On the face of it, this is just another healing story. By the time the man with leprosy approaches him at the end of Mark 1, Jesus already has healed tons of people, including a demon-possessed man and a disciple’s mother-in-law. Jesus has healed so many people, in fact, that last week, he had to get away for some quiet time of prayer and renewal.
This healing, though, is different. This time we get a glimpse of what Jesus is feeling. The word used in the original Greek text is splanchnizomai. There’s no exact translation in English, but in the old Greek the splanchna referred to the upper organs—the heart, liver, lungs…the location, it was thought, of the emotions. Makes sense. When we’re surprised, what does it do? It takes our breath away. Where do nervous butterflies flutter? In our stomachs. When old Fred Sanford got a shock, where did it hit him? In his heart. The blogger who used the word splanchna to coo to his sweetie, “I love you with all my bowels?” I think, technically, he got it a little too low.
But you get the picture, right? If you’re in your splanchna, you’re in a place of deep emotion. But what kind of emotion? Translators are all over the place with how to render splanchnizomai in English. The NRSV translates it “moved with pity.” Others translate it “compassion.” The NIV translates it: “Jesus was indignant.” Indignant. How can the same word be translated compassionate and indignant? And which translation is more accurate? It’s obvious that Jesus is worked up in this scene, but how is he worked up? Is he feeling deep compassion for the man or is he indignant? And if he’s indignant, about what is he indignant? Let’s look at the text a little more closely to see if we can figure it out.
“A man with leprosy…” Let’s stop there. A man who was a Jew—and that’s what we’re assuming because, to this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is staying pretty close to synagogues. You see in the verse just before this one that Jesus was travelling throughoutGalilee, “preaching in their synagogues…” So, it’s safe to assume this man was near the synagogue and, thus, was a Jew. A Jewish person with leprosy would have been considered unclean and, as such, would not have been allowed to worship or associate with anyone who was clean. Basically, he was cut off from his faith community.
So, somewhere near the synagogue this man with leprosy comes up to Jesus, kneels down, and begs him: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” The text doesn’t say this specifically, but their likely proximity to the synagogue—and the fact that Jesus later sends the man to the synagogue “as a testimony” to the priests–makes you wonder if the man already had been to the priests for healing and had been turned away. If that’s the case, then an indignant response from Jesus makes sense. Here was a man the faith community was supposed to embrace and heal…yet what did they do? They turned him away.
Do you ever find yourself feeling that kind of indignation? When there’s another story in the news about a child being hurt by a clergy person; or a church excluding someone; or a denomination denying a person ordination because of her gender; or when Christians use the Bible—like they are in Villa Rica this week—to explain how God can cure people of homosexuality? Does hearing stories like that ever engage your splanchna?
In a book called Simple Spirituality: Finding God in a Broken World, author Chris Heuertz relates what happened one day inCalcutta,India. “It was a Monday afternoon, and several of us…were on our way to Sonagachi, one ofSouth Asia’s most notorious red-light districts. As we were walking to the subway station, we almost stumbled over an emaciated body lying on the sidewalk. The little person was underneath a dirty blanket covered with what must have been a thousand flies. From underneath the blanket and body, a three-foot trail of diarrhea ran toward the gutter.”
“My pal Josh tapped the body on the shoulder to see if the person was dead. The body moved. Josh pulled the blanket down from the face it covered to see a helpless young man, maybe 22 years old and visibly stunned by our approach. As soon as he realized we were there to help him, he began weeping uncontrollably. A crowd gathered. He continued to cry.
“We didn’t have much to work with, but our friend Sarah grabbed a bottle of water and some newspaper. She began cleaning the young man, wiping the diarrhea off with the newspaper and rinsing him with the water. We asked him his name. Tutella Dhas. He was lost, afraid, alone. His body was a leathery-skinned skeleton, and his bulging eyes accentuated the shape of his skull. He kept crying.
“We tried to get a taxi, but none would stop. The crowd grew. No one wanted to help. Two more friends happened to be walking down the street just then, and they were able to find a taxi. They took Tutella Dhas with them and headed off to Mother Teresa’s House for the Dying. Phileena, Sarah, Josh and I stood there in disbelief.
“I lifted my head and caught sight of a church and its sign less than five feet from where we found the dying Tutella Dhas. The sign read, ‘All are welcome here.’ It may have been what inspired someone to drop Tutella in front of the church. But was he welcome? People from the church watched as we helped Tutella, yet the gate remained closed.
“If all were truly welcome, then why was a man dying at the threshold of the church? Why didn’t anyone come out to help him?”
“If you are willing, you can heal me,” the man said. “Jesus was indignant.” I should say so. The faith community is supposed to be a source of healing and wholeness for people. Of all institutions in the world, the faith community is supposed to honor and respect and respond to the dignity of every child of God. Which is why when the faith community gets it wrong, when it misses the mark, when it ostracizes or worse yet, demonizes the very people it exists to help, the faithful person can’t help but respond with indignation.
So, was Jesus’ splanchna experiencing indignation? It’s a safe bet that it was. But what was the source of that indignation? Was it not compassion for the man? He was angry at the synagogue because it had turned away a person in need of healing. Jesus’ indignation at the synagogue grew out of his compassion for the man.
Which might be why Jesus sent the newly-healed man back to the priest in the synagogue “as a testimony to him.” In that act, Jesus was inviting that man’s faith community back to its original task: having compassion for, seeing the dignity of, and healing those who sought it out.
If only that’s what the man had done. But he didn’t. He skipped the synagogue all together and “went out and began to proclaim his healing freely.” No wonder, right? We all know people who—once shunned by the church—have never gone near another church again. Who would blame them?
But Jesus seems pretty clear about what he hopes the man will do. Go, present yourself for the traditional Mosaic cleansing, and do it as a “testimony to them.” Remind the faith community of its call to heal people.
Because he skipped his post-healing synagogue visit, the newly-healed man’s faith community missed his testimony to them. They missed their chance to be called back to their original healing work.
What about us in this faith community? We have witnessed the man’s healing. Will we receive the testimony of that healing? Will we remember and reclaim our calling to be a source of healing for others? Will we continue striving to be a safe place, a sanctuary for those who are hurting? Will we watch others outside the church tend to the mortally wounded on our doorstep…or will we open the gate?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for the wholeness of us all. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan (C) 2012
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.
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