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Moved with Pity

Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on Feb. 15, 2009.

Psalm 30:1-12; Mark 1:40-45

Now, I know Mark is a short gospel, at least the shortest of the four. Just sixteen chapters, and even though some of you who have the King James Version in your lap will find twenty verses in the final chapter, serious scholarship today says the gospel ends after verse eight. In other words, it’s even shorter than we thought. Somebody added those last twelve verses to make it end more smoothly, but they weren’t original to the gospel. At least that’s what most serious scholars say.

Still, it seems a bit remarkable “ at least it does to me “ that, considering the brevity of Mark’s gospel, we haven’t even gotten out of the first chapter and we’ve already seen three miracles. The first is an exorcism. An evil spirit has invaded the body of a man in Capernaum, and when the demon in the man confronts Jesus in the synagogue as he is teaching, Jesus commands it to come out. And it does. Miracle number one.

After worship, Jesus goes with Simon and his brother Andrew to their home where they find Simon’s mother-in-law burning up with fever. Jesus lifts her up by the hand and the fever is gone, just like that. Miracle number two.

Now, this leper approaches Jesus and asks a miracle from him and Jesus complies. Not only that, Mark tells us that everywhere Jesus went he was casting out demons and doing all sorts of unusual things, not to mention the miracles he performed in Capernaum before he left town. In other words, these three miracles are just the ones that are depicted and explained. Evidently, Jesus performed many more; we just aren’t told explicitly about them. Why, the whole city of Capernaum has come to him to take advantage of his obvious power.

But not now. Now, Jesus has left Capernaum and gone elsewhere, on a ministry tour of Galilee. 1 Everywhere he goes he is confronted by human misery. Human misery knows no geographical boundaries, no social status, no anything… and, at least in Jesus’ day and in the places Jesus went, human misery leads to Jesus’ pity, or compassion, and Jesus’ pity leads to miracles. Here, in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, we’ve already witnessed three.

It’s enough to make your head swim.

Except… except we’ve become a rather skeptical bunch, and our skepticism may come into play in regard to the miracles recorded in the gospels.

I’m sure there are quite a few of you who simply accept all this out of hand. You take the word at its word and believe everything it tells you, just the way it says it happened. But I wonder if there aren’t some closet skeptics in our midst, those who think that if indeed Jesus managed to do all this it must have been in a day and time in which miracles somehow were more commonplace, that they certainly don’t occur today, at least not as they did back then. If your skepticism runs a bit deeper, you may believe these miracles didn’t really happen at all, at least the way they’ve been reported, that the stories have been embellished in order to make them more dramatic and in the process make Jesus look good, make him look more divine.

And remember: this was two thousand years ago. Science wasn’t exactly their strong suit. Superstition largely ruled the day. The people who lived back then saw miracles and supernatural events in just about anything. Long after the Bible was written, a total eclipse of the sun occurred and the people in Europe thought the world was coming to an end when darkness came in the middle of an otherwise cloudless day. Why shouldn’t the more gullible people in Jesus’ day believe in miracles?

But we don’t, at least not like they did back then.

Even that venerable scholar William Barclay, whose commentaries some of the veteran Sunday School teachers here this morning have used in the preparation of their lessons, thought Jesus’ feeding miracle was really due to the generosity of the people… that once they saw how a little boy was willing to share his meager meal they too were more willing to give their provisions to those around them, and as they did the food began to appear and multiply. In other words, Barclay didn’t believe a miracle literally took place, that to what extent there was a miracle it was really more of a changing of the hearts of those who were there. The miracle was one of generosity, not the supernatural. That’s the way Barclay saw it.

How about you? There may be some here today who agree, might even go beyond that… who would say it wasn’t just the feeding miracle that didn’t literally happen… that it was superstition that led first-century people to believe in demon-possession and such, and that people like Jesus took advantage of the situation with their sleight of hand. If there is anyone here today who believes like that… well, you’ve managed to keep your views to yourself, haven’t you?

I don’t blame you, don’t blame you at all.

May I speak to the skeptics for just a moment, just in case there are any here today? My late friend John Claypool discusses Jesus’ miracles in his little book The Hopeful Heart.2 You would have had to have known John, or heard him preach, or read his books, to appreciate and understand the way he used words. Let me give you an example. There are times, he says, when for God’s own inscrutable purposes, God chooses to break in from a transcendent dimension and alter the circumstances in which we find ourselves. You see what I mean? It’s Claypool’s way of explaining miracles: God breaking in from a transcendent dimension and altering our circumstances.

Works for me. How about you?

Is that what Jesus does here? We know one thing: this leper, who knows nothing of transcendent dimensions or altering circumstances, but whose life, because of his disease, has been turned into shambles and has heard about Jesus and his power, and wonders if the Nazarene might have pity on him as he has heard Jesus has had with others, approaches Jesus and begins the conversation with the word if. If you choose, the man says, you can make me clean.

That word if has been used with Jesus before.

