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.
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