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2/9/2006
WORD OF FAITH
With anger, not pity
REV. ROGER KARBAN


When those who study biblical manuscripts give examples of mistakes, Sunday's Gospel about Jesus curing the leper is always in their top-ten list (Mark 1:40-45).

The scholarly consensus is that the evangelist originally wrote, "Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him." That's how the oldest and best manuscripts of Mark describe Jesus' emotion during the miracle.

That's a day-and-night difference from "moved with pity," which we have in our modern lectionary. Erasmus, who gave us the first printed edition of the Christian Scriptures in Greek in 1516, simply used a manuscript of Mark that contained an error, and modern translations are based on Erasmus' text.

Why anger?

Most of us are uncomfortable with a Jesus who shows anger. No one's certain why Jesus is angry in this situation. Some think it's because the leper challenges Him with the remark, "If you wish, you can make me clean," not knowing about Jesus' constant quest to rid us of evil.

Others believe His anger is a reaction to the community's isolation of lepers. We need only listen carefully to the first reading (Lev 13:1-2,44-46) to understand the horrible exclusion lepers experienced in the not-too-ancient world: "Those who have the sore of leprosy shall keep their garments rent and their heads bare, and shall muffle their mouth; they shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean!....' They shall dwell apart, making their abode outside the camp."

No wonder only a priest at the local shrine or temple could verify either someone's leprosy or its cure. An unfounded, anonymous accusation could destroy someone's life.

Knowing those regulations, we can appreciate the impact of Jesus' touching the man, something no clean person would ever deliberately do. Only lepers touched other lepers.

Imitation

In that context, Paul's statement at the end of the second reading (I Cor 10:31-11:1) takes on a biting significance. "Imitate me," he writes, "as I imitate Christ."

The Apostle has just finished three painful chapters, encouraging his community to get rid of anything which would isolate certain people in the community from others. In this case, the isolation springs from one group's eating food that others, on theological grounds, refuse to eat.

That's why he begins his summary of the problem with the command, "Whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God." Any action that would cause some people to be on the "outside looking in" is to be eradicated from a Christian community.

Coupling this emotion with Paul's command to imitate Jesus might embarrass some modern Christians. Like the scribe who changed Jesus' anger to pity, we prefer a calm, balanced and peaceful Jesus.

Such a picture lets us "other Christs" off the hook. We're not expected to be angry about situations in our communities or churches that mandate or accept exclusion for whole groups of people, exclusions rooted in race, gender, theological beliefs or social status. On the contrary, those with "level heads" warn us that such anger is counter-productive.

Perhaps the best way at times to imitate Jesus might be to imitate the Peter Finch character in the movie "Network." I wonder what would happen if one or two of us stood up in church next Sunday and yelled, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!"

(2/9/06)












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