Saturday, February 11, 2012

6th Sunday after Epiphany

Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who happened to meet an ugly frog. 'Hello, beautiful princess,' said the frog. 'I'm not really a frog at all. I've been enchanted by an evil sorcerer. If you kiss me, I will turn into a handsome prince.  Promise.'

So the beautiful princess bent over the lily leaf and planted a great big kiss on top of the frog's slimy head.  Like you do.  Unfortunately, she had completely forgotten to check that the coast was clear first.  History is unclear about whether the frog ever did turn into a handsome prince.  But there is no doubt that the photographs in the morning paper and the ensuing scandal did force the princess to leave the castle in disgrace.  After all, she might start developing warts on her face.  Who knew what she might get up to next?  Or what disreputable types she might get up to it with?  Come to think of it, she was beginning to look a bit froggy herself …

Always, when we read the stories that have come down to us in the gospels, we need to remember that this was a very different world to ours.  The way people thought in the 1st century was completely different to the way we think.  Anthropologists would describe it as a society dominated by the opposite poles of honour and shame – being acceptable or being unacceptable.

One of the main ways this worked in Jewish society was about whether you were ritually clean – this wasn't about how often you washed your hands, but it was about not being yucky.  Yucky people weren't allowed to worship God.  The idea seems to have been that God couldn't put up with yuckiness.  That of course worked mainly against poor people – who no matter what century you live in are generally the ones that get landed with the most yuckiness.  Not only were yucky people not allowed to worship God, but if you wanted to worship God you had to make sure you didn't go anywhere near anybody yucky.  Sometimes you got temporarily yucky, for example if you touched a dead body, or a sick person, or if you gave birth.  For the temporarily yucky person it wasn't so bad, you just had to wait a while and then offer the appropriate sacrifice and then you were back in.  For permanently yucky people it was more of a problem.

One of the ways of being permanently yucky was to be a leper.  Now this isn't modern leprosy, or Hansen's disease, which is actually not a skin condition but a disease of the nervous system.  Leprosy in the ancient world was a catch-all category that probably included any sort of skin complaint, anything from psoriasis to an unexplained rash to a bad case of acne.  If you were a leper and you got better, well and good, and there was a definite procedure for getting a clearance from the temple authorities and then you were back in.  In the meantime – tough luck – you had to wear rags, not comb your hair, cover your face, live outside the town limits, and shout a warning to anybody who might come too close.

But today we meet a leper who breaks the rules.  For us, in our individualistic age, that mightn't sound too shocking – although it wasn't so long ago, was it, that people lived in irrational fear of touching somebody who had AIDS?  But in the world Jesus lived in, social boundaries were a whole lot harder to cross.  You stayed where you were put.  But not this guy.  Instead of staying at a distance, he comes right up close to Jesus.  Instead of shouting his pathetic warning, he issues Jesus with a direct challenge: 'you can make me clean, if you want to'.

This pushy leper who knows he is a social pariah, who knows he is terminally on the outer, believes that God is so powerfully present in Jesus that none of that should matter.  He insists that yuckiness should be acceptable to God. This has been a very radical idea, for most of Jewish and Christian history.

I wonder if this pushy leper, who comes along according to Mark at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, helps Jesus to work out who he really is, and what God really wants him to be?  Because there's a bit of doubt about exactly what happens next.  There's a bit of doubt about how Jesus reacts to this outsider who won't obey the rules.  And it comes into our Bible in verse 41 where we read that Jesus is moved with pity.  Because the trouble is, not all the ancient manuscripts agree about this.  Some of the oldest ones say that Jesus is moved not with compassion but with anger – this of course is one of the joys of Bible translation – when not even the original texts agree with each other.  And most Bible scholars work on the assumption that it's most likely that the correct reading is the one that's hardest to understand.  Why?  Because disagreements in the most ancient manuscripts mean that some ancient copyist scratched his head over that verse and decided it didn't look right, and that he had better tidy it up.  And you only do that when the verse you are staring at is hard to fathom.  It's easier to understand why Jesus reacts with compassion, anger is more puzzling, more disturbing.  And a couple of verses later it seems Jesus is still angry, because he speaks sternly to the man he has just healed.  Can you feel compassion and anger at the same time?

