Saturday, February 14, 2009

Jesus was moved by pity... or was that anger?

Homily for Proper 6, Year B, 2009
Sunday, February 15th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 1:40-45

Jesus was moved with pity… or was that anger?

There is a little problem in the text of today’s Gospel reading. It is the sort of problem that we tend to gloss over from week-to-week in many of our readings from Scripture. It may be assumed by many that there is, out there somewhere, a pristine copy of the “original” New Testament. This is, of course, not so. As many of us know, our canon of Scripture came about as communities used various books of the Bible until very gradually a particular set of books became the accepted norm. What may be less well-known is that each book of the Bible was copied and re-copied with corrections made, words crossed out, and words added to make greater sense of an ambiguous passage. To make matters even more interesting, differing communities in the Early Church had versions of particular books of the Bible that contained significant differences. In fact, there is one surviving family of texts of the Book of Acts that is reckoned to be about thirty percent longer than the canonical version. In the days before printing presses, monastic scribes and copyists would laboriously copy the texts of the books of both the Old and New Testament, and yes, mistakes would be made, and conversely, mistake would be caught. As a result, today we are left with thousands of such corrections and textual problems bequeathed to us by these holy and well-intentioned individuals. There is one such problem in today’s text.

(As an aside: This is not strictly an ancient problem. A few weeks ago, I noticed a printing error in our lectionary Bible with respect to Mark 1:21. The text in the NRSV reads, “he entered the synagogue and taught.” Lectionary Bibles, because they pick up the story in mid-stream, often eliminate the pronoun and provide the proper noun for the sake of clarity. Thus, a well-meaning modern editor incorrectly replaced “he” with the proper noun “John.” However, the story is not about John going into the synagogue and teaching, but about Jesus going into the synagogue and teaching. Fortunately, a previous cleric or lay reader caught this error and scratched out “John” and replaced it with “Jesus.” Imagine the difference the name makes. This is a modern example of what was happening all the time in the hand-copying of ancient texts.)

In today’s text from Mark (1:40ff), we have just such a problem. There are two possible readings of what motivates Jesus. In our story, a man with a skin disease approaches Jesus, falls down before him and says “If you choose you can make me clean.” The text goes on to say, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” Now here is our problem. One significant family of texts reads, “Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” Now which text is correct – “pity” or “anger”?

These decisions are usually made by a group of international scholars who sift through all the various manuscripts and variant readings and using their collective wisdom, try and sort out which reading is the most probable. The thing to remember is that the choice made by these gurus is a matter of interpretation. I won’t go into the particulars of their decision on this story, rather I simply draw it to your attention as a reminder that each week, we gloss over a myriad of possibilities and a variety of textual variants that could make all the difference to certain texts. Some are obvious blunders on the part of copyists, but others like today’s text remain open to discussion and dispute.

So, why do I draw your attention to this particular textual variant today? I do so because Jesus “moved by pity” or “moved by anger” is a pretty significant variant. We normally think about this text in a certain way. Perhaps we should consider what our Jesus might look like if we spent some time with the variant reading.

First, let us consider the problem of the man with the skin disease. He had what has traditionally been called leprosy. The Old Testament laws considered such a person permanently unclean. They were to be cast out of the camp, and should they come near others they were to shout “unclean, unclean!” Impurity was not a moral judgment on an individual. Impurity was normally a short-term state of ritual uncleanness that simply excluded a person from certain cultic or liturgical activities. After a certain period of time, and after certain ritual acts, a person was declared pure and could once again participate in these community moments. It was not a negative judgment, simply a reality. We may look back on such things as primitive or even with some sense of disdain. However, it should be remembered that certain purity laws may have been a way of keeping public health in check. Furthermore, a period of ritual impurity in which a man could not touch a woman certainly provided women a safe time free of the aggressive sexual advances of men. These laws were considered good things.

