The next in a series on red-letter Christianity by Daniel Harrell
So I served on my first jury this past week. I’ve had jury duty plenty of times, but heretofore I’d managed to avoid getting impaneled by listing my occupation as “televangelist,” even though technically, I’m only a closed-circuit televangelist. The case was a civil case, ironic as always given the tenor of the litigation. The rancorous dispute concerned personal injury resulting from an automobile accident. One of the lawyers was this oily, obnoxious shyster vilified in our society by the stereotype ambulance chaser. You know, the kind who advertises his services on TV promising that if ever you are in an accident, call the number and you’ll get everything that’s coming to you. Apparently the judge when selecting the jury figured that if anybody could be impartial about an ambulance chaser it would be a televangelist. Added to the irony was the fact that the defendant in this case was an ambulance driver. While changing lanes in a non-emergency situation, he hit the plaintiff’s car and crunched his front right quarter-panel. The ambulance driver quickly jumped out of his vehicle to ascertain the condition of the driver he’d hit. The other driver said we was fine. Said the same to the police officers who arrived on the scene. But then excused himself to make a phone call. When he got back, he complained about whiplash and insisted he be taken to the hospital. Which he was, again ironically, by the ambulance driver who had hit him. Why the sudden surge of pain? While it is true that sometimes symptoms are slow to surface, these symptoms were a result of the phone call. The man had called the number of a TV attorney who told him to run back to scene and get to the hospital. He’d hit the jackpot.
The lawyers for both sides were hilariously combative, waving their arms and melodramatically lecturing on the various travesties of injustice suffered by their parties. It was actually entertaining at some moments, excruciatingly boring at others as the attorneys debated the most picayune of points. Half a day was spent arguing over whether a Google map could be considered an accurate depiction of a Google map. I dozed off in the jury box only to be awakened by my drool, horrified that the judge would find me in contempt of something. That is until I saw that the judge had nodded off too. The attorneys dissected every syllable of every word, angling for any thread they could twist to their advantage. Apparently they’d already twisted it into knots. This lawsuit had been plodding through the court system for more than five years, taking up an inordinate amount of time, money and energy. While alternately amused and bored, we were also perplexed: Why hadn’t the case been settled by insurance companies? How had what seemed so straightforward become so complicated?
The law’s like that, I guess. At the end of the trial, the judge’s instructions to us jurors ran on for over an hour as he had to explain the legal definitions of simple words like negligence and damage and injury. He then recited statute after statue governing the law in this case—statutes like the one that determined the particularities of blinker usage, which further explained why so much time had been devoted to fastidious arguments about blinkers, which ended up having no bearing on the outcome. To me the lawyers confused indicators with actions, asserting that simply using a blinker (or not) was equivalent to actually making a safe lane change (or not). They were being legalistic, a term with which we Bible readers are familiar. New Testament ambulance chasers (we call them Pharisees) consistently confused the indicator with the action. They insisted that flashing the appearance of righteousness sufficed for righteousness itself.
Of particular concern were the legalities of cleanliness. If you’ll remember from our romp through Leviticus, to be clean before God was the first step to holiness, the epitome of one’s right relationship with God. The good news was that purity was the baseline. To be a Jew was to be clean, declared so when chosen by God. The trick was keeping clean. Pagan Roman culture was rife with all sorts of temptations to unfaithfulness. God needed his people to be wary. He needed some way to drive home the importance of purity. Ergo two plus chapters of Leviticus devoted to skin infections. If there’s one thing you cannot ignore, it’s your skin. So the Lord used skin as an object lesson, an indicator if you will, to teach the importance of moral cleanliness. However the object lesson was not the infection itself, but what happened once you got it. God declared an infection unclean and ruled that you were to be quarantined from the community, both socially and religiously. Getting back in once your skin cleared up required a priest. Two birds. Some cedar wood. A piece of crimson yarn. Hyssop. Fresh water. A clay pot. Some soap to wash your clothes and body. A razor to shave yourself. Three lambs without blemish. Six quarts of choice flour and a cup of olive oil. Along with an elaborate ritual that could be performed only in Jerusalem, which for the skin-infected leper here in Mark 1 was something like an eighty mile walk.
Who in their right mind would go through all of that? But then again, when you’re cut off from your friends and your God, who wouldn’t do whatever it took to get back in right relationship? The seriousness of ritual was a sign of the seriousness of purity to God. However, once the Pharisees got a hold of it, the ritual became the reality itself. Purity became only skin deep. The cleanliness code had become corrupted. Which unfortunately for the leper, made his plight all the worse. It no longer mattered that his heart were pure. If his skin was infected (leprosy is a catchall term covering anything from a pus-spewing sore to a little rash), so was he. No wonder we read of him chasing Jesus down and begging for help. He had become an outcast. If you’ll remember from last Sunday, Jesus had already done so much healing and demon-exorcising that he had to retreat into the desert to pray. Simon Peter tracked him down worried about another huge crowd gathering in town. “Everybody is looking for you,” Peter urgently said, meaning everybody who hadn’t gotten their ills cured or their demons cast out the day before was waiting for Jesus to do it now. But instead of returning and doing the good that needed doing, Jesus said, “Let’s go somewhere else.”
So off they went, leaving plenty of unhealed people behind, which for this particular leper meant continued estrangement. He’d seen Jesus heal others and knew this was his only ticket home. So runs after Jesus, falls to his knees and begs, “If you will, you can make me clean too.” By which he meant make me acceptable to my community and my God again. Of course Jesus was willing to do that. Moreover, only Jesus could do that. This is partly Mark’s point. Only God can heal and make clean. Jesus heals and makes clean. Jesus is the Son of God. He touches the unclean man and immediately he is healed in every sense. All that was left was for him to make the trip to Jerusalem and “show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for his cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Now, having just come from jury duty, I am very aware that a testimony can be a good or a bad thing depending on what gets said about whom. Which was it here? A good or a bad testimony? And for whom?
The knee-jerk reaction is to think positive. A leper gets healed and welcomed back into fellowship. That’s a good thing. But then we read how the Jesus “sternly” or even “angrily” instructed the ex-leper to offer his testimony and not to say anything to anyone on the way. What was it about this incident that incited Jesus? A leper runs up and begs for help. Jesus, filled with compassion, helps him. Why then the anger? Interestingly, if you happen to be following along in a New English Bible, a New Revised Standard Version Bible or one of the new NIV Bibles (called the TNIV), you’re wondering if you have the wrong passage. Verse 41 does not say that Jesus was filled with compassion when he healed the leper, but that he was indignant, or literally, filled with anger. The discrepancy is due to some ancient manuscripts of Mark reading compassion, and others reading anger. And since we don’t possess Mark’s own writing, all we can do is make an educated guess. So some Bibles guess one way, and others the other way. For Jesus to be “filled with compassion” definitely makes more sense. But that’s the problem. There’s this general rule of thumb that says that the harder reading is probably the original reading. You can imagine some copyist concerned for Jesus’ reputation changing anger to compassion, but not the other way around. So if he was angry, what made Jesus mad?
Maybe he was mad at the interruption. After all, he was on a tight schedule. A lot of towns to hit and sermons to preach, a kingdom to kick off. He was trying to get away from the crowds that were keeping him off schedule when yet another infected person chases him down pleading, perhaps even challenging Jesus to heal him, to which Jesus, now filled with anger, responds, “OK OK!” touches the guy, and still ticked off, tells him he’d better not go blabbing his mouth about this to anybody but head to Jerusalem and do his Levitical duty. While I like the sound of this since it makes Jesus sound more like me, it doesn’t sound a whole lot like Jesus. Therefore some scholars argue that it was the leper who was “filled with anger” because Jesus had skipped him back in town. But if that was the case, why would anyone have ever changed it to “filled with compassion”? Others suggest that Jesus was mad at the devil. That’s always true. Others say he was mad at the disease. The devil and disease do sometimes come as a matched set.
