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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A Pastoral Resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Leviticus 13.1-2,44-46, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9.24-27, Mark 1:40-45
'Okay- You're Clean!'
When the bishop’s ship stopped at a remote island for a day, he determined to use the days as profitably as possible. He strolled along the seashore and came across three fishermen mending their nets. In pidgin English they explained to him that centuries before they had been Christianized by missionaries. "We, Christians!" they said, proudly pointing to themselves.
The bishop was impressed. Did they know the Lord’s Prayer? They had never heard of it. The bishop was shocked. How could these men claim to be Christians when they did not know something as elementary as the Lord’s Prayer.
"What do you say, then, when you pray?" the bishop asked.
"We lift eyes in heaven. We pray, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.’"
The bishop was appalled at the primitive, downright heretical nature of their prayer. So he spent the whole day teaching them to say the Lord’s Prayer. The fishermen were poor learners, but they gave it all they had and before the bishop sailed away the next day he had the satisfaction of hearing them go through the whole formula without a fault.
Months later the bishop’s ship happened to pass by those islands and the bishop, as he paced the deck saying his evening prayers, recalled with pleasure the fact that on that distant island were three fishermen who were now able to pray correctly, thanks to his patient efforts. While he was lost in thought he happened to look up and noticed a spot of light in the east. The light kept approaching the ship and, as the bishop gazed in wonder, he saw three figures walking on the surface of the water towards the boat. The captain stopped the boat and all the sailors leaned over the rails to see this amazing sight.
When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognized his three friends, the fishermen.
"Bishop!" they exclaimed, "we so glad meet you! We hear your boat go past island and come hurry, hurry meet you."
"What is it you want?" asked the bishop in awe.
"Bishop," they said, "we so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say: ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come’ . . . then we forget. Please tell us whole prayer again."
The bishop felt humbled. "Go back to your homes, my good men," he said, "and each time you pray, say, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!’" (- Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird)
If you get the sobering truth of such a story, you will have no trouble getting the point of this week’s gospel lesson, which is the truth: that we are – all of us, without exception – bonded to a love unbreakable.
The key for me in trying to unlock this passage is the apparent abruptness of Jesus. Over the centuries, the church has endeavoured to Christianize such a passage, which is to say: to make Jesus appear in a better light (translation: nice, positive, pleasant – "Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling . . .). Most translations read that Jesus was "moved with pity" when he saw the leper who approached him. However, there are many translators as well as other ancient manuscripts that indicate Jesus was "angry", even "indignant" when he was confronted by this man. There is no doubt that after the man is cured, Jesus speaks sternly to him about showing himself to a priest. What is behind this curt behaviour of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild."
A bit of historical criticism unveils a possibility. Leprosy in the time of Jesus was not just a dreaded health problem; it was a dreaded social disease. The affliction we now call Hanson’s disease was not only fearsome in itself. It was also considered to be a curse from God. The consequences were far more deadly than just being physical. Besides having to look forward to years of suffering and disfigurement, as well as an early death, lepers were ostracized by Jewish law. The reason I have chosen to use the old Lectionary listing for the old testament – Leviticus 13.1-2,44-46 – is because I think it is more pertinent to an understanding of the gospel. Israel believed that God himself had laid down the harsh conditions of a leper’s lot. They had to wear tattered clothes and let their hair go uncombed or cut. When meeting any "sound" person they had to cover their mouths with a hand and shout out a warning of their own "unclean" condition. Anyone suspected of having contracted leprosy was to be taken before a priest for examination. As well as a miracle, repentance and a total conversion of heart had to proceed any "cure".
In other words, in the unlikely event that a person was cured and they experienced a remission of the disease, they still had to submit to a ritual cleansing and purging of sin before they would be re-admitted to society. Lepers were not only considered physically loathsome. Because so few went into remission or were cured, they were all considered particularly obdurate and persistent sinners.
