October 19, 2014
All days are gifts, time boundaried packages of life. Today is a sabbath-shaped day filled with quiet sunlight and the silent brilliance of autumn color. I thought (again) this morning how oddly language and experience sometimes collide. The intensity of the golds and purples and reds causes me to think, “The trees are shouting with joy and celebrating harvest,” but at the same time I sense all around me a profound stillness that foreshadows winter’s silence and the coming snow. How can this day be so utterly silent when at the same time all around me Creation in full color is shouting, “Glory!! Glory!! God is good!!”?
I had intended today’s blog to resume with you discussion of either the forgiveness project I’m teaching, or some ideas about the significance of neurological functioning in our experience of discipleship (the perhaps-may-become-a-book I’m working on).
You have been rescued from this fate—I see you smiling—by a friend who sent me an excerpt from one of John Shea’s books. Reading this led to a sobering insight into the story Mark tells us about Jesus curing a leper (Mark 1:40-50). I want to share something of that insight.
The Torah-prescribed world of the leper was a grim one of relentless isolation. Leviticus required that the leper live alone in a dwelling “outside the camp,” the sentence of life-long excommunication from community. The leper was required to clearly communicate his status by wearing torn clothes, disheveled hair, and to cry out from behind a face covering, “Unclean!! Unclean!!” so that no unsuspecting by passer would be contaminated.
The pain of such exclusion from human connection was perhaps one of the most terrible aspects of the disease, but there was, if possible, even further pain in the requirement that the leper himself maintain this isolation through self-identification. Think about it: if any person chanced to come physically into the leper’s contaminated space the leper himself was required to announce his status: “Unclean!! Unclean!”
In addition to self-policing his isolation, the leper, by default, was forced to participate in the social erasure of his identity. The legally required formula prescribed only the brutal effect of the disease: “Unclean! Unclean!” There was no provision nor precedence for him to say, “Unclean! Unclean! My name is John, and I am a leper.”
Many lepers carried wooden clappers that they sounded as they walked, warning all within hearing to avoid contact with them. Rebel that I am, I like to think that perhaps there were times when as a leper sounded the clapper that proclaimed him “Unclean!!” that he said under his breath, “And my name is John.”
The leper in Mark’s story had broken the rules and had directly approached Jesus. The leper knelt, and said pleadingly, “If you will, you can make me whole.”
Jesus, Mark tells us, was moved by compassion for the suffering man. Jesus then, in turn, also broke the rules. He reached out His hand and touched the man!!
Having touched the man, Jesus said gently, “I will make you well. Be healed.” At Jesus's command, Mark tells us, the leprosy instantly disappeared.
Jesus then instructed the man to go to the temple, taking his gift, and to undergo the prescribed procedures that would enable the priest to declare him clean (and, in consequence, permit him to re-enter his community).
Then Jesus cautioned the man to do as he had been instructed and to talk to no one along the way. One translation reports that Jesus gave him a strong warning; another says that Jesus sternly warned him and immediately sent him away. At any rate Jesus was very clear: don’t say a word about what happened here.
Mark, with characteristic brevity, then reports that the former leper obediently went to do as he had been told, but that this obedience was accompanied by a flagrant disobedience that had disastrous results.
On his way to the temple, the man spread the news of his healing everywhere, telling everyone what had happened to him, freely reporting the healing he had received through Jesus.
The predictable result promptly occurred: crowds of people gathered around Jesus in such numbers that Jesus could not go openly into a town. Jesus stayed out in unpopulated areas away from the city, Mark reports, then adds that the people came out and found Him anyway.
Thoughtlessly, over the years I had assumed that the reason Jesus stayed in the country was the size and possibly rowdy behavior of his followers. John Shea gave me a sobering alternative explanation.
Jesus, having touched the leper, was Himself now under the Levitical law that excluded Him from community. As the leper had been, Jesus was now: forbidden to enter into the city. The healed leper could go openly into the city and to the temple; the One who had healed him must now keep His distance from the people He had come to teach and heal.
It is a stark graphic, a shadow of Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant who carried the grief and the sorrows of humankind alone outside the camp.
Shea thinks that it is possible that the healing process in every instance was costly to Jesus—that the power that left Jesus when He healed the hemorrhaging woman went out of Him at other times of healing as well although not specifically noted by the Gospel writers. Shea suggests that it was Jesus’s constant reliance upon the Father (I do the will of my Father) and His hours spent in prayer than enabled Him to be replenished and restored, and to return to the people who needed Him.
The sticking point for me came, however, with the realization of the way in which I had over years of reading, half-excused the disobedience of the leper. After all, he was just sharing his good news, glorifying Jesus and providing evidence of His powerful healing credentials and His probable Messiahship. Surely God couldn’t be too upset about that behavior!!
The consequences of the leper’s disobedience, however, were far from trivial. While his disobedience appeared to be God-glorifying activity, in reality his failure to obey resulted in serious trouble for Jesus, and (hypothetically at least) disruption and interruption of the work of the Kingdom.
I insist repetitively that intentions do not control consequences. Mark’s story makes this clear (again), and challenges me to keep things simple and clear in relation to the Spirit’s leading. It is not my prerogative to revise the directions I have been given.
Blessed, Jesus said, are those who hear my words and do them.
Thinking with you that we might all profit from prayer for specific, simple obedience. It occurs to me that obedience is likely to be more profitable for my soul and for the work of the Kingdom than any creative license to rewrite God’s memos that I may assume.
See you next week.