I think we get a clue about this when we read the rest of the story, because this guy just doesn't do what he's told.  Jesus, who ends up getting a bad reputation for flouting the rules, is actually really keen for this man to do things by the book.  Take yourself off to the priests, show them you are healed, he says.  Offer the appropriate sacrifice, make it official.  Little enough to ask, wouldn't you think? 

Maybe Jesus is feeling something similar to what I feel when I'm confronted by a smelly drunk at the train station.  A mixture of emotions, isn't it?  Compassion has its limits.  There are ways of getting help without putting me on the spot like this!  Jesus knows that if touches a leper – if he touches a yucky person then he is going to be yucky too.  By touching the unclean person, Jesus himself is going to become unclean.  Could it be that Jesus is caught between a pushy leper and the community sense of the right way to do things?  Remember this is at the very beginning of Jesus ministry, according to the earliest Gospel.  And he is angry because he is being put in a bind.  Angry because he's torn between compassion and the need to be respectable.  But in this story we see Jesus working out who he is and what God wants of him.  Because what wins is compassion.  Jesus does what Jesus always does – he touches the one who is untouchable.

But it doesn't stop there, because the former leper keeps breaking the rules, and the rumours start spreading quicker than chickenpox: 'Did you hear what that new rabbi did?  He actually touched a leper!  Yuck!'   

You see, when we first read it, it looks like the leper is doing Jesus a favour.  Getting him a reputation as a great healer.  But actually the reputation Jesus is getting here is the wrong sort of reputation altogether.  Jesus has been caught out kissing a frog.  Maybe that's why Mark's Gospel tells us he has to stay out of town from now on.  By touching the outsider, Jesus becomes an outsider, and we already know how the story ends.  Eventually he's going to die as an outsider, on a cross on a garbage dump outside the city.

Do you remember last week, how I said that God heals us by touching us.  Nothing fancier than that.  By being radically available, by touching.  But there's always a cost.  Jesus kisses frogs and 'poof!' – now there's two frogs on the lily leaf – making outcasts acceptable by becoming an outcast himself.  The way God works on our brokenness and our unacceptableness is by joining us right in the middle of it.

But what does that mean for us?  Two things – First, it tells us that God's love for us is costly.  Making us whole and complete isn't as simple as pulling us into the winners' circle, a divine immunisation against misfortune – quite the opposite, answering our prayers and healing our brokenness means God joining us in the reality of our day-to-day circumstances.  This is what St Paul is getting at when he writes: 'My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness'. [1]  Don't pray for the weakness to be taken away from you, because it is in your weakness, in your brokenness, that you will know the reality of God with you and God for you.

And the second thing?  We get to kiss frogs as well.  I guess we don't generally come across lepers wandering the streets of Cannington.  The world we live in isn't desperately concerned about ritual cleanliness and purification.  But who are the people we don't want to touch?  The list of available suspects is long enough – immigrants, rich people, poor people, bikies, Muslims, car thieves, child molesters, drug addicts – our world still makes outcast groups through vilification and blaming.  And once you are labelled as an outcast, it's not so easy to get off the list.  Not even in the Church, unfortunately.  But who in particular are your outcasts?  Who is beyond the pale for you personally?  It's not a rhetorical question, and if it makes you angry you're in good company.  But look closely, next time you come across your secret leper at the shopping mall or waiting at the traffic lights.  Look into the face of the one that you would cast out and see the face of Christ.

Amen.



[1] 2 Corinthians 12.9 – NRSV translation 'for power is made perfect' but notes other ancient authorities, 'for my power is made perfect'.