I’m going to be asked soon at a church meeting to disclose my ” favourite bible passage” which is slightly embarrassing because I don’t really have such a thing. The question comes from a Protestant training in youth that encouraged us to learn things like the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes by heart, with the laudable aim of filling our minds with something more wholesome than Elvis Presley. Over a lifetime however, that’s not the way I’ve used scripture, preferring to tackle whole books or the kind of jigsaw of passages provided by the Lectionary.
Still there are passages to which I keep returning, one of which is Mark chapter 1 verses 40 – 45. It is the familiar story of Jesus healing a leper and restoring him to community life.
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you want, you can make me clean.’ 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do want Be made clean!’ 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying 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.’ 45 But 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
The feature that interests me most in this passage is at the beginning of verse 41 “moved by pity” which in Greek is expressed by a word which means “gut- wrenching emotion” like the public reaction to the by now famous pictures of the dead refugee child on the beach. There have been pictures of dead men and women on beaches and in trucks for some time but these have apparently not troubled the guts of many people, because of course they were “migrants” or, as you might say, “lepers.”
Lepers in Israel were obliged to notify their disease to the Levites, and to live out of touch of family and community, warning people of their approach in case they should pass on their disease to them. The noisy approach of this leper to Jesus gives an opportunity for everyone to put some distance between themselves and this outcast.
But verse 41 is not quite reliable. Most of the best ancient manuscripts say “moved by pity” but one family of manuscripts which often provide good evidence for the original text, says,”moved by anger.” Now one can see why pious scribes might have replaced this difficult reading with the more respectable, “moved by pity”, while it is quite hard to imagine why anyone would replace a more respectable refacing with a difficult one. So I have always concluded that Mark wrote “moved by anger”.
Why might Jesus have been angry? The abject condition of the man might well have aroused his anger, especially his plea, “if you want, you can make me clean”! He doesn’t doubt Jesus capacity as a healer, but he doubts his willingness to help. How many refusals must have led the man to this bitter recognition; that even when people could help, they didn’t want to. The way the man has been treated and the effect it has had upon him makes Jesus angry, and he acts, not out of compassion but out of indignation that a man has been reduced to this extremity of accepting a gulf between himself and healthy people. His hand crosses that gulf and touches the man. He orders him to be clean, a command that is in the same league as “let there be light”; it is a creative word.
I don’t trust the pity aroused by the pictures of the dead child. It may vanish as quickly as it came, when the image fades into the background of news. I do trust the profound anger expressed particularly by those who have been advocating the cause of refugees for some time. They have known that people do not lightly leave their homes and homelands to make dangerous journeys over thousands of miles. Doubtless their determined exodus has emboldened others whose plight is not so severe, to risk danger for the sake of a better life. In a connected world, people in dire troubles can view the life of people in safe and affluent societies, even while they stand in the midst of bombed out streets or desertified farms. Their appearance at the gates of Europe signals the start of what may become the greatest movement of peoples ever seen.
Their plight should arouse anger, as should the shameful selfishness of the people and politicians who want these refugees kept at a distance. “Make them a camp in Syria!” say the voices of people who’ve never lived anywhere rougher than a London flat or a mock.-Tudor street in a leafy village.
Angela Merkel is not so much more compassionate than most other heads of Government, as simply a much better politician who’s not blinded by prejudice and apathy. She has seen and her people have accepted that this is not a temporary crisis but an event which will shape politics for a generation. She took action long before the rest of the world burst into tears, by settling thousands of refugees in Germany.
If we allow the passage from Mak’s gospel, in my emended version to influence us we should:
- Feel anger at the condition of the refugees
- Express our solidarity with them as our brothers and sisters ( reach out a hand to them).
- Make the kind of creative decision taken by Jesus ( the transforming command such as Germany has already issued)
Of course as many have said, there remains the problem of what to do with Syria and Eritreia and other nations where all rule has failed. But whether we who helped cause the problem in the first place by our interfering violence in the region, are the right people to make decisions about its future seems doubtful to me. With regard to intractable problems cautious compassion may be the best response, whereas the imminently resolvable problems of refugees should arouse anger and action.
Nicola Sturgeon emailed me last night – well it was a circular to all members of her party -promising action for refugees. I’m sure that the churches in Scotland should help her by promising to welcome and support a certain number of refugees, as that will help turn good intentions into the miracle of rescue.
One of your very best comments and a profound exploration of Mark 1:41. I had never noticed that variant reading, and it makes much sense – in the way you explore here. Thank you for your constantly invigorating exploration of biblical themes and your aim to connect the gospel to the crises of today. This post should be read by every Christian!