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Jesus Always Chooses

Terry McKinney
Sun, Feb 19

The Last Sunday after Epiphany
Lessons: Mark 1: 40-45

I knew someone who died from AIDS. Perhaps you do too. Before he passed away, some considered him untouchable. Though there was a lot of information being given at the time about the difficulty of acquiring AIDS through the simple act of touch, people were so afraid of catching it that they wouldn’t get close if they could help it.

At the height of the crisis, many people were living with AIDS but chose not to reveal it until the symptoms were undoubtedly evident. Why? Because when this happened, it meant that they became outside of all they’d known: removed from society, from the workplace, and often from all their family and friends. In other words, total separation from their identity in the community of support they came from. They were in full isolation.

I knew an Episcopal priest who, at that time, would go to the few places that would house those suffering from AIDS as often as he could, simply touching them, praying with them, and even hugging these people he didn’t know. He said that the simple act of touch would bring some of them to tears. It was the gift of touch they had been denied, and that healing act restored them to humanity, even if just for a moment.

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” What an extraordinary thing for a leper to say to a healer. Or, as other versions translate it, “If you want to…,” “If you are willing…,” or, “If it is your pleasure, you can make me clean.”

The leper’s interaction with Jesus was bold. According to the Levitical purity laws, simply approaching Jesus was a transgression. The leper was also required to inform Jesus from of his disease, which he failed to do.

From Leviticus 13:45-46 “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, "Unclean, unclean." He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

Perhaps the leper’s actions were not so much bold as they were desperate. To be a leper was not only to have a skin disease, it was to be put far outside the community. Touch, for a leper, was forbidden. Lepers were excluded from all social and religious aspects of his community. This was an extreme form of isolation meant to protect the community. It was a total breakdown in connection between leper and society.

“If you want to, you can make me clean?” Why does he approach Jesus with this statement? His implication that Jesus might be capricious, deciding who he would heal and who he wouldn’t, is surprising to us. This is surprising to us since we have no record of Jesus ever choosing not to heal someone.

Why did the writer of the Gospel of Luke include the element of choice in the story? Why did the leper assert this about Jesus’ choice? Why did Jesus not deny this assertion and said, “I do choose?” What did Mark want us to know?

Let’s look again and notice that the leper doesn’t ask to be healed, he asks to be made clean. He asks for restoration. According to the passage from Leviticus, to be made clean would mean to be restored: restored to his community life, his social life, and the heart of it all, his participation in religious life.

“If it pleases you, you can make me clean.” It’s clear from his statement that the leper believes two things. First, he believes without any doubt that Jesus has the power to heal him. Second, he acknowledges that Jesus does indeed have a choice.

And what was Jesus’ choice? Jesus easily could have healed the man with only a look and no touching, or with a statement, as he did in the story of the ten lepers in the Gospel of Luke. There is no doubt that Jesus was moved with pity by the man’s skin condition, but likely even more so, he was moved with pity by the man’s total exclusion from the world.

Jesus knew the Mosaic purity laws, and knew that touching the leper would make him be considered unclean as well. And yet we read that Jesus was so moved with pity, that he touched the man rather than speaking to him only in order to make him clean. He chose to break the Mosaic law visibly by touching the man in order to heal him, thereby making a commentary on the law as he sometimes did.

It is clear from other passages that Jesus did not disrespect or mock the Torah that he knew so well. He says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) And how did he summarize the law and the prophets? Love of God and one another. He chose to run afoul of the Mosaic purity laws when it kept people on the margins, when it kept people outside the fold of their community, just as it did here. Most often, when he performed a miracle, the result was the person being able to be restored to their community.

“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” “I do choose.” Jesus makes a choice.

This is why the writer of Mark conveys the element of choice. This is what he wants us to know: that it is always Jesus’ choice and will, and God’s intention to offer us healing and restoration. We work toward and pray for physical healing in this world, and we pray for that both for ourselves and for others.

And like the leper, we pray for restoration. We pray for anything that keeps others or ourselves from being kept separate, whether visibly or not, whether through illness, anger toward others, guilt, ruptured relationships, hidden sorrow, and anything else that keeps us from the fullness of life God wants for us.

What in your life needs healing today? What in you cries out for restoration?

We are the Body of Christ in the world, the body of the one who always wants to heal and restore us. As part of doing this work Jesus’ desires for us, he gave us a gift, the power of human touch for healing. Yet whether you choose to come forward for touching and anointing, for simply prayer with no touch, or you choose to remain in your pew, be faithful, as the leper was, that Jesus has the will to heal and restore you, and always chooses to do so.

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