Mark 1:40A 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.
After his dark of the morning solitary prayer and discernment, Jesus said to his disciples, “‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
What follows immediately is the confrontation with the leper, a man ritually unclean, a man who was not supposed to approach or touch anyone, and vice-versa. Yet he comes up to Jesus and kneels before him, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Mark records Jesus’ response this way: Moved with (some sort of deep emotion—either pity or anger) Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
Check the commentaries and even the notes to the text of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and you will see that there are divergent opinions about the nature of the forceful words used in telling the story of Jesus and the leper. Was Jesus moved by pity or by anger? The koine Greek text indicates either translation is possible, based on the textual evidence.
Let’s do a thought experiment and suggest that the word to be used in verse 41 is anger, not pity. Interesting things happen if we make that choice.
Biblical scholar and commentator Brian Stoffegren shows us the dilemma Jesus faced: “I wonder if Jesus’ negative emotions could have been caused by the fact that this leper put him between a rock and a hard place. The leper presented himself before Jesus with sufficient trust for a miracle to happen, but for Jesus to perform the miracle, Jesus had to bring the sick man’s uncleanliness and unsociability upon himself. This would make open entrances into the towns and synagogues more difficult, if not impossible. Jesus was forced to make a change in the way he had planned to minister to the people. Yet, the crowds continued to come to Jesus out in the deserted places.” (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark1x40.htm)
The ministry of proclaiming the good news (and occasionally using words!) is sometimes lived out under radically disjunctive and/or hostile circumstances—a Markan path. There is no doubt that Jesus was deeply passionate about his mission, and yet the way he had envisioned it had just been changed. He faced a bind. For a time a least he could not do what he had just determined to do. Or, to put it another way, the Christ journey is an unfolding journey of discovery, and much of it is not pleasant.
Perhaps this is like the saying, attributed to John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It seem to be similar for the purposeful life of ministry and mission to a world shadowed by misery. Something comes along to interrupt our agenda. A family crisis makes us cancel a pleasant day at the park. A problem in the church changes a congregation’s attitude about their new pastor. Or, just when it seemed that one’s life was finally finding a pleasant passage here came the existential earthquake and the storm. Or, just when the economy seemed to be barreling along, came the financial collapse. Millions of live and plans changed almost overnight, and the waves from that tsunami still are hitting us.
What then do we do? Notice that Jesus in his wisdom formed a community around himself. He sought out people who would walk with him, even when, as Mark’s gospel shows us, they were by no means clear on what this journey would be. They too had to face, with Christ, many changes of plan—and of heart.
In walking in the second path (in which suffering and confrontation with that which disturbs us is a regular feature), we need to surround ourselves with an intentional community, with people we sense we can trust and with whom we make mutual commitment of flesh and blood time and accountability.
And as Spirit’s wisdom confronts us in course-altering ways, in faith we continue our journey together, dealing with our anger, not trusting our visions as much as our trust in the journey itself toward others, toward the touch of the “unclean”, toward the communities that do not initially welcome, toward the uncomprehending voices, toward the cross on the far hill, and toward the new life in outback spring of God, to which the people still keep coming when they’ve nowhere else to go.