But if Jesus was mad at the devil, why does he then angrily instruct the ex-leper to keep his mouth shut? Not that the ex-lepers does that. He runs his mouth all over everywhere so that Jesus could no longer openly enter any town. He’s forced back out into the desert. The desert (translated here as lonely place) is code for a tempting place, the temptation being that Jesus might be enticed to become a Superstar savior rather a crucified savior. Did Jesus foreknow that the ex-leper couldn’t keep quiet? Is that why he got mad? You’d think that if avoiding stardom was tops on Jesus’ list, then he wouldn’t have healed the leper at all. Maybe Jesus was using reverse psychology. He angrily told the man to keep quiet, knowing he wouldn’t, thereby saving Jesus a trip to some towns. The ex-leper spread the word himself which makes his testimony to them a positive one and the them the crowds with whom he shared the good news.
On the other hand, the testimony to them is at the end of verse 44, connected to Jesus’ instruction about showing the ex-leper himself to the priests and doing what the law required. And as the gospels attest, Jesus’ relationship to the priests and teachers of the law is anything but positive. What if instead the them are the priests and the Pharisees and the testimony to them is an indictment against them and the ways they had distorted the law and burdened the people with legalities the law was never meant to impose? That might explain Jesus’ anger. Perhaps he sternly warns the ex-leper to not speak to anyone until he gets to Jerusalem because he wants the ex-leper to get there quickly to testify negatively against the entire legalistic system that loaded people down with guilt and kept them away from grace. Even though God was still in the cleaning business, the cleanliness code had become corrupted. It was no longer an object lesson in moral purity but a lever with which the Pharisees abusively controlled access to God. It was no longer about purity but about control of the Temple and the levers of the legal system. As Mark and the rest of the gospels bear out, Jesus got really angry about that. In Matthew he rebukes the legalists by saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of wickedness.”
Most Bibles go with compassion in verse 41 because they match up with the actions of Jesus, but anger works just as well. There is a righteous anger that rightly cuts through the abuses of justice and the hypocrisy of pretense. An anger that indicts the way you can put on a clean shirt and show up at church so you can feel OK about all the ways you don’t show up for others. An anger that indicts the way you can shake your head at the plight of the poor but never lift a finger to help. An anger that indicts the way you can extol the goodness of loving your neighbor while you gossip behind their back. An anger that indicts the way you can so celebrate God meeting your needs that you ignore the needs of people right beside you. An anger that indicts the way you can say Jesus’ death for your sins is the most important thing in your life, but then never mention it to anybody who doesn’t know it. An anger that indicts the way you can praise God and receive his mercy and then withhold that same mercy from those who have hurt you. An anger that indicts the way obedience to the ritual replaces what the ritual represents, rightly flashing your blinker to cover making a disastrous lane change.
Even though the plaintiff hired an oily ambulance chaser for a lawyer, we found the defendant, the ambulance driver guilty of negligence. The plaintiff’s testimony and the photos of his car were enough to persuade all twelve of us jurors that the ambulance driver had not looked as he should. The defense lawyer’s insistence that the ambulance driver signaled and that the other driver should have seen it was bogus. To claim to have turned on his blinker was not enough to absolve him from turning to check his blind spot. Had he done that, he would have seen the plaintiff’s car alongside. Not that this meant the plaintiff was going to get rich. He won the case, but his gain was his loss. No way were we going to award the lying plaintiff damages for injuries he never suffered and for pain and suffering that were specious at best. Attempts on both sides to twist the law and work the system for personal benefit, be it exculpation or enrichment, were nothing in our collective minds but legalistic shenanigans. That both sides tried it made all of us mad. There is a righteous anger that rightly cuts through the abuses of justice and the hypocrisy of pretense.
Back in the courtroom, we announced our verdict. I was impressed that justice was done, that the jury system worked and that jury duty hadn’t been so dreadful at all. Afterwards, following thanks from the judge for our work, we jurors all piled into an elevator together, feeling pleased but wondering how the lawyers and their clients felt. Suddenly the elevator doors opened and there they stood. The ambulance chaser and the ambulance driver, heads downcast. We couldn’t help it. We burst out laughing. They looked up and starting laughing too. The truth will set you free. Real justice can make everybody happy.