Cambridge, MA. We are on the brink of Lent, but like others, I hope, I’ve found the Gospel readings of the last four Sundays powerful invitations to spiritual renewal: to follow Jesus unquestioningly, to listen to him as you’ve never listened to anyone else, to come to him with every care and concern, and finally – today, February 15 – invite, even dare, him to make you well, and then to use that wellness, being-healed, in a way that perhaps surprised Jesus himself. For the whole of chapter 1 — including even in that stark, stunning opening, the voice of John — Mark has put this Jesus before us: what manner of person is this, why is he so riveting, and why do we who are his disciples react so absolutely and resolutely in response to him? Who we are, it seems, tells us something about who he is.
This is not the place to review the entire chapter, so I will just recollect today’s Gospel, the chapter’s end (Mark 1.40-45 NRSV). The scene begins this way:
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
It is beautiful in two ways. First, Jesus touches the leper, a man probably kept at a distance, touched by no one, for years. He touches this untouchable and makes him well: rarely has a simple touch been so powerful.
But the scene is also beautiful in a second way, because clearly this person never was reduced to his disease, the dehumanized, ostracized “leper.” In one of the infrequent Gospel scenes in which the person being cured takes the lead and speaks directly to Jesus, face to face, he poses a challenge: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” The implication is, you too can turn away, back off, walk on the other side, ignore me. Certainly, Jesus was ready to help him; but the leper needed to be sure, since he too was ready to walk away with dignity, had Jesus said no. The next moment, equally familiar, shows Jesus to be respectful of the law and its rules, and determined to return this man to the community, to his family:
After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’
You are OK now. Become part of the community again.
Lepers have less to lose, to be sure, but were we not so familiar with the story, we would be surprised that the leper rather blithely ignores Jesus’ command and seems in no rush to go anywhere in particular:
But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word…
Does he even go to the priest? Does he have a home to go to? We are not told. But what he does do, as if on his own, uninstructed, is to become a preacher of the Gospel, spreader of the word. He offers not a directly theological teaching, or moral lesson, but simply: ‘Hear what this Jesus did for me.’ The former leper, that is, reached into his own experience, recognized what had happened to him (as stubbornly and surely as that blind man in John 9), and dared to make up, take up a mission. He was sent home by Jesus, it seems; he was not called to be an apostle, as were Peter and Andrew earlier in the chapter, by any explicit invitation. But he, who had never lost his voice entirely in the long loneliness of his disease, realized what his healing, his recovered wellness, was for: to speak up for Jesus, to get everyone’s attention. In a sense, he was better at this than Jesus himself had been:
… so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
His testimony is the word of a man who had lost everything, not given up, a person who, after asserting to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean,” found himself, found his voice, and found his mission.
This seems a timely reminder at the start of Lent: sinners though we be, we are never simply sinners, never simply in need, and perhaps very rarely in a position where we need to await orders, someone else’s directives. The point of Lent, from this perspective, is to get up and get onto the mission: to have a heart to heart talk with Jesus, to speak with him of the possibility of our healing, and then — surely not spurned by this Jesus who is deeply moved in his own inner self — make it our Lenten work to preach Jesus from the inside out, in our own words, by our own lights, on a mission we have boldly taken hold of. Think of what a Church we would be by Easter, if we were a community of such bold, healed, healing ambassadors of Christ, finding the mission within, and simply getting on with it.
And now, as it were suddenly to shift gears: I am fascinated by this account in part because of the leper’s sense of his own self and fidelity to it, discovering therein a new energy and manner of religious living. It resonates well with themes already arising in the (snow-plagued) seminar I am teaching this semester, on the Bhagavad Gita, that most famous of Hindu texts. How does Arjuna, the perplexed and confused warrior, find his way back to his duty and his personal battle, in dialogue with Krishna, his guide and God? For a while in Lent, on and off throughout all six weeks, I will share with you some reflections on the Gita. Its teaching and vision of life are surely not the identical with those of Christ or the readings we will hear in church in Lent; and yet the Gita is quite able, I suspect, to shake us up a bit, to wake us up to who we are as healed, self-realized ambassadors for Christ.
Stayed tuned then for The Bhagavad Gita in Lent.