Sunday, February 12, 2012

Those Left Out (Mark 1:40-45)

In the Pixar movie Up, 78 year-old widower Carl Fredricksen lives by himself in the home he shared for many years with his wife, Elle, before she passed away.
He misses her terribly.  Even though she’s dead, he talks to her on a regular basis.
Carl Fredricksen’s interactions with the outside world are limited.  His big event each day is walking out to the mailbox by the front gate, and arguing with the developer who wants to buy his house, tear it down, and put a high-rise or shopping mall in its place.  Other than that, he pretty much keeps to himself, separated from society.
Until an 8 year-old boy named Russell shows up at his doorstep.  Russell brings healing to Carl Fredricksen by helping him reconnect with the world outside his front door; and because Russell helps bring Carl Fredricksen out of isolation and helps him re-engage with the world, he works as God’s agent, God’s healing agent, bringing wholeness to a man whose world has been fragmented.
At least, that’s how I interpret the movie.  I don’t know about you.
All I know is that, before he met Russell, Carl Fredricksen was sad, lonely, and bitter.  He was isolated and alone.
By the end of the movie, he had discovered adventure, companionship, and life itself.  In a way, it’s a resurrection story, when you look at it that way.  Carl Fredricksen got his life back.
This is exactly what the leper in today’s scripture wants:  he wants his life back.
In scripture, the word leprosy refers to several skin diseases.  It was believed that persons afflicted with one of these diseases could pollute or contaminate others; thus they had to be kept separated, away from other people and their habitations.  If a leprous person recovered, he had to perform a cleansing ritual and present himself before the priest, something that was done not for physical or medical reasons, but for spiritual reasons.
A person who had contact with a leper became unclean himself.  Touching a leper, his clothing, or even entering a building where a leper was would make one unclean.  That’s why lepers were forced to live outside the city, away from society, isolated and alone.
When this particular person came to Jesus, begging and kneeling, he asked Jesus to make him clean.  If he had asked to be healed or cured, it would be clear that he was talking about being set free of the physical disease that was afflicting his skin.
But he wanted more than that.  He wanted to be clean. He wanted to be free of ostracism and isolation.  He wanted to be able to retake his place in society.  He wanted to reconnect with the world.  He wanted his life back.
Jesus, in response, was moved with pity.  Well, that’s how most versions of scripture put it.  However, some of the oldest copies of Mark’s gospel – some of the most ancient manuscripts – say that he was moved not with pity, but with anger; and some scholars believe that anger was probably the word Mark used originally, but very early on, as the gospel was copied and edited, it got changed to pity.
Mark’s gospel, you may know, was the first of the four gospels written.  Both Matthew and Luke – which were written after Mark – include the story of this leper’s healing.  But Matthew and Luke don’t say that Jesus was moved with anything.  They leave that detail out completely.
Apparently, as the years went by, the idea that Jesus would be moved with anger became less and less acceptable.  Over time, the idea that Jesus would get angry became offensive, and incompatible with the emerging image of Jesus as tame and gentle. 
Jesus?  Angry?  Can’t be!  Either change it to “pity,” or leave it out altogether.
But some of the earliest writings that have been found do say that Jesus was moved with anger.
Which makes one wonder:  What was he so angry about?
In the movie Up, Carl Fredricksen is ordered to leave his home and move into a care facility.  Now, there are a lot of really nice care facilities around, and I’ve gone visiting in many of them… and even in the movie Up, the workers from the care facility are portrayed as kind and caring, if a bit patronizing.
But the fact of the matter is that Carl Fredricksen does not want to go to a care facility … and … care facilities, the way they are set up, do tend to further isolate people and remove them from society.
In other words, for Carl Fredricksen, society is forcing him to go to a place where he will have limited contact with the outside world, a place where he will be out of sight, out of mind … just like the lepers who were sent away in Jesus’ time.
Or, to cite another movie example, in the movie Saved, a high school boy is sent away by his parents to a place called Mercy House when they discover that he is gay.  Mercy House is a resident home that aims to help young people with their “problems.” 
Later in the movie, when another parent discovers that her teenage daughter is pregnant, she also considers sending her to Mercy House.  But as another character says, Mercy House isn’t really there for the young people, to help them with their problems.  Mercy House is there for the parents, who don’t know how to be there for their children, or who don’t want to be there for their children, and who find it easier to just send them away, where they will be out of sight and out of mind.
