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.
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.
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
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!"