by Michael Usey, Mark 1.40-45 (MSG)
The healing of the man with leprosy is a wonderful story of Jesus’ power over the destructive forces in this world. It comes at the conclusion of the first chapter. The first chapter of Mark is there as an introduction to who Jesus is. The first chapter of Mark has four healing miracle stories in a row, back to back.
In fact, there are five in this series. The fifth one opens up the second chapter, the story of the healing of the paralytic, who is lowered down to Jesus through the roof of a house. Jesus heals him, and then declares that he was healed because of the faith of his friends. It too is a remarkable story. So it is obvious. Mark, especially Mark, wants us to know that Jesus has come in order to heal. And that is brought home to us in this first chapter, back to back stories of healing.
In this fourth story of healing, the leper says, “If you will, you can make me clean.” That is there to testify his faith that Jesus has the power over the forces in this world that are destroying life. “If you will, you can. You have the power to heal, to make me clean.”
In the first chapter there is a progression of seriousness in the cases that are brought to Jesus. It begins with an unclean spirit, evidently a piece of cake. Then Peter’s mother-in-law, who is ill, she’s got the flu or something. Then in the third incident, they bring a multitude of people who have ills, and he heals them, and he casts out demons.
Now the fourth one, the serious problem. In fact, leprosy would be the hardest test for any healer to heal. For people in those days, it is the most terrible, the most fearsome, of all the diseases that plague humankind, for which in those days there was no cure. So can he do it? That’s the suspense. He can do common miracles, whatever that is, but does he have the power over the most terrible, the most frightening disease of the ancient world, leprosy?
“If you will,” the leper says, “you can do it.” Jesus reaches out and touches him, and heals him. Then he tells the man, “Go show yourself to the priest,” because that was the law. The priest was required to certify that indeed there had been a cure, so the banishment of this man would be lifted and he would be restored to the community. That’s the story. And I want us to use that ancient story to say something about healing in our time.
There is a big question about one word of the original Greek text of this passage. Some of the ancient manuscripts, and so some translations, say that Jesus was splagchnizomai–moved with compassion. But other ancient manuscripts, and a few translations, say Jesus was orgizthomai —becoming angry. Angry! What an odd and uncomfortable idea. There are good arguments for either one being the original word, but most of our English translations choose to represent Jesus as compassionate, rather than angry. Yet angry, being the more difficult reading, is probably the original word. Could Jesus be angry with our spiritual leprosy?
I said earlier that Mark is writing to show Jesus has the power over the forces in this world that are destroying life. Disease and particularly covid 19 destroy life of course, but what struck me was how racism and prejudice are the forces destroying our lives currently in America in 2021. In fact, leprosy is a condition that turns human skin pearly white, before it rots the skin away. I’ve been in Panama to what we use to call leper colonies, where people living with leprosy live and work, most of whom are blind by the way. Perhaps the skin epidemic that we need to be healed from is our leprosy of the soul, our racism. However, we will have to cooperate with Jesus’ healing, and actually do something, lest my words and our convictions just become performative wokeness.
According to geneticists, most of us are Africans, at least in one sense. The mitochondria in my cells, as well as in most of yours, tell us that we are descended from a matriarch who lived in Africa, possibly in present day Ethiopia or Kenya. She lived 70,000 years ago and seems to be a common ancestor of all Asians as well as all of what we call Caucasians. This kind of analysis is part of a scientific debate about whether there is anything instructive in our ideas about race. Most biologists now say that there is no genetic basis for any kind of rigid racial classification. There is no white DNA or black gene. We are all closely related. Race is biologically meaningless. Genetic markers associated with Africans can turn up in people who look entirely white. Indians and Pakistanis may have dark skin, but genetic markers show that they are Caucasians.
Another complication is that African Americans are, on average, about seventeen percent white. They have mitochondria (maternally inherited) that are African, but they often have European Y chromosomes. In other words, white men raped or seduced their maternal ancestors. I have relatives who would not be pleased to learn that all of us have an ancestry that includes a variety of races. Scientists are increasingly certain that race should not be a category. Theoretically, this knowledge makes a mockery of prejudice. But even if scientists understand that race is not real, racism is.
When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that a Negro counted as 60% of a person. Economically, that number has not changed much. Black per capita income in the US is 59% of Whites. There is a growing wage gap between Blacks and Whites. The gap between Black and White annual household incomes is $29,000 per year. Black Americans are over twice as likely to live in poverty as White Americans. Black children are three times as likely to live in poverty as White children.
According to data from 2020, lenders deny mortgages to Black applicants at a rate 80% higher than that of Whites. A study by the Harvard Business School says that having a “black-sounding” name on a resume leads to fewer job interviews. Does it surprise any of us to learn that Black Americans are receiving Covid vaccinations at dramatically lower rates than White Americans? Numerous studies have documented racial discrimination in education, employment, housing, health care, and insurance. White people do not always recognize how much easier it is for them to get inside the door.
The biblical word for it is blindness. Jesus, for example, does not say that rich people are deliberately bad or mean. He says they are blind. They cannot see. It is the ultimate expression of white privilege to say, “I’m not going to pay attention to this horrible thing going on because it makes me sad.” Only those of us safely out of harm’s way could make such choices. Only those of us living above the poverty line, outside the target zone of racism, could dare say we are going to avert our eyes from an anti-Black economic and political system of control that offers white people status over others.
