbage said...

Crystal-- the word translated as "pity," etc. is "splangkhnistheis" in my Greek NT-- is that right? And the alternative word translated "anger" is "orgistheis"?

The text-critical apparatus in my Greek NT (UBS 4th ed.) lists only a small handful of manuscripts, most of them Old Latin from the 4th-7th centuries, that read "orgistheis" in Mk 1:41 (or its Latin equivalent). The "traditional" reading is attested far earlier and far more widely. The UBS's apparatus doesn't strive for completeness, so it probably doesn't give us the whole picture vis-à-vis the manuscripts. Nevertheless, I wonder why Ehrman prefers to apply the "difficult reading" rule in this case.

crystal said...

You'd have to ask Fr. Marsh, who wrote the homily, part of which I posted above ... I'm afraid Greek is, well, all Greek to me :-)

But I did see this somewhere ...

In its noun form the Greek term (splangchnon; plural splangchna) originally referred to body partsspecifically to the viscera of sacrificial animals: such things as the heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys. Thus the old King James translation of the plural form of the noun as "bowels" is quite close to the literal meaning of the term, and the English word "guts" captures the sense of the word both in its literal and figurative meanings. ... That modern versions sometimes translate the word as "pity," other times as "compassion," is itself a pity (pun intended!), since it obscures the careful way Mark, Matthew, and Luke consistently use the word to refer to the heart of the gospel: God's response to human suffering.

DagoodS said...

brian cubbage, my understanding of why Ehrman relies on “angry” as being the original:

1) It is the more difficult reading. One “rule” of textual criticism is that the more difficult reading is the original. Scribes tended to smooth over problems, or reduce complications, rather than introduce them. It is like re-reading your own work. Sometimes you edit yourself to make it more understandable, or reduce confusion.

Jesus being “angry” at sin, or Pharisees would be acceptable. Jesus being “angry” at a sick person is not as palatable. Angry is more difficult than pity, hence the more likely reading. However, there are no hard and fast “rules” in textual criticism. Normally the earlier the manuscript, the more likely the accuracy, but not always. Normally the greater number is considered more accurate, but not always. Not every difficult reading must be more accurate, so the application of this rule in this situation is debatable.

I (personally) do not find this persuasive for “angry” as compared to “pity.”

2) Matthew (8:2-4) and Luke (17:12-19) both copy this story into their respective Gospels. Both Matthew (9:36, 14:14) and Luke (7:13, 10:33) have no problem stating that Jesus was “moved with pity” toward people. Both Matthew and Luke have a habit of “cleaning up” Mark, clarifying his Greek, correcting his Geographical errors, and removing difficult languages. (Too many to recount, but if you want more on the Synoptic Problem I can refer you to articles.)

So, we have Matthew and Luke, working this story into their Gospel, not afraid to say Jesus has pity, and not afraid to clean up Mark. And, as you can see, neither says Jesus was “moved with pity” toward the leper.

If it said “angry” it is easy to see why both Matthew and Luke made no mention of it. If it said “pity” it is very hard to see why both Matthew and Luke skipped it.

I (again, personally) find this very persuasive as to it originally saying “angry.”

Brian Cubbage said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brian Cubbage said...

DagoodS: Thanks for the help. I am aware of the "difficult reading" rule and of the synoptic problem; my only scruple here is that questions like this not get settled by too mechanical an application of rules.

My earlier comment, which I deleted, didn't make a lot of sense. The upshot of it was that Ehrman's case, as you relate it, is rather convincing after all. It's made even stronger, I think, by another omission Mt and Lk make. In Mk 1:43, the text has Jesus "sternly warning" the leper not to tell anyone about his healing (as the NRSV renders it). In Mt, Jesus simply "says" this to the leper; in Lk, he "orders" him not to say anything. The Greek word for "sternly" is "embrimesamenos," a participle of the verb embrimaomai; and if the old Bauer lexicon is to be trusted, the verb has rather splenetic connotations. Apparently, in Greek Jesus' warning in Mk is supposed to come off as indignant and scolding, even-- dare I say it-- angry?

So two things might seem to motivate reading the debated word in Mk 1:41 as "orgistheis"; not only do Mt and Lk omit it (presumably because they have their own theological purposes for doing so), but it's also more consistent with the rest of the passage in Mk. Unless, of course, the Marcan Jesus is supposed to turn on a dime, moving from piteous to indignant in the space of a minute or so; the bipolar Jesus, perhaps?

Perversely, though, doesn't this observation actually make "angry" ("orgistheis") the easier reading in the immediate context in Mk-- not the more difficult one?

Sandalstraps said...

Friday afternoon, 3:05pm.

I'm home. I've just read everyones comments, and will be responding as soon as I can see straight.

I'll also be posting a new story (from our brief "vacation"), along with my treatments of the two other stories I wanted to deal with from Mark. All of that should start either tonight or tomorrow morning.

In the meantime, thanks to all for such interesting comments.

Sandalstraps said...


