Sunday, February 15, 2009

Skin Game

Skin Game1

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: February 15, 2009

Mark 1:40-45

Let’s think about skin for a minute. Skin is something very precious to us. It is in many ways the toughest organ of the human body, the primary line of defense, seemingly capable of renewing itself almost endlessly following cuts, bruises, even surgery and skin grafting. It can adjust to sunlight, making subtle changes in response to prolonged exposure. Skin is fundamental to our thinking about what is or is not beautiful. Creamy skin is thought to be beautiful, leathery skin, not so desirable. One could have a debilitating internal ailment and still pass unnoticed among friends and acquaintances enjoying their full fellowship and support, escaping the notice of strangers. But that is not the case with anyone who suffers with an obvious skin ailment.

Even healthy skins of different colors have been responsible for division and hatred between tribes, peoples, and racial groups, probably more so than any other feature of the human anatomy. White skin, olive skin, red skin, black skin, yellow skin, combinations of those skin types, all these have been known to provide rationales for walls of enmity and hatred.

How ironic that human skin, a tiny fraction of an inch thick, covering every human body, precious to us, life-preserving and absolutely crucial to our well-being, has also been the cause for so much division and sorrow. I had a friend who used to say, “When you feel intimidated by someone, next time they are speaking with you pretend they are standing in front of you without their clothes on. It’s amazing how that will change your perspective.” That might sound a bit naughty, but in a powerful way, our life in the world should sometimes involve seeing other people without their skins on. Just think what such an approach could do for folks in any racially divided place, or mixed race children in many areas of the world. Imagine seeing one another without our skins on, without our accustomed facial points of reference. The only way we could identify the people we met would be by speaking with them, taking their words seriously, encountering them simply as people, and not as members of this or that skin-color group. I believe that this is part of what Jesus was up to when he healed the leper in Galilee. He had something to say in what he did as much as someone to heal.

The social taboos for lepers in Israel were powerful and, to modern minds, startlingly comprehensive. No leper, under any circumstances, was to approach a non-leper. Ever. Any time a person who was clean came near them, lepers were to stand off at a distance and shout, if they still had voices to shout with, “Unclean! Unclean!” Not the kind of regulation that was likely to do much for self esteem or social interaction. As we might imagine, leprosy was dreaded not only for its disfiguring misery, but because it made sufferers complete social outcasts. Lepers were excluded from the general population and from any contact with the people of God. Participation in the religious life of the community was forbidden, any approach to the temple in Jerusalem was entirely out of the question. Rabbis of the time are known to have expressed opinions on the status of lepers, calling them living corpses whose cure was as difficult as resurrection of the dead.

Something else we should know about this text from Mark’s gospel: After the leper approached Jesus, the common reading says, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand...” Most English translations carry some variation of that theme of Jesus’ “pity” for the leper. But an ancient and well-attested version of that important little verse says, “Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand...” Every commentary on Mark that I have — and because of a special course in seminary and a career-long interest in Mark, I have 6 of them — concurs that anger could be considered the more accurate word in describing Jesus’ emotion. If you are like I am, that may come as something of a shock. Isn’t this gentle Jesus, meek and mild? How could a petition from a helplessly outcast and pitiful leper have inspired him to anger?

Inasmuch as we feel that way, we may be like those ancient scribes who, faithfully copying this text, may have thought that the scribe before them had made a mistake, so they wrote in a verb they thought more appropriate to the loving Jesus they had come to know.

Those who have had the courage to translate this word as anger have offered a variety of explanations as to why Jesus would have responded to the leper’s petition for healing with anger. Some say that perhaps Jesus was angry at being interrupted in his preaching tour. In the passage just before, he had told the disciples that he wasn’t going to go back to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house to continue healing the mobs that were there, because he was called to preach. Now another opportunity for healing presented itself, and if he accommodated the man, these critics reason, Jesus knew that he would once again be overrun with petitioners, and his preaching would suffer.

Another justification for Jesus’ emotional state is that his anger was directed at the evil powers that are represented by disease. God’s will at creation was wholeness for his people, and every case of disease is evidence of separation from God’s will for his creation.

I think the reason for Jesus’ anger is more foundational than either of these explanations. Both of these seem to focus Jesus’ anger back at the victim or his complaint. I think Jesus’ anger was felt on behalf of the suffering leper. He takes the part of the suffering, the victims of social brutality. That is the pattern of his ministry as I have come to know it. It wasn’t the disease, nor the demons, nor the interruptions that bothered Jesus so much as it was the social deprivation of the sufferer. These lepers, the neediest of the needy, were deprived of basic human fellowship, forced to flee the presence of any healthy person, forced to live a pitiful life, unable to fulfill the deepest need of the human heart, the need for acts of loving kindness that are part of the normal human scene for healthy people. One ancient addition to the story, which appears in many old manuscripts, has the leper responding to Jesus’ healing by saying, “Lord Jesus, you who walk with the lepers and eat with them in the inn...” This is most certainly not part of the story that Mark handed down, but it is entirely in character. Jesus’ healing was not so much of a disfiguring disease as it was a healing of an intolerable social situation: a religious law that protected the health of the community at the cost of overruling human compassion. Most certainly the significant part of Jesus’ healing was his touch, the touch of a healthy person which no leper was allowed to feel.

Seen this way, then the end of the story makes more sense, when the Bible says, Jesus “sternly charged him ... go and show yourself to the priest.” Jesus had provided something not even the priests or rabbis could provide, a readmission to the human and religious community for people who should never have been excluded in the first place. He had not been prevented from proclaiming his message by the interruption of this unfortunate. Rather he turned the situation itself into a powerful proclamation. Fred Craddock said “All the way to the cross Jesus will be trying to get those who think ‘where the Messiah is, there is no misery’ to accept a new perspective — ‘where there is misery, there is the Messiah.’”2

Naturally, we have our own modern versions of the skin game that was practiced in Jesus’ day. Of course, we can be subtle about it. Yet we have our own sorts of lepers that we put away from the comfort of human community in order not to have to see them face to face. We have in Africa and elsewhere the increasing and tragic role call of victims of the AIDS virus; we have prisons full to overflowing with the refuse of our society, while too little social effort is expended in stopping crime before it happens with education, intervention, and prevention programs. Oftentimes the oncology wards of our hospitals can become places where our modern-day lepers are warehoused, out of sight and out of mind.

We can be thankful that some attitudes are slowly changing, but there are still too many places where suffering people are shunted off to one side, set apart from healthy contact with the human community, and given every reason to believe that we have given up on them and are willing to let them suffer and die alone or with only the resources of their immediate family to sustain them. The fellowship of the church can provide a most precious gift when we offer nothing more than the gift of our companionship.

Perhaps at work or at school many of us can think of modern day lepers who — by social practice or common consent among others around us — are ostracized, belittled, cut off from the normal exchange of human fellowship. It is these very people for whom Jesus would pause, whose situation would provoke our Lord’s indignation, for whom he would respond to a petition for healing by saying, “I will; be clean.” It is his ministry of community and compassion that calls us from this passage in Mark. May he give us the strength and insight to join him in his work of loving those who are lost.

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 This sermon, along with others of my sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, appears in the recently published book: Sermons on the Gospel Readings: Series III - Cycle B, Css Publishing Company, 517 South Main Street, Lima Ohio, 45804,,
© 2008.
2 Fred Craddock, Preaching the New Common Lectionay: Year B Advent-Epiphany, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), p.160.