by Christine Wenderoth
Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry
1:40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean."
1:41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" 1:42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 1:43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 1:44 saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." 1:45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
And so we have a miracle. And I ask: What are miracles? What are they for? Why do religious folk feel the need to pepper their faith with incredible episodes and unbelievable events? Why can’t trust in God be described soberly, reasonably?
I know miracle stories are not confined to the Bible. A couple of weeks ago I discovered to my amazement that my husband had sprung for the Showtime movie package on our DirectTV. [A miracle! No.] All these movie channels in High Def! So I’m rummaging around up there in the 500s and run across The Green Mile. Remember it from about twelve years ago starring Tom Hanks and the amazing Michael Duncan?
I settle in to re-watch it. The on-line description says “Green Mile follows the odd relationship between prison guard Paul Edgecomb (Hanks) and Death Row inmate John Coffey (Duncan). Set in a Southern prison in 1935, Edgecomb oversees alleged killers who await the electric chair. But the enormous Coffey, convicted of raping and murdering two young sisters, confounds the guard. Aside from his childlike and gentle personality, Coffey seems to possess miraculous healing powers.” I like that: “Coffey seems to possess miraculous healing powers.” DirectTV is not going to go out on a limb here. The man seems to possess healing powers. But I’ll go out on a limb. I saw the movie, and I saw John Coffey display miraculous powers, most often for healing. I know what I saw.
Or I think I know what I saw. The first time I saw this movie, back when it came out, my husband Tom and I were both so unnerved by it, we talked into the night, about the role of miracles in a story about faith and healing and redemption (which The Green Mile is). And why couldn’t a story about faith and healing and redemption have been told without miracles? Why would a good storyteller, be he Stephen King (who wrote The Green Mile) or be he Mark, need to resort to the cheap trick of miracles to get across the power of faith and healing and redemption? Or, more to the point, maybe, how can they ask us to believe that stuff about miracles? It makes the faith and healing and redemption suspect; it puts everything in the story--the mundane as well as the miraculous--on the same plane as magic or voodoo or, at the very least, gross exaggeration.
So, you can imagine, that when I opened my Bible to read the passage for today’s service, and found this story in Mark of Jesus healing a leper in very much the same way John Coffey heals in The Green Mile, I was not… delighted. I groaned, in fact. Oh goodie: a miracle. And all my questions leapt back at me: What are miracles? What are they for? Why do we need these in order to tell the story of Jesus in a powerful, convincing way? How, in this scientific day and age, do we account for these? The Green Mile is bad enough, but it’s only a movie. Here is the authoritative witness to our Christian faith, the Word of God proclaiming this miracle to us. What to do?
Let me say, for starters, I don’t want to weasel out of this. I don’t want to explain this healing away as some kind of pseudo-medical event, just one of those things that happens all the time, even in modern hospitals, mysteries. Nor is this simply a foreign world view that misunderstood cause and effect, and got the sequencing wrong. Nor is this a poorly remembered tale that got gobbled and exaggerated in some kind of game of biblical telephone. No, let’s take this for what it is. Jesus said “Be made clean,” and the man who had tried everything for years and years to no avail was “immediately....made clean.” It’s pretty clear cut.
To get at what’s going on, let’s back up. Who is a leper? What does he bring to this story? Well, we know that leprosy is a disease of the skin, and therefore a disease of appearance. A leper cannot hide the condition; in fact, it’s the first thing you notice about such a person. And what you notice is that the leper is grotesque and deformed. For all we say about appearances not mattering, people are generally repulsed by such deformity. It challenges our sense of normalcy and rightness. It raises the specter of our becoming “like that”. And it generates fear of contamination. And so lepers were treated as outcasts, banded together into colonies where they were kept in permanent quarantine, where they could not offend, where they could not infect, where they could not exercise any power over their own lives.
In biblical times, the fear of contamination by leprosy was of two kinds: physical and spiritual. Though we know now that leprosy is a disease of a bacillus, then there was simply the awareness of possible contagion. The disease spreads. More devastating to the leper, it was thought that the disease was deserved and must, therefore, be a just punishment for some moral or spiritual sin. For a normal person to be touched by such impurity was truly frightening. Like dirty words and pornographic books, a leper’s physical condition might infect a pure soul. A leper was, quite simply, the most disgusting, disquieting person there could be. A leper had sinned, and therefore was ugly and dangerous.
So, the leper’s function in our story from Mark is plain: a leper is the most terrifying sort of person there is. He is the one who brings physical and social and spiritual contagion into the story. He is the last person on earth one would want to touch. And he is paradoxically at one and the same time the most dangerous and the least powerful person in society.
Now, before we go relegating the leper to a distant time and place, let me tell you a very painful story. Twenty-five years ago my sister, then 27 years old, became ill with colon cancer. When she was so very, very ill and in great pain, she would ask, “What did I do wrong? What did I do to bring this on to myself?” This, from a young woman who was only marginally a Christian, and who certainly did not believe in a God who manipulated diseases so as to punish sinners. What this says to me is that, while our rational selves dispute the punishment theory of disease, somehow the notion of disease as punishment lives on in us. Suffering, to be understood, must be somehow deserved… or else it makes no sense. Put yet another way: let us not be so quick to condemn the superstitions of an earlier time. We harbor these “superstitions”, too. Because we want suffering to be understandable.
