A story for the 6th Sunday After Epiphany
There are things going on in the words of the story before us today that aren’t readily apparent if we only read it in its English translation. In fact, as I understand it, the main controversy seems to center on Jesus’ mood and response to the desperate man kneeling before him. It seems that Jesus either looked at the man with pity which is how our translation has it. Or he responded with indignation, even anger. For in fact, the words we hear as ‘pity’ can also be translated to mean that when Jesus looked at the man, he ‘snorted like a war horse.’
Now that’s some kind of anger. It’s deeply rooted, instinctive even. As perhaps it must have been.
As I’ve sat with those choices over the last several days, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know why it couldn’t be both. Why couldn’t Jesus have had pity on the man who was suffering so and also be angry at a world that so labels and isolates and excludes those struck down by such ailments? More than that, why couldn’t Jesus also be angry with a religious system which declared such a one as this utterly cut off from the love and care of God?
For that’s what it had come to be, of course. Those who contracted this disease were forced to live with others similarly afflicted — away from the stuff of normal life in community — their families, their friends, their occupations, and yes, their places of worship. The way it lived out, particularly in that time and place, it would have appeared that they were even abandoned by God.
Now I have to say, I don’t know much about leprosy….except what I read in commentaries every time a text like this one comes around. I have witnessed something, though, of what the social isolation of disease can look like. And so I do have some sense of what a gift this healing must have been for the leper who experienced the healing, restoring, gifts of God today. And so I do have some idea of how Jesus could have responded with both pity and anger…
I had been calling on a family in my congregation. I was new to that parish and I was just trying to get acquainted. These many years later, I still recall sitting in the front room watching their son, Jamie, play. He was 8 years old and small for his age. He had first been their foster child, his adoptive mother told me. She went on to explain that he was born with fetal alcohol syndrome which explained his delayed development. They had hosted hundreds of babies in their home before: all short term stays for little ones who needed a safe place for a few days or weeks or months. But this one? They fell in love with him and decided to make him their own.
I took her at her word. It was only as Jamie was hospitalized more and more frequently and as his condition continued to deteriorate that his mother took me into her confidence. Jamie, in fact, had AIDS. He had been born with it and had been shuttled between foster homes before they got him. And once they had him, they couldn’t let him go.
Now this was some time ago. They did not have the treatments then that they have today. So even as they made him their own, they knew what the boy’s future inevitably held. And this was a small town. Rumor had gotten out that there was a child in the school system with AIDS and there was such an uproar his parents vowed to never tell it was him. To protect Jamie, to be sure. But also to protect his sister from being tainted by the social stigma of the disease — even though she was entirely healthy.
They carried that secret through Jamie’s final illness. They carried it through his funeral and their heart wrenching grief. As far as I know they still carry it still today. They carried that secret out of fear and love.
And I ached with them and for them.
So as I said, I don’t know much about leprosy. But I have seen up close how disease and the fear and ignorance that often accompany disease can isolate whole families. And I can remember feeling anger in those days that these dear people could not speak the truth without suffering terrible consequences. Indeed, I could just see Jesus then ‘snorting like a war horse’, if you will, as perhaps he must every time we treat one another as less than human, less than entirely beloved by God — perhaps especially when we label one another instead of simply seeing each other through the eyes of God’s profound love for them, for us, each one.
This last week I listened to Dr. Robert Creech who is Professor of Ministries and Director of Pastoral Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He offered a great deal in his day long presentation as he traced the stories of families throughout the Bible. But what he shared about who Jesus is for us has stayed with me as I lived in this story this week. He said that when we look at Jesus we know what it is to be fully divine. He also said that when we look at Jesus we know what it is to be fully human.
Was it Jesus’ divinity or his humanity that led him to touch the leper that day? Surely it was his divinity that brought the healing, but I wonder if it was his full humanity that allowed him to touch one whom few others would…
And so I find myself returning to the story of young Jamie. I find myself remembering the day I caught up with him in a hospital room in a large hospital in Chicago. His parents were not there yet that afternoon and he was sleeping deeply. I can remember sitting beside his bed and reaching out to hold his too-thin arm as I prayed for him. And I confess that I remember thinking twice about even actually touching him at all. For by then I knew the nature of his illness. And while I did know that I could not contract the disease this way, still I do remember thinking about it and even quaking just a bit inside. I still pray that little boy didn’t sense that hesitation of mine…
A few days later Jamie died. It was a Wednesday evening in Lent when the call came and I left right after worship to pick up his dad to take him to the hospital for he was too distraught to drive into the city. His mother was already with the boy. I dropped his dad at the door and went to park the car. Minutes later, I can remember walking into the room where Jamie’s tiny body was and I can still see his dad bent over him, holding his head in his hands, gently stroking his hair and saying over and over, “Daddy’s here. Daddy’s right here.” Clearly, whatever fear his dad may have had had long ago been obliterated by love. And he touched that child with the tender abandon that always marks that kind of love.
And so, perhaps that is how a story like the one we hear today may live out even now for you and me as we look to Jesus for what it is to be divine and for what it is to be human. From time to time perhaps we will stand in the presence of one who has been healed. And what a wonder and joy that is. At other times we will only yearn to know that kind of wholeness that God surely intends. And yet, while healing may not always be physical, I expect you and I are agents of another kind of healing when we reach out our hands to physically touch those who, for whatever reason, find themselves isolated, cut off from the kind of community we often take for granted. Even if our hearts are quaking as we do so…
I don’t know. I would imagine Jesus was both moved by pity and ‘snorting with anger like a war horse’ to see the plight of Jamie and his family who loved him so. And also expect Jesus that anger melted into joyto see one family set aside their fear and act in love so that one child would have 9 years in this life of experiencing God’s tender love for him. What do you think?
- What makes the most sense to you? Was Jesus acting in anger or out of pity or both? Why do you think that?
- Are there still people today who are considered ‘untouchable’ or ‘unclean?’ How are God’s people called to respond to them today?
- What kind of experience do you have with serious illness? Have you had the experience of it isolating you or cutting you off from community? How did that play out in your life? Have you walked that journey with another?
- Consider all the levels at which the man in the story was healed today. What have been your experiences of different kinds of healing?
- What do you make of Dr. Creech’s assertion that in Jesus we encounter what it is to be fully divine and we also encounter what it is to be fully human? I’m especially wondering what it means to you to be ‘fully human?’ What in Jesus’ life and example showed us what that means?