We love the Jesus of our pew bibles. Would you like to hear this Jesus? I have him at the ready. Here we go: “A leper came to him [Jesus that is] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!'”
Bravo! Nicely done savior of humankind. What a wonderfully compact miracle story, full of all the subtleties that make our savior shine bright as the all-loving Son of God.
Leprosy was such an awful thing: rotting flesh, hideous disfigurements, severed appendages, banishment from the community. Nobody went within a hundred feet of a leper, and who could blame them. Yet our pew bible Christ is right up cozy with the man–“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.”
The words of Jesus were as memorable as his actions. “I do choose.” Jesus said. This follows the lepers statement of faith that if Jesus did indeed choose to make the leper clean then WALLA, leper no more! We don’t know the tone and manner by which the leper made his statement. Did the leper look Jesus in the eye and avoid stammering his words? Leprosy had a way of force feeding you large servings of internalized oppression. Lepers were less than human and they probably shouldn’t be bothering popular rabbis with their silly requests for healing. But it was hard to ignore the rumors about the benevolent miracle worker from Galilee. Still, our leper was careful not to ask Jesus for healing, but only to proclaim its possibility. Such faith mingled with the bondage of a horrific disease propelled the misty eyed Jesus of our pew Bibles to action–“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand…” It’s the all-loving compassion of the Christ, we say, that reached out and chose to heal the man in spite of his down turned eyes and stammering ways.
Or was it? Come to find out the Jesus of our pew Bibles has a an interesting alter ego. Mark will do this from time to time. It’s a little embarrassing, which is why it always get cleaned up and put in the footnotes. We loath to make God too human, we want a pew Bible Christ, not a Christ who sits in the pews. There is a difference.
I should explain.
Long before the books of our New Testament were red-lettered, thumb indexed, gold leafed, and dressed in bonded leather they existed in manuscript form, as individual books. The earliest manuscripts, called uncials, were written in all capital Greek letters without any spaces or punctuation. They were read in one place and then circulated to another place. Sometimes they were well cared for, other times they were subject to the elements. When one manuscript was old and tattered it was carefully copied, and when the demand for the teachings of Christ expanded even more copies were made. Though the scribes were vigilant and well trained, differences between the manuscripts would sometimes occur. Actually, differences in manuscripts would always occur. Of all the known complete manuscripts of any book in the New Testament, no two are entirely identical. Since we do not have any originals to consult then we are at a loss to always know the correct reading when two manuscripts differ. Most of the time it’s such a trivial matter that we pay little attention to it. Other times it’s more significant. When it is significant our pew Bibles will indicate this by placing a footnote in the text.
Today it is significant. The significance is found in verse 41, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” If you are reading your pew Bible now you will note that there is a superscript letter after the word pity pointing us to a footnote that says, “other ancient authorities read anger.”
I needn’t tell you that this changes the story substantially. Suddenly it is not the pity motivated Jesus who reaches out and touches the leper but the anger motivated Jesus. This must be a mistake, we say. Pay no attention to the footnote. The easy reading is to be preferred. Jesus doesn’t get angry when lepers interrupt him. Why would any scribe say such a thing? Precisely, which is why it’s hard to imagine any scribe changing the easy reading (pity) to the more difficult reading (anger). It is, however, easy to imagine a well meaning, albeit somewhat meddlesome, scribe changing a difficult reading (anger) to an easier one (pity). Certainly that best explains the differences in manuscripts. So, in the field of biblical textual criticism one rule of thumb goes against our first blush reaction: the difficult reading is more likely closer to the original.
Bible translators don’t always follow this rule of thumb. New Bible translations are meticulously gone over with a critical eye. Bad P.R. can send the publisher’s scurrying for safer (read: more orthodox) translations. That is where footnotes come in handy. Since we can’t be sure then there is no need to ruffle feathers. Hopefully no preachers will be foolish enough to point to the superscripts.
Too bad, I like footnotes, they tickle my inner geek.
But how can entertain the possibility of this other reading? Jesus angry?! Then again this is Mark. Jesus is embarrassingly human in Mark (even if you discount the footnotes). Which says nothing about the pacing of the story. Scrooge Mark is in such a hurry with the Christ that he skips right over Christmas. Mark wants to get to the point. Already in chapter one Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, spends forty days in the dessert, begins proclaiming the kingdom of God, calls his first disciples, attends synagogue and heals a man with an unclean spirit, heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and goes on a preaching tour of Galilee. If you fatigue quickly don’t attempt to keep up with Mark’s Jesus from Nazareth!
Remember what happened last time the Christ received interruption. He’d spent the previous day curing people who were sick, and casting out demons, and preventing those demons from speaking and early the next morning when everyone was tired to the bone Jesus got up while it was still dark and went to a deserted place to pray. When the disciples awoke from their bleary-eyed slumber they couldn’t believe it. Where’d he go?! They hunted Jesus down and chastised him, “Everyone is searching for you.” There were more people to be healed, more demons to exorcise, more cases of destitution. Jesus refused to go back. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I might proclaim the message their also; for that is what I came out to do.”
