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Feb 01 2009

If You Choose

A Reflection for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:40-45

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling, and he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I do choose . . .” – Mark 1:41

The man who approaches Jesus has been viewed as less than fully human. He carries a label, “leper”, that has been allowed to define him. The title itself is a kind of social death sentence. In first century Israel, lepers were not allowed to approach other people, and religious laws did not permit contact with lepers, as they were considered “unclean”. If you touched them, you also were unclean, and if you shared their lives you would also share their fate.

Religion declared that the situation of those with leprosy was a result of their own sin. Scripture was piously quoted. Reportedly, a person with leprosy was actually required to shout out a warning when they were anywhere near others: “Leper, leper!” For the man in our story, the disfiguring physical symptoms he experiences have been accompanied by a social amputation: people frightened to be near him, mistakenly believing he is rejected by the Divine, taking a wide path around him or moving quickly away, banishing him to some form of leper colony.

Remarkably, something moves him (in spite of being discouraged) to come right to Jesus, kneeling before him and calling out in a heart-rending voice, “If you choose, you can make me clean”. Jesus himself is deeply moved. The biblical term Mark uses literally means that Jesus’ “guts are moved”; he experiences overwhelming compassion, affection, and connection. And in that very moment the world is changing. Because Jesus is encountering the man at a fully human level: the fellow will no longer be treated as a label or a problem or a curse.

What follows is quite beautiful. Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him. There is no fear binding Jesus. Simultaneously he announces, “I do choose”. The two will share a common future! And in this act of holy love, Jesus makes the conscious decision to risk being thrown out of the religious community himself. The second he touches the man with leprosy, Jesus is also labeled “unclean”. But the story betrays no agonizing on his part. He will gladly share a common fate with this child of God! The realm of God is so much bigger than what happens, or not, in the house of worship.

Mark writes, “Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean”. Even before the man’s physical condition is visibly improved, his healing is taking place. Because when Jesus crosses that boundary, bridging that inhuman chasm with his hand and his heart (a) the man is affirmed as a brother in God’s family (b) fear and rejection are defeated (c) holy communion is celebrated. The man’s inner condition is transformed; he and Jesus are one in the compassion of God. His pain is honored and shared, shame is banished, the pieces of his broken humanity are regarded as precious and worthy of God’s blessing and touch.

What Jesus is doing here is exercising freedom, in the truest gospel sense of that term. When Jesus touches the man, they are both free. Throughout his ministry, Jesus manifests that same freedom often and everywhere. It is the freedom to choose the good news of God’s love in any and all circumstances. And it is most powerful! From now on, everyone will be judged one way: by the love of God!

In this story, Jesus reveals the kingdom of God in a very local way. Elizabeth McAlister would call it the “kin-dom”. The old religion and its exclusion fall away before our Lord, opening up to the shaping of the new community of Jesus in which this man will be a gift to others. In spite of Jesus’ instructions, the man is so overjoyed by his God-given identity that he can’t wait to talk to others, to relate and rejoice and proclaim God’s promise for their lives, too. And if this gets Jesus into trouble, well, it sure is the right kind of trouble!

Where do you and I have the opportunity to practice the same kind of freedom as Jesus, today? Might we rejoice over the inclusive promise the gospel holds for us here at St. Andrew’s? Can we relate and rejoice and extol God’s promises exuberantly, with everything we have? Then let’s do it! Maybe each of us needs to risk rejection in the narrow “religious realm” in order to realize our new life in community of faith, together. What is Jesus freeing our faith community of St. Andrew’s to do? I believe we know concrete answers to these questions. How much longer need we resist His healing touch?

In the coming season of Epiphany, what will we choose?

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