Thank you for your meditation on strong and weak translations. As you've seen from the course of this discussion, at issue in this case is not the translation of a single word, but the fact that different manuscripts contain different Greek words. That said, you have done a wonderful job bringing to our attention the deeper implications of one of those Greek words, which the NRSV renders "pity."


Ehrman speaks to the difficulties of "anger." This was even more difficult in late Antiquity, as Christianity is a minority religion which is by no means certain to take root in the Roman Empire. At particular issue is the notion of the divity of Christ.

Romans had little difficulty with the notion that a person could embody the divine. But they often had great difficulty with the notion that this person, Jesus of Nazareth, actually embodied the divine. This is in part due to the difficulty presented by his bouts with anger in some of the Gospel stories.

Simply put, anger was an emotion beneath the gods. It implies a kind of vulnerability, as though these people could really get to you. If Jesus were in fact divine, some argued, he would not have manifested such anger.

Christianity responded to this in a couple of ways. One was to deny the anger of Jesus, and to gloss over the stories which point to Jesus' anger. The other was to embrace that anger, and connect the angry Jesus to the God of the Hebrews, who could also get quite angry from time to time. I'm not satisfied with either approach (though, of course, I've given the uber-Clif Notes version of both).


Welcome. You've summed up Ehrman's argument nicely. I'm almost sad to see how well you've done it, because I was hoping to make some of the points you made myself. That is exactly why, from the historical-textual perspective, "anger" is often preferred to "pity."

Good to see your comment here.


I've got nothing to add to your comments. They've been dealt with pretty well already. Good discussion.


On the subject of anger in this passage, here is where I was hoping to drive the conversation:

Understood in the context of a Gospel in which Jesus is often at odds with the Pharisees (who will be thoroughly treated in the next two stories, which deal overtly with Jesus' relationship to and opinion of the Sabbath laws, and covertly with Jesus' inversion of religious values) I think that Jesus - if he was angry - was angry at the religious authorities who, in making this leper an outcast, put Jesus in this difficult position.

I think that this scene can be seen in the context of Jesus' adversarial relationship with the Pharisees who have made laws which were designed for freedom into laws which create bondage. But more on that in the next two stories, which I should post tomorrow.

Anyway, I think that if Jesus is angry, he is angry with the situation, and at the religious authorities who brought about the situation, and not at the sick man. After all, throughout Mark Jesus is being held up as a moral example, and that example included compassion for the downtrodden. If that is the morality being presented, it would make no sense to present a Jesus who gets mad at a man for being sick.

Dagoods has said (elsewhere) that Mark reads like fiction. My friend (referenced in the post) said that it reads like a comic book. I have said that it reads like the intersection between myth and history (that is, it presents us with a myth rooted in historical events). One thing all of these positions have in common is that the argue that Mark was written by an author with an agenda. It simply does not fit the agenda of the Gospel to have Jesus angry at the leper. That does not fit with the rest of the message, and contradicts the emphasis throughout much of the rest of the Gospel on compassion.

As such, I don't see the textual problem as a problem at all. If it should read "pity," that is consistent with the emphasis on compassion if that pity is directed toward the pitiable figure, the leper. If it should read "anger," that is consistent with Jesus' violent inversion of the religious values of his day, which placed him at odds with the Pharisees.

The only way the textual problem poses a real interpretive problem is if it is clear that Jesus is angry, and that his anger is directed towards the leper. But then you'd have the author undermining the purpose of the rest of the Gospel, which seems highly improbable assuming any authoral competance.

Or, to put it another way, for anyone to argue that the "anger" version undermines the Gospel would require saying that the author is either accidentally or intentionally undermining his own agenda. If accidentally, then the author must not have noticed that having Jesus get mad at the leper contradicted the values of the rest of the story. If intentionally, then I am at a loss.

Either way, assuming we have a competant author with an agenda of some sort (not a stretch, and requiring no form of faith in the message of the text) allows us to, once we place the story in its textual context, to interpret it easily regardless of the textual dispute.

Brian Cubbage said...

That sure was a short vacation...

Tom said...

Are you saying that he should have been away longer? Some friend you are!

Sandalstraps said...

Short, but productive, as the next post (whenever I finally write it) will indicate. We were basically gone 48 hours. But that was enough for now. Hopefully we'll get a longer break at some point over the summer.

So far the comments on this post have focused primarily on the textual dispute. That's been a good discussion. But if this story has any power at all, then our discussion of it should focus on more than just the academic concerns.

If the story indicates, as I say that it does, Jesus as the ideal for the human life, then his behavior should inform our behavior.

In this story Jesus touches a leper. I'd like to revisit the issue of how we can do likewise.

Anyone care to weigh in on the subject of who our lepers are, and how we can touch them? Or, would anyone like to challenge that reading of the story? Or - and this is particularly for non-Christians like Dagoods - would anyone like to challenge the morality presented?

We Westerners tend to be very abstract. But our abstractions are worthless unless they can connect to the concrete reality of day to day life. This story is worthless unless it can help us to lead better lives. So, if my interpretation of this story is a good one, how can it help us to lead decent lives, and how does it inform our moral actions?

Who is your leper?
How can you touch them?