The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s118g06 Lockleys Sunday 6 12/2/2006
"Moved with pity .." Mark 1.40
The words "moved with pity" are perhaps a fair translation of the Greek, but they are in fact likely to be rather stronger than that. I recall one commentator suggested "warm indignation" is closer to the mark -- it was probably an English commentator :-). It has been suggested that the original word "orgistheis" "being angry" was replaced by "splanchnistheis" - "filled with compassion" by copyists out of embarrassment over the ascription of anger to Jesus. But anger is consistent with the word in the following verse: "embrimaomai" - "solemnly warned him" which also has an element of anger in it. I think that Jesus got plain, bloody, angry.
Jesus might have got angry because the leper questioned Jesus' ability to perform this miracle, or that he questioned Jesus' preparedness to do something.
Jesus might have got angry because he was essentially forced to demonstrate his care: "if you choose .." Real care and love cannot be forced, so the act of care is diminished by being forced out of Jesus. Despite his words Jesus wasn't given any choice at all. It is significant that there is no mention of thanks after the person is made clean. He had become clean through trapping Jesus, giving Jesus no option but to do as he asked. He treated Jesus as a person who was there to do his bidding. And I guess there are still some who look to Jesus to do their bidding, using whatever wiles they can come up with, to get him to do what they want. And there are others who get other people around them to do their bidding using wiles and deceptions -- demanding others prove their care for them. After a while we try to avoid such people.
By not giving Jesus any real choice this person isolated himself from the love that was being offered, free of charge. Instead of love, he made do with pity -- because he was a leper, or compliance -- because of his wiles.
Jesus also might have got angry because while he could make this man clean of his leprosy, he couldn't make the man listen and do as he asked. We are told that Jesus "sternly" warned him to "say nothing to anyone" but that the person disobeyed this command completely.
Now I suppose there might be some justification for the person's enthusiasm. As a leper, everyone shunned his company. For the first time in however long, he was able, not just to be a part of "normal" society -- but actually to have something to contribute to others. Instead of being an agent for infection and death to be avoided at all costs; he had become an agent for cleansing and life to others, to be embraced. Perhaps he was justified, but still he disobeyed the very person who cured him.
Jesus couldn't make this person listen and obey even the easiest of commands -- to say nothing to anyone. And there was something else Jesus couldn't do -- he couldn't make the man grateful -- and I have already alluded to this. He couldn't make the person grateful; he couldn't make the person happy.
While Jesus can make each and everyone of us clean, Jesus cannot make us listen and obey. Jesus cannot make us grateful. Jesus cannot make us happy. Only we can do this for ourselves.
And for me this is probably the reason Jesus got angry at this request by the leper. Making this person clean, would be interpreted by the person, and worse still by others he told, as an indication that Jesus could make them all happy. I have no doubt Jesus wished he could, but happiness is found within our selves or not at all. No one else can make us happy.
And of course we are told that this is precisely what happened. "People came to him from every quarter". No doubt, some had ailments that Jesus could help with, but just as certainly, many would have come wanting things for which they needed to look within themselves.
Shielding himself from the love being offered and having made do with pity or compliance, the leper remains master of his own destiny, and condemns himself to a joyless existence. The uncleaness hasn't disappeared, it's infected his whole being, and is no longer just skin-deep.
No wonder Jesus was angry.
It is interesting to me how frequently I have been reminded about the importance of listening and obeying in my sermons. It started with the prophet Samuel listening to the words of God; words of condemnation on the 15th of January. And as I reflect on the feast of the Transfiguration in a couple of weeks' time, how Peter, James and John are told by the very voice of God to listen to Jesus.
Here, this newly healed person is also given specific directions as to what not to do, and yet he does them.
In our enthusiasm for Jesus and the Church, we are also tempted to go about saying essentially to others, "Come to St Richard's! Here's where you'll find Jesus and he can heal you. It's a really happy place! I've found happiness there, and I'm no one special, so I'm sure everyone else can find happiness here also!"
The truth is quite different. Neither Jesus or St Richard's (let alone me) can make anyone happy. We have found happiness within ourselves (or not) and we come to St Richard's to express our happiness and thankfulness (or not).
In our enthusiasm we misrepresent God and Jesus. We tell people to look in quite the wrong direction for their happiness and what is worse, they will keep looking to us to make them happy! They will keep saying to us: "Go ahead, make my day!" (With apologies to the Clint Eastwood character Dirty Harry). We make a rod for our own back -- or at least the Rector's back :-)!
And finally, I wonder if in our coming to Church we come with requests that we really give God no choice but to fulfil, or else we want to get our way through pity -- we also want to remain ever masters and mistresses of our own destiny -- and in doing so shield ourselves from receiving the gracious free gift of love that is on offer to all.
Ash Wednesday is almost upon us, and part of the liturgy of repentance for Ash Wednesday I have used comes from APBA. Each year these words always strike me as important: " we have used our power to dominate and our weakness to manipulate; we have evaded responsibility and failed to confront evil; we have denied dignity to ourselves and to each other Š" Perhaps more sadly, we have, by exercising our power and our weakness, shielded ourselves from the very love we proclaim is central to our faith. And why should Jesus not be angry when he sees this happening?
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