Do you recall the story of the man with the epileptic boy? Again, in that day and in that culture of belief, the boy’s behavior was attributed to demon-possession. But the father explains his son’s condition in such a way that it is fairly unmistakable. The boy has epilepsy, and experiences seizures. Jesus’ disciples have preceded him and the father has pleaded his case to them. They’ve tried to do something about the boy’s situation, but have been unable to do so. When Jesus arrives, the father asks him to intervene, and he uses the word if.

If you are able to do anything, have pity on us… And do you recall Jesus’ reaction? He becomes angry. If you are able?! If you are able?! He doesn’t appreciate, not at all, the man calling his ability and power into question. All things can be done for the one who believes, Jesus says. All things can be done. And that is when the father follows with the famous response, I believe; help my unbelief (Mark 9:14-29).

But that’s not how the word if is used here; not with the leper. And Jesus does not respond with anger, but with pity or compassion. What is the difference? What causes Jesus’ response here to be softer, more understanding, more compassionate? The man says, If you choose to do this. He doesn’t question Jesus’ ability, only his willingness.

How you ask something of someone can be very important, more so even than what you ask for. I remember those times when our children would say something like this: Would you like to do this for me? And I would respond by saying, That’s the wrong question. Okay, will you do this for me? There is a difference, isn’t there?

Or how about this one… Have you ever had someone ask something of you in such a way that he or she is really making more of a demand than a request? It’s as if the person is obligating you to do what is asked, bordering on arrogance. There’s a scene in the western Santee where Glenn Ford says to a young man who tells him what he needs to do. Don’t tell me my gots, boy! We get that quite a bit in the church office, from people who come to us asking for help. Sometimes they don’t ask, they demand. They tell us our gots. It’s as if, because we’re a church, we’re supposed to help them, regardless of the circumstances or their attitude.

Well, if there is anything that will knock the arrogance out of you, it is leprosy, especially in the first century. The man believes Jesus has the ability to help him, he just isn’t yet convinced Jesus is willing to do it. The way he frames his question reveals that he has complete confidence Jesus has the ability to heal him. He just isn’t sure about Jesus’ motive. And because of his humility, Jesus takes pity on him.

Except… there are some excepts in this story, but this is the biggest one… some translations of Mark’s story say Jesus was moved with anger. Not pity, anger. Why? How? Would Jesus be angry with the leper for approaching him and putting him at risk of being unclean? Could be, I suppose. But it wouldn’t be very consistent with the way Jesus dealt with others in this kind of situation. It just doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it? So let’s rule that one out.

Maybe Jesus was angry at the illness itself, that leprosy and crippling diseases and demon-possession and all manner of human miseries are not in keeping with God’s ultimate will, and Jesus expresses his wrath toward that which God never intended his human creation to have to endure.

I’ll level with you. If Jesus was indeed angry at this point, this is the explanation that appeals to me. After all, how many times have you heard that someone “ maybe a close friend or loved one “ has contracted cancer? How would you measure your response? Isn’t it a combination of several emotions: sadness, fear, grief, unhappiness, pity, anger?

I mean, aren’t you getting tired of cancer? Read the obituaries and how often does it say someone departed this life after a long and (what?) courageous battle with cancer. You know why it says that? Because when a person contracts this disease it claims every waking moment, it drains all of one’s emotions, it stakes a major claim on one’s time and financial resources. Everything else has to be put on hold, or stopped altogether, to fight the good fight against this terrible disease, whatever form it chooses to take. That is not only true for those who are ill, but for all those who know and love them as well. Aren’t you (please excuse what is not meant to be a humorous pun) just sick of cancer? Doesn’t its very presence make you angry?

Don’t you think that may be a possible explanation for this moment when Jesus sees this man whose life has been torn apart by this debilitating disease? To see how broken and humble he is because of it?

You may be wondering what this has to do with you. You’re healthy, or at least reasonably so. Thank God for modern medicine, you say. And whether Jesus was moved with pity or was angry, this has little or nothing to do with you. Well, as you might guess, I would encourage you to think again. Why? Because of what Jesus does next. He commands that this man tell no one of what has happened. Of course, that is not what the man does. He goes around telling anybody who will listen.

I once was lost, but now am found. It is a universal story told by those who have ever been touched by Jesus, and this leper is certainly no different. In writing about this story from Mark’s gospel, Fred Craddock says, One wonders if the Christian cause might not be better served if only those who had something significant to report were allowed to speak, all others keeping quiet.

Good idea! you’re thinking. That let’s me off the hook! Well, think again. If you have ever “ ever “ come into contact with Jesus, and he took pity on you in any form, then you have something significant to report. In fact, if you were truly grateful to Jesus, as was this leper, no one would be able to shut you up.

So let us leave this story with a blessing, a benediction, if you will. Here it is. May the good Lord have pity on you… and may you then have something significant to report.

Lord, indeed, have pity on us. And then may you finding us sharing your compassion with others who need your pity too. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.