And here we go again, no sooner had the proclamation begun when Jesus is cut off from his mission by an interfering leper. No wonder that after the healing Jesus “sternly warned him” in verse 43 to “say nothing to anyone.” I hesitate to tell you, since I am already pushing my luck, that the verb for sternly warned literally means snorted. This was a serious restriction. Don’t you dare say a word!
I’m not Jesus, but I know what it’s like. Sermon’s not done, Sunday’s nipping at my heels, and they show up without an appointment.
“Didn’t have much of what I eat in the pantry today.”
“Sorry, we’ve been low for a while now.” Why am I apologizing I think to myself.
“Got any Stop-N-Shop gift cards?”
“Nope, I’m fresh out.”
“But I talked to Fred, he was here earlier this week, he said you gave him a card.”
“That’s what fresh out means.”
I make a mental note to tell Fred to keep his mouth shut–Don’t you dare say a word.
Still, the leper came kneeling and begging, not with a sense of entitlement. Yet Jesus was angry? It makes us wonder what’s got under Jesus’ skin. Did he wake up on the wrong side of the straw mat? We like the pity motivated Jesus, not the guy who needs anger management.
There are a few different ideas batted around as to why Jesus might have met the leper with anger. All of them recognize the fact that Jesus does indeed heal the man, and that part of the healing involved the touch of Jesus, a detail of the story so human and compassionate it makes the anger seem out of place.
One idea is that Jesus is angry not at the leper, or the interruption, but at the Jerusalem priestly establishment and their institutionalized procedures and prescribed offerings necessary for the leper to be declared free of the stigma. His commandment then to “show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them“ is a way of offering a demonstrative polemic against such injustices.
Another idea is that Jesus is angry not with the leper, or the interruption, but at the powers that hold creation and its creatures in bondage and pain. Sickness is the result of a fallen world, and this side of the echaton we are helpless to extricate ourselves from the harsh results. How many lepers had Jesus healed in the days before this leper came to him? How many times can we see the same disease and not meet it with bitterness and rage?
Yet another idea is that Jesus was beginning to realize that he would be on constant call by the never ending needs of the countless who suffer. As Emily Brown writes, “It was just never going to stop! For the rest of Jesus’ ministry, people will be clamoring for his attention: crying from the roadside, grasping at his garment hem, lowering a sickbed through the roof, trying to get the healing he can offer them. You can’t blame them. These are people in need. But I imagine that living with constant, overwhelming requests for help would be exhausting for anyone, and Jesus had so much to do and so little time. I imagine that if Jesus were angry for a moment, it may have been, in part, at the realization that there would never be just a sermon, just a dinner with friends, just a moment to pray.” Our calls don’t always shape up like we imagine. Sermons are put on hold, social occasions become pastoral sessions, prayer is cut off by our choice of annoying cell phone ringtone. So it goes.
We can’t say why Jesus was angry for sure, just like we can’t say for sure that he was angry at all (this is footnote theology). But we can pause to think about it, and reflect on our own proclamation of the kingdom, and our own anger at unjust systems, and the pain we see in the world, and the constant needs that present themselves. If Jesus was angry then it intrigues us. Whenever Jesus feels like us there is comfort. Perhaps the Spirit of God is doing the work we hope it is doing. Perhaps we are being made like him.
If that is the case then there is both encouragement and warning in the story of the healing of the leper. There is encouragement in that even though we experience anger at injustice, sickness and pain, and constant demands, still we can respond with the compassionate touch of healing, and thus stand up against those things that strive to hold us down. Jesus is defiant in this text. He does not let anger lead to bitter resignation, and neither should we.
There is warning in this story in that the proclamation of the kingdom in the healing of the leper will lead to a great reversal of fortunes. In five verses Jesus and the leper will switch places. The leper begins the encounter as an outcast, unable to enter populated towns. The leper ends the encounter cleansed of his disease and able to proclaim freely the good news of his healing. Jesus begins the encounter moving from town to town in Galilee with a great following of people. Jesus ends the encounter “no longer going into a town openly, but staying out in the country.” The reversal is indicative of Jesus’ coming plight. As Jesus breaks the bonds of oppression found in the world, and thus heals the world, the world will summarily reject him.
Rejection is part of the call. So it goes.
We love the Jesus of our pew Bible, and well we should. Fair warning, close inspection of said pew Bible will often reveal Jesus to us in ways we never expected. Especially when we include the footnotes. Was Jesus feeling pity, or anger, or both? Whatever the case a man was healed, and the future of Christ was foreshadowed, and all of us were given plenty to chew on. What is our response to the lepers in our life? What unjust systems get under our skin? What diseases make us angry? How do we handle the interrupting needs. May we, like Christ, never fear extending the hand of compassion as it has been extended to us.