Commentary on Mark 1:21-45
After John’s imprisonment, Jesus inherits his mantle and promptly announces the arrival of God’s kingdom.
He recruits his first disciples and goes on a healing spree. Jesus casts out an impure spirit in the synagogue and heals many who were demon-possessed. Within the larger narrative context in Mark, as well as in Matthew and Luke, healings and exorcisms are visible manifestation of the kingdom of God.
In this text, as in many other stories in the synoptic gospels, healing miracles benefit individuals with little power. Jesus uses his power to disrupt and attenuate demonic powers that have robbed the powerless of their dignity and denied them full participation in the society. His power is consistently placed in service of margins. The newly inaugurated kingdom operates at the individual level as much it does at the cosmic level suggesting that the individual is as important as the cosmic.
While Jesus heals many in this text, the only one who seeks him out initially is the leper. Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him. The physical aspect of this healing aside, its social aspect is striking. In the first century Palestinian context, lepers were stigmatized, deemed untouchable and denied any participation in the community. It was a form of social death that was given religious justification. Within this socio-cultural context, Jesus’s act of healing the leper by touching him acquires special significance. Curing lepers by touching them is about making them touchable again. In touching an “untouchable” leper, Jesus declares that the man is worthy of human interaction but also challenges the structures and processes that made him untouchable in the first place. Accordingly, the healing was both physical and social.
It was a potentially risky move for Jesus because in touching the leper, he could have been considered impure and lost his social capital. But Jesus risks his reputation and potential alienation from society. Placing his hand on the leper is tantamount to placing his body on the line but Jesus demonstrates that his healing power is stronger than the contagious power of leprosy. In asking the leper to show himself to the priest, Jesus demonstrates that he was declaring the leper acceptable and makes a statement that the leper is worthy of full restoration back to the community. God coming into the world is also a matter of risk taking. Incarnation is about God placing Godself on the line to be in solidarity with those who have been alienated from society and denied opportunities to realize their full potential.
The risk for those of us who want to advocate on behalf of the alienated is that we could lose some of our own social and political capital with those in power who will do everything in their capacity to keep those structures intact. Our society has stigmatized and alienated many who have been considered outcasts for a variety of unjustifiable reasons and denied them full participation in the society. This includes people who are falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned. How often are we willing to take risks and undermine established norms to help those who have been victimized by the society? The church has an obligation to explore ways to fully restore them back into society.
Many translations of this story suggest that Jesus was moved with compassion, stretched out his and touched the leper. Most interpreters also highlight compassion over indignation. The Greek word splanchnisteis (verse 41) is often translated as “moved with compassion” but some Western texts have orgistheis in its place. While the former splanchnistheis suggests that Jesus was compassionate toward the leper, orgistheis indicates that he was indignant about his plight. It is unclear which variant predates the other but there is little ambiguity about the fact the two terms connote vastly different meanings. Was Jesus compassionate toward the leper, or angry about his plight? Considering the nature of Jesus’ mission and his explicit disapproval of structures of dehumanization, especially the anger that characterized his response at the temple, it is more likely that Jesus was angry about what the society has done to the leper.
Both compassion and anger are equally possible in situations such as this. Compassion toward the leper and anger at the social structures responsible for his plight are equally important. While compassion towards victims is an important starting point, indignation about the structures and institutions that robbed them of their humanity is an appropriate and necessary response. Compassion and righteous indignation in the face of injustice are not mutually exclusive but compassion cannot become a substitute for anger that leads to positive change. When compassion is consistently substituted for righteous anger, it fails to move us to action and breeds indifference that inadvertently amounts to endorsement of the very practices and structures that undermine people’s humanity. We have seen this phenomenon in the indifference many have displayed toward recent U.S. immigration policies.
A merely compassionate Jesus is a reflection of Christianity that has domesticated him, erased references to his anger and adopted itself to serve the interests of powers that be. How often do we domesticate Jesus and sanitize him to make him acceptable to those in power? How can we celebrate Jesus who put his body on the line but turn the other way when people are pushed out of the society on a regular basis? How do we respond in dehumanizing situations?
If we only respond with compassion, we are merely addressing symptoms of injustice but not eradicating roots of the system that engendered it in the first place. How often do we stop with compassion and not allow room for righteous anger to facilitate change? Have we lost our capacity for moral outrage when we witness vast sections of populations pushed to the margins and denied full participation in the society? What are some ways we can restore them to full participation in the society? These are some questions the text forces us to address.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Healing Lord Jesus, you performed miracles that helped followers become aware of your presence and your magnificence. Surprise us today with miracles that we desperately seek, and make your presence known to all. Amen.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, David Ferreira
Psalm 103, William Beckstrand