The problem with impurity emerges when an impurity becomes interminable. Take for example the story of the woman who had a flow of menstrual blood for twelve years. And this is true also of those with such diseases as the man encountered in today’s text. A law that was meant to order society, and possibly even protect the vulnerable became a tool to exclude. Those who could never again be pure were cast out and excluded for fear of their impurity spreading. In St. Mark’s gospel, Jesus has a particular ministry to such ritually impure individuals. They take risks and touch him, and he risks much by touching them. The risk of contracting or spreading the ritual impurity is, in fact, the thing that breaks the vicious cycle, because through their touch of one another, through their human contact with Jesus of Nazareth, they are healed.

Now what does this have to do with our textual variant of Jesus’ “pity” or “anger.” That Jesus would be moved with pity would certainly be a natural reading and the one opted for by the editors of the NRSV; I do not contest it, per se. It has certainly been argued that this healing is an act of compassion, and so it is. But what if we consider that Jesus was moved with anger to perform this healing?

Many of us have been taught the abhorrent heresy that the God of the Old Testament was a god of anger while the God of the New Testament is a god of compassion. This is, of course, completely false for the reason that they are one and the same God. Furthermore, we could enumerate God’s continuous acts of mercy throughout the Old Testament in calling a sinful people again and again to return to him. There are also significant instances in which Christ, who is one and the same God as the God of the Old Testament, is moved with anger. We need only recount the story of the cleansing of the Temple. I would suggest that this story could be read as an example of God’s anger at what people have done with his good and just laws. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans, the Law was good, and yet sin used the law for ill purpose. Perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus was filled with rage at how the use of the Law had made this man (and so many others who were in a continuous state of ritual impurity) social pariahs. Can we not feel the anger of Jesus at this abhorrent situation? Are we not kindled to wrath? Who amongst us does not feel compelled to right such a wrong?

I would further suggest in stopping to consider this textual variant, that this gives us a fuller picture of Jesus as both God and man. In Jesus we encounter a God who is moved with great compassion for those who we, in our human sinfulness, attempt to exclude from our common life, and yet we also encounter a God whose wrath is kindled at such an injustice. In Jesus we encounter a man, a human, much like you and me who carries within himself the full range of emotions from compassion to anger. And who, like you and me when we are at our very best, can find our righteous anger kindled over injustice that we might become a more compassionate people.

Any community needs rules by which to govern and order its life. This is true of civil society, of voluntary associations such as clubs, and it is true of the Church. Rules exist to make our society a better place. Sometimes, though, we lose sight of the greater good and of the spirit of the law. The law then becomes a tool to protect us from those who frighten us because they are different and God is rightly enraged at such at such a perversion of the law. This is the Jesus we encounter in the variant reading of today’s text.

I will leave it to you to consider who might be excluded from the community of the greater Church because of our fear of including them. However, I think equally pressing is the question of who is excluded from our community here. Many have come to this parish, have been welcomed and have found a home. That is a fact. Yet, we continue to hear of others who have not felt so welcome. Why is this so? It may simply be that we are a church with nearly 180 years of tradition, of history, and of systems that work very well indeed. The legacy of our lengthy establishment is part of what makes this a wonderful place and enables us to be a light to the world in this community. And yet, we must ask if this, in some way, is also what keeps people from feeling welcome and at home. How do our systems keep people out? How does our legacy of establishment work against a welcoming, caring and inclusive vision of the kingdom? Difficult questions, to be sure, but not ones beyond our reach under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We have a right to be enraged when we learn people have felt excluded, it is after all, how Jesus felt when confronted with this problem. The Good News is that Jesus does not settle for the status quo. Jesus, whether moved by righteous anger, or moved by compassion, performs a miracle and changes the way we see the stranger. I believe that he is working in such a way here. If we feel angry when we learn some have not been welcomed then may our anger stir compassion within us that we may extend the hand of fellowship to those who come through the doors of this place. It is, after all, what Jesus would do.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves