“He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp” – frightening and dreadful words. Spoken to a people in the wilderness, a people on the Exodus betwixt and between the slavery of Egypt and the promised land of Palestine. Words that ban, isolate, shun, and place someone beyond the connection to the community. These are words spoken to family and friends that pushed them from the routine of life into the wilderness. In modern life, we have our own words, instances, texts, and posts that push others into a more modern wilderness.
Imagine yourself in the wilderness of the Exodus or the aloneness of modern life. In both instances there are barren landscapes, quiet with only the wind moving among the brush and brambles, among the hustle and bustle. You are outside the circle of safety when the evening comes; outside the circle of companionship; away from the comforting touch of those who love.
Such is the state of things in our Gospel when the leper came to Jesus. Such can be the state of things when people, in their need, their loneliness, their burdens turn to us. How are we to respond? Well… how did Jesus respond?
Compassion: Mark doesn’t often relate Jesus’ psychological state, but he does here. When Jesus sees this man approach him in need, Jesus’ first response is compassion, not judgment. There is no inquiry: “What have you done to cause this to happen?” Or reprimand: “Stop embarrassing yourself on your knees and, what’s more, keep your distance.” Or demand: “What will you do with your life if I heal you?” Or any of the countless other possible responses. No, he just feels compassion. And something is revealed to us about God by Jesus, the Word made flesh, Son of God. God is not primarily judgmental, or directive, or demanding, but compassionate.
Intimate: There is an intimacy to touch that we can take for granted. Ask the elderly, the ill, the depressed, or the isolated just how rare and beautiful human touch is and you may be surprised (or maybe just reminded) that there are few gestures as profound, loving, and healing as human touch. Jesus could have healed with a word, with a gesture, or with a command, but instead he reaches out to touch him. Here, too, is God’s character revealed, as we discover a God so eager to be in relationship with us that God takes on our form and flesh, assumes our lot and our life, so that God can reach out to touch us in love.
Mindful: Jesus does more than simply respond to the man’s plea; he affirms his deepest hopes that, though a leper, he still has value, dignity, worth. That he is, finally, a child of God. Here we are again greeted by God’s often surprising and always uncontrollable mercy and grace. As Jonah learned the hard way, God is indeed “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2). God is often far more willing and eager to bless than we are to be blessed.
Giving: These acts of mercy, while perhaps free, nevertheless cost Jesus. There is, an exchange going on here, as this man, now healed, is also restored to his community, now Jesus can no longer travel freely or even enter the towns anymore. Love always costs something. We don’t know why Jesus asked the man to be silent. Maybe it was because he knew this would make it difficult to walk and talk and preach and heal freely. Whatever the reason, and whatever the risk, he nevertheless heals, heedless of the cost. He trades places with this man — losing his freedom that this man may find his — out of love. Love costs. Ask any parent, or grandparent, or lover, or friend. Yet that is what we find in God.
Compassionate, intimate, mindful, and giving – such is the nature of God – things that too often are not my natural response. Things about which I have to be mindful, deliberate, and left wondering after all these years why aren’t I more like Christ. After all these years of practice, why isn’t it easier to be those things.
This was a week during which I was continually placed in situations where compassion, the gentle touch, a mindfulness, and a willing heart – in other words being like Christ – I wish had come easier, more naturally. But you know what? We don’t have to rush from event to event, meeting to meeting, encounter to encounter. We think we do, we feel compelled to, but we don’t really have to. We can pause, take a breath, remind ourselves that somewhere on the other side of impatience, annoyance, irritation, exasperation and all their cousins, is a pause in the day when we can remember. We can place ourselves in the gospel scene: “A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’” And remember that Jesus’ response will reveal God to the leper. Say a small prayer that we too can reveal God in that next event, meeting, encounter, conversation or whatever. Ask for what you need. God will ever give us the grace to be compassionate, intimate, mindful and giving.
We can choose to use the grace; to let it infuse our better nature.
And in choosing, we will reveal the very nature of God.
It is all there on the other side of a pause and a prayer.