In the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45 the text reads in the NRSV, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” There is a footnote that says, “Other ancient authorities read anger.” There are some manuscripts that read that Jesus was moved with anger rather than pity or compassion. In fact, many interpreters believe the reading, “moved with anger” is the original reading. The reason being that a scribe copying the manuscript would have more likely changed the original “anger” to “pity” than vice versa. The more difficult reading is more likely to be the original reading. One can make sense of why a scribe might change “anger” to “compassion” much easier than why a scribe would change “compassion” to “anger.”
So let’s suppose that “moved to anger” is the original reading. Who or what is Jesus angry at? Surely, he is not angry with the leper for asking him to heal him. He might be angry at the disease itself and the suffering it caused, the same way we might be angry at cancer and the suffering it causes. But he might also be angry at his religious system that treated some of God’s precious children as “lesser” human beings meriting condemnation.
Lepers were not just sick or diseased, they were judged spiritually and morally “unclean.” The word “unclean” is a telling phrase isn’t it? The leper became something of a scapegoat who was made to bear the community’s fears, prejudices, anxieties, insecurities, and animosity. There are those who do the same today with undocumented immigrants, LGBT persons, and people of other nationalities and religions.
This feature of Judaism that angered Jesus can be found in all religions. In the Gospels Judaism functions as a kind of archetypal religion. The patterns we see in the Gospels with respect to Judaism are patterns that are present in Christianity and all religious faiths. So when Jesus challenges the unhealthy religious beliefs and practices of Judaism, he is also challenging the same thing in Christianity. Immature, unhealthy religion emphasizes degrees of worthiness that are rooted in a “holiness of separation.”
Jesus, on the other hand, was characterized by a holiness of compassion and inclusion, though he challenged the system from within and never separated from Judaism. Jesus was a marginal Jew for sure, who lived out on the edge, but he was clearly a Jew who functioned within Judaism. For after he made the leper whole, he instructed him to show himself to the priest and offer the appropriate sacrifice; in other words, comply with the requirements for reentrance into the community.
What we see in Jesus as the Son of Man, the quintessential human being, is a development and growth in spiritual and moral consciousness from exclusion to inclusion, from either/or, in or out, right or wrong, dualistic thinking to both/and, big picture, large story thinking that brings everything together and holds everything together. Unfortunately, the rest of us have not evolved much in two millennium. Look what we have done with Jesus through most of Christian history. We have used Jesus to create in and out groups, and we have turned the great boundary breaker into just another boundary maker.
(This blog was first posted at Baptist News Global Perspectives)