Mark 1:40-45 (6th Sunday after the Epiphany—Series B)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
February 12, 2012
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson recorded in Mark 1:
And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
I was in second grade at St. Paul’s Lutheran School. The teacher had us gathered on the carpet for a lesson. Shortly after she started, we noticed a man standing outside the classroom windows. He was dressed rather shabby—a big, ugly coat and a scraggly winter hat. His gloves were missing some fingers so that his were out in the cold. His face didn’t look clean either. Who was this “homeless” looking person outside our school? Our teacher opened one of the windows slightly so she could talk to him. He said he was hungry and was wondering if anyone had a bite of food to spare. A couple of the children were worried and wanted to go get the principal. But then our teacher asked us if anyone was willing to share a small part of their lunch with this person. A couple students said they would and I remember one giving up their apple. As she opened the back door to invite the stranger in, she told us that she wanted us to meet her brother. He had dressed up to play the part of this stranger. We had just been part of a lesson on compassion.
How strange it is all these years later that I still have such a vivid image of that morning in my memory. I guess it was a lesson that I will never quite forget. Although I probably wouldn’t have put it this way when I was 7, the lesson we were taught that day in second grade was that Christians are called upon to have compassion on people.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus has compassion on a leper. “Leprosy” is a word that was used for a wide variety of chronic skin diseases in addition to that which we today call leprosy. Any person identified as a leper was reduced to a most pitiful state of existence. We read from the Book of Leviticus, “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, 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.” (Leviticus 13:45-46) Over the years the rabbis refined things a little. Lepers were allowed to live unhampered wherever they chose, except in Jerusalem and cities which had been walled from days of old. Lepers could even attend the synagogue service if a screen was provided to isolate them from the rest of the congregation. But in spite of those provisions, leprosy brought deep physical and mental anguish for both the afflicted individual and the community. And it is just such a person who came to Jesus in his pitiful condition.
“And a leper came to Jesus, imploring Him, and kneeling said to Him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’” Here this troubled soul leaves his own healing to the will of Jesus—if, in Jesus’ superior counsel, it be best to grant this leper healing or not. The leper is willing, if Jesus so wills, to remain in his living death. He places his own sad case completely in the hands of Jesus just as a true child of God must always place himself in God’s hand.
It is then that we get a glimpse into the very heart of Jesus, “Moved with compassion, He stretched out his hand and touched him.” There was an incredibly deep feeling in Jesus’ gut for the plight of this leper. Whereas we would say, “Jesus’ heart went out to this man,” in the New Testament they said that Jesus felt so deeply for this man that His stomach ached for him. That’s how much Jesus cared for this sick, hopeless, dying man.
Jesus just didn’t feel sorry for the leper and move on. How could He with such deep emotion of concern for this individual? With an aching stomach of pity and compassion, Jesus touched the untouchable. Jesus told the leper, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the flesh that was eaten away, the fingers and toe joints that had dropped off, the raw sores that were spreading all over his body were instantly restored sound and whole. He was made clean. With this man’s cleansing completed, Jesus sent him off to the priest who would verify the healing. He told the man to go and offer the sacrifice Moses commanded as proof to them that this once leper is now clean. Upon confirmation of this healing, the one-time leper would be restored to his rightful place in society.
This, indeed, is a lesson for us in compassion because compassion, service, and mercy that we give to others begin with Jesus. The Lord came to redeem the entire person in body and soul. The ailments of the body—even death—are the result of sin. Jesus forgives sins and shows compassion on those who are in physical need like He did to this leper. In His earthly ministry, Jesus healed the lame, made the blind to see, and raised the dead. He undid the effects of sin both by forgiving and healing.
But the compassion of Jesus is nowhere more clearly seen then on Calvary’s cross. You and I were “leprous” with sin. Because God is holy, free from any corruption or filth, He cannot and will not allow Himself to become tainted by the stain of our sin. Before God receives people into His presence, before He favors us with His grace, we must be purged of all offenses that pollute us and cause God to recoil from us. Jesus, with complete love and compassion for us “leper-sinners” entered into our defiled existence. On Calvary’s cross, Jesus shed His holy, innocent blood. It is this blood of Jesus that “cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)
Our prayer then becomes the prayer of the leper. We kneel humbly before Jesus, covered in the raw sores of sin and the foul smell of death, and pray, “If you will, you can make me clean.” And moved with compassion Jesus reaches out and touches us in the waters of Holy Baptism. He applies the purifying and cleansing effects of His blood on us through the water and the Word and says, “I will; be clean. Be forgiven.” And we are. That is why Baptism is such a source of great comfort to us. When we feel filthy, unworthy of God, our Baptism reminds us that God has come near to us through the blood of His Son. God has spoken to us by name, claiming us, cleansing us, and putting the saving mark of the cross on our heads and on our hearts.
This is where our giving of compassion begins—at the Font. With great love and compassion Jesus has cleansed us from our sins so that we might extend that same compassion to others. As the Church, you and I proclaim the Good News that Jesus died and was raised from the dead, forgiving us all our sins. We then, as the forgiven people of God in Christ who first received the Lord’s compassion, care for others in need as well. Only because we have been forgiven are we motivated to show love and compassion to our neighbors.
In our society we no longer ostracize people for contracting leprosy. However, there are still a lot of ways that people experience alienation from family, church, and the larger community. Maybe they are the homeless who wear ragged clothes. Maybe they are the child at school who isn’t able to bathe as often, or brush their teeth or comb their hair, because of life’s situation. It could be that family member who is constantly being rude to you. Maybe it’s even the person who sits with you in church each week that has caused you some kind of offense that hasn’t been worked through yet to bring about reconciliation.
Though society, or even we ourselves, might consider some people “unclean,” we remember that we were once unclean in our sins and yet Jesus had compassion and mercy on us. Living forgiven in Christ, we then also have compassion on others. St. John writes in his first epistle, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. I n this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:7-11)
Loving others means showing them compassion. It means being the hands of Jesus that reach out and touch the untouchable. It means feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. It means dropping a few quarters into a medicine bottle to help stop children from dying of malaria in Africa. It means buying a couple bottles of shampoo and deodorant, and then giving a couple hours of your day once a month at the Food Shelf to show someone you care about their economic troubles and tell them that Jesus really does love and care for them. It means sitting next to kid at school that doesn’t seem to have any friends because she or he is somehow different from everyone else. And it means looking that other person in the eye and saying, “I care about you. Jesus cares about you. Can I pray for you? Can I pray with you now?”
In stark contrast to a society and culture that separated itself from those they judge to be “unclean,” Jesus Christ stepped out of heaven and into the lives of those in need and shunned by others. Jesus looked on those He came to save with compassion and love. He reached out, beyond social norms, even at His own risk. Jesus dirtied Himself—He defiled Himself—and He touched us. He healed us. He took away our sin and our blemish. He presents us to God the Father and declares us “clean.” In thankful response for all that Jesus has done for us we open our eyes and our hearts to those around us with compassion. Look at others as Jesus looks at you. Reach out to others as Jesus reached out to you and me, and all people, giving them His mercy and compassion by providing for their needs of body and soul. Amen.