Sunday 11 February is the last Sunday in the Epiphany season and the last Sunday before Lent begins this coming Wednesday 14 February.
Theme(s): healing / Cleansing / Faithfulness
Sentence: You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. (Psalm 30:11-12)
strong, loving and wise,
help us to depend upon your goodness
and to place our trust in your Son.
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
2 Kings 5:1-14
Sometimes matching the Old Testament reading with the Gospel has the feel of matching the right wine with the main dish for the day. Here the meat of Jesus healing a leper is matched with the wine of God healing Naaman from leprosy.
A common experience between the two stories is suffering from leprosy but from there most points of possible comparison do not match. Naaman is a named and high ranking Aramean: the gospel leper is unnamed and no particular importance is attached to him. Naaman is healed 'at a distance' whereas Jesus heals the leper with a touch.
But the end result is the same: both lepers are 'clean' as a result of their healing. We cannot underestimate the importance of that word: lepers had a poor social status, people avoiding them in the hope of avoiding catching leprosy. Healing meant not only the end of the disease but also the restoration of social status as a 'clean' person.
This psalm speaks of a psalmist in pitiable circumstances who has been brought out of them, from death to life so to speak. So the Lord is extolled and praised (as we might imagine the leper in today's gospel story might praise the Lord after being healed).
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Paul is not afraid to mix metaphors. He moves from a kind of drama metaphor (verses 19-23), becoming all things to all people, to a sporting metaphor (strictly, a set of sporting metaphors). In the process he switches topics a little, from winning the world for Christ to making sure he does not lose his share in the blessings of the gospel (23). But by the end of 27 he is back to the matter of proclaiming the gospel.
His point is simple. Those who will be ultimately and permanently blessed by the gospel are those who remain faithful in the ministry of the gospel to the end.
Just as Paul does all he can to win others for Christ, so he will do all he can to remain faithful in the service of the gospel. He is not here talking about qualifying for the blessings (that has been done for him by Christ) but of avoiding disqualification. The emphasis on 'self-control' in the passage implies that we could disqualify ourselves by failing to be faithful in our obedience to God through the long course of our lives.
Mark is a seriously good story teller! On the face of it, this is the story of the healing of a leper. Rightly we marvel at the miracle and, as readers, become more and more impressed through a succession of such stories by Mark's overall aim to persuade his readers (or reinforce their belief) that Jesus is the Son of God.
But digging deeper into the story (or, alternatively, reading the story slowly so we take in each nuanced detail), we see Mark telling us a number of things about Jesus and his life situation.
The leper has implicit faith in Jesus: if Jesus chooses he can heal him; if not, he will not be healed (40).
Is it a mixture of need (the man's leprosy), the humble begging on his knees and the simple trusting faith which means Jesus is 'Moved with pity'? (41).*
Jesus responds to the direct question about choosing to heal by saying 'I do choose. Be made clean!' (41) But this conversational logic raises the question of the role of God's will in healing: does God sometimes will healing to take place, and by implication, sometimes will for healing not to take place?
Then, the attitude and approach of the leper begs the question whether the way we pray makes a difference to God's will to heal. Food for thought! Mark is not telling the story in this way to establish a comprehensive 'theology of prayer for healing' but he must have been alert to questions of his fellow disciples when he wrote. Questions such as, Does the risen Jesus still heal today? Is it God's will to heal my sickness? When he reports Jesus saying 'I do choose', at the very least, he is expressing the view that healing is not guaranteed every time we ask for it.
The report in 42 that 'Immediately' the man was healed is part and parcel of Mark's overall strategy of presenting Jesus as the powerful Son of God.
The next few verses begin/continue a theme in the gospel called 'the Messianic Secret.' Jesus asks the recipient of a miracle not to say anything about it.
('Begin' if we think about humans being commanded to say nothing; 'continue' if we think about demons already commanded to be silent, 1:34).
Why would Jesus not want the world to know about such a powerful demonstration of his divinity?
Cutting through a whole lot of scholarly discussion the best answer remains (in my view) that Jesus sought to control the reception of his ministry, lest it generate the wrong kind of following.
A man making the unclean clean is a man with potential to change society (because able to shift people from the margins to the centre), that is, to be a political messiah, a new king threatening the colluding rule of Herod and Caesar. Jesus has come to establish a different kind of kingdom, not least because it is not going to be confined to the geographical territory of Israel. The moment for revealing that kingdom plan has not yet arrived.
But it is to no avail. The man goes out and about proclaiming the miracle freely and so 'to spread the word' (45). Ironically, Mark portrays one who disobeys Jesus while acting as a model disciple-witness! The gospel which Mark is writing is a message to be proclaimed and spread around the world ... at the right time.
A final subtlety to note is Jesus' insistence that the cleansed leper does the right thing by the Law of Moses (44). In this respect, 'as a testimony to them (= the laws of Moses)' means that Jesus is not intending to be anything other than a Law-abiding Jew. That, later, he will get into trouble with his contemporary guardians of the Law will be their false understanding of the Law and not his disobedience of it. Mark makes this point along the way of this story. It is not his main point but he makes sure it is made as a minor note within it.
*Important note: actually quite a lot is going on in the Greek underlying "moved with pity" and also, seemingly relatedly, in the Greek in v. 45 underlying "sternly charged him ... sent him away." There is a strong argument for an alternative Greek word to the one versions translate with "moved with pity/compassion": this alternative, according to the argument, would be the original, and the Greek for "moved with pity/compassion" would be a later adjustment to soften the raw emotion of the original which means "moved with anger." In verse 45 there is also a rawness and a roughness in Jesus sternly telling the man not to say anything and to being sent away: there is a note in the Greek of yelling at the man and brusquely pushing him away!
Why would Jesus be angry, according to v. 41 and rude, according to v. 45? One possibility (according to scholars) is that Jesus is cross that illness stalks the earth, and leprosy in particular could have aroused his anger because it led in his time to people being excluded from normal life. Then the rude treatment of the healed man is Jesus' strength of concern, even of anxiety, that this man's miraculous healing does not become the cause of misunderstanding (see further above about "secrecy.")