Every day African-Americans have to overcome circumstances that most of us do not have to think about. To be black in America is to be unsure if the job you did not get was due to the color of your skin, to be more likely to be stopped by the police, and to know that some people do not want you living next door—and they have never even met you. The African-American poet Langston Hughes writes, “O yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me.” If you don’t know that remarkable poem, I commend it to you.
We watched with horror as white supremacists invaded the Capitol last month, and Wednesday most of us saw new shocking footage of protestors torturing capitol police. Like most Americans, we were shocked and dismayed by the destruction, but we were not surprised. The seeds of this violence have been sown for centuries. These seeds have been deep in the racism of American history for more than 400 years. White people could storm the Capitol with weapons and feel safe enough to take selfies. While at that same location, peaceful demonstrators who marched to protest the murders of unarmed African Americans were met with military force.
Huge numbers of Americans believe in a complete alternate reality with alternate facts. Just as intensely as I believe they are deluded, they think I am the one who is deluded. So how can I be confident in my perception? Here is a useful rule of thumb I borrowed from a friend Brett Younger. In times of political confusion, particularly when emotions are running high and creating tunnel vision, the presence of Nazis can be a helpful indicator. If you are attending a demonstration and see Nazis—neo-Nazis, casual Nazis, master race Nazis, surf Nazis, the latest whatever-Nazis—figure out which side they are on. And if Nazis are on your side, you are on the wrong side. It is tough to argue that there are good people on both sides when you are standing next to a Nazi. Look to your right. Is there a guy wearing a “Six million wasn’t enough” t-shirt? You are on the wrong side. Look to your left. If that guy is wearing a Camp Auschwitz t-shirt, you are on the wrong side. Some things are relative, and politics has opposing sides and grey areas. But one of the lessons of history is that when the Nazis are with you, you are on the wrong side. Always.
Sometimes the choice is not between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, left and right. Sometimes the choice is between good and evil. Our system is evil whenever we act as if White American lives are more valuable than Black American lives. Black citizens are stopped, charged, and murdered by police officers in numbers disproportionate to the rest of the population.
For example, Blacks and Whites use marijuana at about the same rate, yet blacks are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possession. The incarceration rate for Black Americans is nearly six times the rate for White Americans. Unarmed Black people have been killed in this country for nothing more than trying to live. Treyvon Martin was walking home. Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in his own neighborhood. Breonna Taylor was sleeping in her bed. If we think any life is less valuable than ours, then we do not understand Jesus. The church has often failed at this point.
Years ago one of my heroes Clarence Jordan (Greek scholar and Koinoni Farmers founder) saw a tombstone that read: “Here lies J. H. S. In his lifetime he killed 99 Indians and lived in the blessed hope of making it 100 until he fell asleep in the arms of Jesus.” Jordan thought it ironic: “You could kill 99 Indians, fall asleep in the arms of Jesus and be buried in the church cemetery. But if you killed one white man, you fell asleep in the noose. We in the church learned to limit our love to our own race.”
Within the church, discrimination is usually more subtle than it used to be. Churches have learned to say, “We’ll welcome anyone who will act like us.” Sunday morning at eleven is still the most segregated hour in America. But it is also true that when we look at Jesus’ influence through history, we see that though progress has been slow, Jesus pushes the community that bears his name. The church did welcome Gentiles. Churches like College Park fought against descrimination. Many churches worked against segregation and apartheid. We have a long way to go, but we can look to Christ who leads us forward.
Jesus heals us and teaches us that God loves us all equally. No favoritism. No caste system. No pecking order. No legacy admission status. Jesus forces his listeners to struggle with the way we look down on others. None of us think of ourselves as racists, but none of us are free of bigotry. We judge others by how they look. We quickly decide who can be our friend. Some of our racism comes from our families. Some comes from the institutional racism we have gotten used to. People have been racist for a long time, and we carry that legacy, but some of our racism is the result of choices we have made.
We need to ask ourselves hard questions if we would embrace Jesus’ healing of our spiritual leprosy:
- Do those of us who are white recognize the unearned advantage we have compared to colleagues of color?
- Are we honest about the prejudice that lies deep within us?
- Are we willing to examine the ways we secretly believe that our group, whoever that may be, is superior to other groups?
- Do we make assumptions about others on the basis of the color of their skin?
- Do we prefer people who look like us?
- Do we vote for equal opportunities for those who have gotten the short end of the stick?
- Do we realize that if racism seems like someone else’s problem, then we are part of the problem?
- Are we complacent or concerned?
- Are we impatient with anything less than justice?
- Do we celebrate our differences?
- Have we confessed the apathy we hide?
- Do we let worship penetrate our hearts enough to say, “God, show me the ways in which I am prejudiced”?
John Lewis said, “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.” We are people of hope. We believe Jesus can heal us from our spiritual leprosy. We believe in repentance and rising to walk in newness of life, empowered by the Spirit and guided by the teachings of Christ. We work for peace and justice. We love each other because we are all the children of God.