My story is not quite over. I have a photograph of my sister and me sitting on a couch, taken about three months before she died. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I see it now: I’m sitting with my arm around her, but my body is clearly arched away from her. I was afraid to touch her. I’m not proud of this, but I was afraid of contamination. We all know cancer is not contagious, right? And yet, we are afraid. We fear contamination. We know leprosy, not only in our irrational fear of AIDS, the sort of modern day leprosy, but in our fear of all disease and terrifying brokenness. We know leprosy in cancer, in alcoholism, in mental illness, in crushing poverty, in all those things that are beyond our control and make us afraid. So, who is the leper? The leper is the person we fear; the leper is the person we don’t want to touch. The leper is the one who brings chaos into our ordered life and who we therefore cast out. The leper in Mark’s story brings our fear into the story with him.
If the leper is the outcast who we don’t want to touch, what does it mean for Jesus to heal him? What exactly needs healing? Well, clearly the physical disease needs healing. The man is dying. He wants to live and thrive, but by himself cannot. But more than that, the leper wants to be touched. He wants to be included once again in human embrace; he wants to be included once again in human community and human regard. What needs healing, more than his physical body, are the social relations that have been disrupted and disfigured by lesions of the skin. And, indeed, what does Jesus do? “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” Jesus healed by touching the person no one else dared touch. Jesus healed by restoring human community. Healing, then, is a matter of repaired social relationships, of right relations recovered.
But what are miracles? What are they for? How is Jesus’ healing touch miraculous? Let’s look at two curious features of Mark’s story.
First, the leper tells Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” By itself, this is a statement in the leper’s confidence in Jesus, or maybe even a dare. It also puts the ball in Jesus’ court. “If you choose.....” implying that “if I am not made clean it is because you do not choose.” Jesus for his turn replies emphatically, “I do choose.” “I do not do this thing casually. I act intentionally here. I have the freedom to do otherwise, but I do this.”
OK, good enough. Now, put this together with the second odd feature of this story, the beginning of verse 41. My NRSV Bible says, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” Moved with pity. But other translations, equally good ones, read, “Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand.” The new Common English Bible says, “Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand.” My NRSV Bible has a footnote at this point that says anger may be the original.
We can understand why Jesus would be moved to pity for the suffering leper. But why would he be moved to anger? At whom would he be angry? The pitiable albeit insistent leper? Maybe. But I think Jesus’ anger is directed elsewhere and leads us to an insight about miracle. Jesus is angry at those who have cast this leper away, who have refused the human touch. Jesus is angry that society’s answer to this man’s physical distress has been to cause social and, yes, political distress. The man has literally no one else besides Jesus to whom he can turn for help. The priests, the doctors, the nurses, the politicians, all those people in society who should care for the diseased and distressed have all turned their backs on this man. This makes Jesus angry. And it is Jesus’ anger that is the miracle.
It is Jesus’ anger that is the miracle. That sure sounds like a weasel to me! I can understand maybe how touching someone and treating them like a complete human being is healing. I can understand how reinstating someone to the human community is restorative. But where’s the miracle in that? Anyone can do that! Anyone can do that. I can do that.
That’s right. Anyone can perform miracles. Jesus did them. Apparently, Elisha did them. And maybe you can, too. What’s the miracle in Mark’s story? The elimination of skin lesions? Or the regard of the leper as a human being, entitled to pity and care and touch, no matter what the priests and politicians and pillars of society had declared? Well, maybe both, but certainly the latter. Jesus looked at a leper and saw, not a disease or a threat, but a child of God. No one else had been able to do that! No one else was brave or imaginative enough to go around the established channels of society and do that.
Let’s go back to The Green Mile. What was the miracle in that movie? The curing of disease? Or the fact that a condemned man completely, blatantly outside the channels of respectable society looked at a fellow sufferer and saw, not a disease, not a threat, but a child of God. The movie makes it difficult to decide. Because you the movie-goer can actually see the miracle happening, and it sure looks like magic to the plain eye.
But then again.....what you see on the screen when you watch The Green Mile is a story told by Paul, the prison warden. You see it all through his words, as he tells a friend about this most incredible thing that happened to him so many years ago. And we have to believe Paul, the guard, the storyteller because his testimony is really all that we have to go on. And so, in a very real sense what we see, sitting there in our living room is not how a prisoner looked at a fellow sufferer and saw neither disease nor threat but a child of God.
No, what we really see is how a prison warden looked at a prisoner, a criminal and saw neither disease nor threat....but a child of God. We see, in other words, how John Coffey, the gentle, childlike condemned man touched the storyteller, the warden, Paul. We see how John Coffey made a believer out of Paul [not on the Damascus Road, but on the Green Mile!]. The miracle, the real miracle, in the movie is how a convict, a leper of society affected the life of a guard by going around the very channels the guard supported and work for. The miracle is that the social relationship between Paul the guard and John the prisoner was repaired. No longer were they guard and prisoner; they were able to see past the obvious, to see that through and under it all they were brothers, children of God.
Yes, miracles abound. Miracles happened long ago and miracles happen today. And what are miracles, but the power of God to circumvent the usual arrangement of things in this world in order to reveal our common kinship in God. We--all of us, the sick, the sinful, the scum of the earth--are children of God. Getting to that… is the miracle. No wonder the leper “went out and began to proclaim it freely”!