Listen for a moment and think carefully about whether you have had an experience parallel to any of the following:
The experience of a social worker as she counsels an opioid addict struggling to extricate himself from a destructive network of peer relationships;
The experience of a teacher giving hours of help after class to a student with special learning needs or a toxic home environment, neither of which the school system seems concerned about;
The experience of a doctor or nurse spending the time necessary to really listen to a patient’s needs, whilst attempting to navigate a broken medical insurance system;
The experience of a psychologist working with a transgender prison inmate who is verbally and physically abused by fellow inmates and guards, but whose gender identity is unrecognized by the prison system.
The list could go on.
In our own daily versions of these scenarios, our basic, intuitive human response is often compassion for the suffering individual, followed closely by anger at the system that has created the suffering.
Today’s passage from Mark’s gospel is not a straightforward one. But in the midst of its complexity, I find here a portrait of Jesus in the early stages of his ministry experiencing the poignant conjunction of human emotions nearly universal to those who seek to help and heal the pain of the world: the moment-by-moment balancing act between compassion and anger.
We might divide the passage into three basic units:
In the first moment, Jesus engages in an interaction initiated by a leper, the first we encounter in Mark. Jesus responds to the man’s humble and receptive request with compassion. He breaks the prevailing ritual purity code by touching the man, but Jesus’s power to heal is more contagious than the leper’s ritual impurity. The man is “made clean” as the leprosy departs from him. But there is still more to be done to re-integrate this man into the existing social structure. Recovery from the religious and social death of leprosy must follow.
In the second moment, there is a distinct shift in the energy and tone in the encounter. The translation “sternly warning” and “sending him away” do not really capture the dynamism of Mark’s language. More literally, Jesus, “snorts (like a horse), or groans, or moans, or makes incoherent noises suggesting an uncontainable inner response,” and then “expels” or “ejects” the man. Simultaneously, however, he commands him to take two additional steps, somewhat like a doctor sending a patient away with a prescription and a strong dose of “tough love,” impressing upon him the urgency of his obedience. But what precisely is Jesus snorting, groaning, or moaning at? This is not easy to discern, and the opinion of biblical scholars is divided, but here’s one possibility. Because this energetic or emotional shift in Jesus occurs at the precise moment that Jesus turns his attention away from the man’s individual suffering and toward the project of his social rehabilitation into a broken system, I hear Jesus expressing his personal pain at the present limitations of his social and religious world. As he feels increasingly called to be the agent by which his heavenly Father overthrows the entire system that spawns such unholy suffering, he must nonetheless work within and around the crippling strictures and structures of that system. That is, for the time being. He directs the fierce concentration of his compassion toward one leper at a time until the day when his Father uses his death and resurrection to overturn the power of those who rely on ritual outsiders to justify their own status as insiders.
There is a sometimes disorienting contrast between the containment or secrecy so continuously enjoined upon Jesus’s followers in Mark’s gospel and the explosive, uncontainable power of the gospel so breathlessly and urgently communicated by its author. This passage is no exception. The cleansed man flagrantly disobeys Jesus injunction to “tell no one.” Now, instead of shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” everywhere he goes, as he would have been required to do as a leper, he travels far and wide, “preaching many things and spreading the word.” The words used by Mark have clear, missional connotations. This man has been rehabilitated into a broken system, but is nonetheless now a small, unlikely contributor toward the system’s downfall.
As Christians, we are called to help the suffering we meet by extending a hand to touch it, with the tender compassion Jesus so keenly felt. We can also draw solace from Jesus’s human solidarity with our natural response of anger, frustration, and even helplessness as we navigate the many broken systems erected and maintained by the world. Perhaps it is in the simple and continuous practice of placing the warmth of our compassion and the heat of our anger into the hands of Christ that he accepts, transmutes, and even transfigures the gift of our human help.
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