With this background, I think it is possible to accept the fact that Jesus really was, in fact, angry on a number of grounds. He was probably angry at the circumstances in which such a person had been forced to live. It is hard for us to imagine the psychological state of such people – wives, mothers, children, snatched from their families and forced to fend for themselves among the rocks of the ravine and amidst all the human and non-human terrors that lurked there. Husbands, fathers, young lovers, respected citizens would suddenly become pariahs because the religious mentality of the time said that only terrible sinners would be afflicted with such a disease. The point is that a leper had no right to expect, not only medical care, but the embrace of a loving community. Such sinners were beyond God’s embrace. Jesus must have been revolted by the whole notion.
But he acts, characteristically, in a way that subverts the prevailing mentality. Rather than being disgusted and even terrified at the request of the leper for assistance, he does not hesitate, indeed, even stresses his determination to do what no one else would have believed possible – to pronounce not only a physical cure for the man when he touches him, but a spiritual cure as well; for in touching the man, Jesus is breaking the moral and religious taboos about lepers and openly, publicly welcoming the man back into human community.
So, when he finally orders the man to go and show himself to the priest, it is highly unlikely that Jesus is doing this in order to observe the sanctioned ritual that was required for such persons. It is more likely that Jesus is challenging the religious authorities and his peers to see that God’s healing grace is available to anyone who asks.
The point is: we are forgiven – every last one of us. God’s love is there, waiting for us, at all times in our life. It doesn’t matter how bad we are, how many mistakes we’ve made, how horrendously we have fouled up our lives, or the mess we have made of our relationships. The forgiveness is there. We don’t have to persuade God to forgive us. We don’t have to go through some elaborate ritual or religious exercise to get God to forgive us. The healing which Jesus represents is pure gift. That means not earned, not merited, not won by petition, sacrifice or a good life. According to Jesus, what we need most is available just as quickly, as easily, as devastatingly as Jesus decisive response to a leper: "Okay, you’re clean!"
It is a word that religious people apparently cannot hear too often. I read recently that the Bishops of Nova Scotia were ordering their priests to stop the practice of General Confession and Absolution and re-instituting the practice of the confessional because they didn’t want people to get the idea that getting forgiven was too easy. Leave it to the church to find a way to make our getting to grace more difficult!
But, what if Jesus was right? What, if we sensed as children of God, that there is between us and the Source of all goodness a link that can never be broken? Would it not produce in us a lightness, an ability to walk over the waves of whatever danger or fear that confronts us?
The one who said, "Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of God’" knew the limits of religious formulas and hubris. He also knew that each one of us is a goodness rooted in Goodness, a light rooted in The Light, salt rooted in Infinite Zest. When we realize this communion that is ours, our prayer will no longer be some words we have memorized but – like the three fishermen – the natural overflowing of knowing who we are in the heart of God.
And that is the only prayer any of us will ever need to pray.
Study and Reflection
Leviticus 13.1-2,44-46 – Although the book of Leviticus is not on most people’s favourite reading list, it provides essential information about how people in Jesus’ day attempted to cope with the fears and dangers of contagious disease. In this passage and in this week’s gospel episode we are dealing with very ancient customs. Neither Moses nor the author of Leviticus dreamed these laws up spontaneously. They represent the codified wisdom and the custom and practices of the past.
1 Corinthians 9.24-27 - Paul finishes talking about himself and his ministry in this passage (continued from last week’s). He compares the life of faith to a race for which an athlete must train.
Mark 1. 40-45 – "OK, you’re clean!" There is an abruptness and quite probably an anger implicit in Jesus’ words to the man he cures in this week’s passage. Our reflection has suggested that Jesus had good reason to be angry, not at the leper, but at the way in which lepers were treated, a way which was sanctioned by institutional religion. Jesus’ abruptness and scandalous treatment of one who was a pariah to normal human society – reaching out and touching him – would not have been greeted favourably by those who guarded the laws and customs of the day. It is not surprising that, from this point on in Mark’s gospel, we note an escalating antagonism of the religious authorities toward Jesus and his ministry.
THE ARROGANCE OF RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY – At some point in our discipleship, we must all, like Jesus, stand up to the arrogance of religious authority. Such arrogance presumes to know what is best for others, indeed, even to know what God thinks. Invariably, such arrogance assumes that some should be excluded from the human community. The response of Jesus was a defiant reaching out in order to include the excluded. How defiantly inclusive have you been lately?
HYMN 636 Give to the Winds Your Fears (Voices United)
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