What do we do with the lepers?  Just send them away.  Label them unclean.  Pretend they don’t exist.  Cut them off from society.
Can you see why Jesus might have been moved by anger as well as by pity?
Who do you know who has been cast aside by society?
A few days ago, presidential candidate Mitt Romney was quoted as saying, “I’m not concerned about the poor.”  He received a lot of flak for saying that, which I think he deserved, but just because he was the only candidate who said it, he’s not the only one who thinks it.
Everything in politics and in the media is geared toward the upper and middle classes.  It’s as if the lower class doesn’t even exist. 
For example: everyone talks about how the government should work harder to lower the cost of gas.  $4 a gallon?  Come on!
Every day, there’s something in the news about what our government is doing, or should be doing, or shouldn’t be doing, to keep the cost of gas reasonable.  Debates about offshore drilling.  Keystone pipeline.  Securing trade and shipping routes through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.  Sending our military to intervene in oil-rich countries.
When you consider how much effort our nation puts into securing a steady supply of oil – and how much money our nation spends – so that we can continue to receive reasonably priced and accessible fuel for our automobiles, you could very easily say that gasoline is one of the most heavily subsidized products available to car-driving Americans.
But what about all the Americans who don’t have a car?  You don’t hear nearly as much about them.  Many of our cities are not friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists; Long Beach, fortunately, is friendlier than most.
And no one, it seems, wants to spend money on improving public transportation.  Spend it on securing affordable fuel so the middle class can fill their gas tanks, but don’t spend it on public transportation. The lower class relies on public transportation to a much greater extent than others, but we’re not concerned about the poor.  We try not to even think about the poor.  Most of the time, we don’t even see the poor.  Out of sight, out of mind.
So our leaders in government will work hard to keep gas prices low for the benefit of the middle and upper classes, but they won’t put nearly as much effort into improving public transportation for the benefit of the lower class.
And it’s this kind of class warfare that gets Jesus angry.
Jesus overturned the tables in the temple because the sellers were jacking up the prices that the poor had to pay.  Scripture notes that he went after those who were selling doves, which is what the poor would buy in order to make a sacrifice.  Those who could afford it would offer a lamb, but the poor offered doves.  Jesus was especially angry with the dove sellers, because they were gouging the poor with inflated prices.
Jesus was anointed by the Spirit of the Lord to bring good news to the poor, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  The year of the Lord’s favor is the year of jubilee, when all debts are forgiven, and when wealth is more equally shared.  Jesus even taught his followers to pray for forgiveness of debts in the Lord’s Prayer.
So it should not be a surprise that Jesus was angry with those who would keep the poor, poor, or who would separate them from society, out of sight, out of mind.  Any separation of people from society, from the blessings of society, was abominable to Jesus.  For all are God’s children.
Jesus saw the leper, kneeling and begging before him.  He saw his skin disease, the infections, the sores, the discoloration.  And he saw what society had done to him, sending him away, outside the city, where he would be out of sight, out of mind, out where society would no longer have to be concerned about him or about people like him.
Moved with pity … moved with anger … Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.  Jesus was concerned about him.  Jesus refused to let him remain out of sight and out of mind.  Jesus touched him, even though doing so made him unclean.
The message in that touch was clear:  I do see you.  I identify with you.  I am one with you.  If you are unclean, then I am unclean.  We are the same.
But I know that God takes what is unclean and makes it clean.  God brings healing and wholeness to those who want their life back.
So:  be clean!  Be clean, and go, show yourself to the priest.  Show yourself to those who would deny you a place in society.  Let them see that even though they may not be concerned about you, God is.
And seeing this, may their eyes be opened.  May their hearts be transformed.  May they understand who God is calling them to be and what God is calling them to do, so that, in bringing wholeness, healing, and salvation to others, they themselves may receive healing, wholeness, and salvation.

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