Conflict Comes..., Epiphany 6 (B) - 2006

February 12, 2006

Conflict comes in the religious community as well as in the secular world! We have all heard of the inevitable collision between two ships on the sea traveling the same course toward each other. There is no time to change direction.

So it is in our gospel lesson for today. Jesus’ action in showing compassion to an “outsider” and healing the leper puts him in great conflict with the ruling priests of the temple and the commandments of Moses. His authority threatens the legitimacy of the scribes, and his concern for human need tears at the traditions of the established church.

As with most conflicts, it happens very innocently. Jesus takes compassion on a leper and does what would have been a no-no in his time: he touches the diseased man. Many of the scribes were already unhappy with “this preacher” who seemed to be challenging the roots of their orthodox faith. This act of inappropriate behavior seemed to be the last straw. Leprosy was probably the most hopeless disease in those early days of Jesus. Not much different than the stigma AIDS has in our society today. Lepers were so grotesque, respectable society labeled them contagious and sent them into exile. It was even customary for a leper entering a community to cry out, “Unclean, unclean,” where he walked. Lepers were condemned to die in isolation.

Yet what did Jesus do when the leper spoke to him and said, “If you choose, you can make me clean”? This is the ultimate test of the personal relationship Jesus has with those in need. He will, through his ministry, meet the full range of physical needs: blindness, blood disorders, epilepsy, palsy, paralysis, and even insanity. Jesus does the same today, when we, in our own struggles of pain and disease cry out in hope that we will be healed. We may not have leprosy, but in our mind and in our circumstances, we say through our faith process, “If you choose you can make me whole.”

Christians are a people of faith and hope and compassion. Jesus is the healer on his terms and in his good time. We may not understand the answers we get to our cry for help, but we can never doubt that, as a believer, Jesus is working in our life and through the gifts of others to touch us at whatever point of need will be best for us.

As with the leper, Jesus responds with the deepest of human feelings. As with us, he knows the full range of human emotion. He knows our joy, he feels our anger, he senses our disappointments, he experiences our laughter. He is with us in our impatience and endures our surprises; he celebrates our exhilaration and is saddened by our times of depression. Of all these feelings, compassion stands out as the deepest of all emotions and is the truest expression of the heart of Jesus. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is a rather large Christian congregation called “The Guts Church.” It gets its fair share of “jokes” because of its name. A friend told me that “guts,” in our modern vernacular, would translate into what the Greeks would have called compassion in the days of Jesus. Indeed this congregation is committed to serve the most needy, moist disenfranchised in the community with compassion.

When Jesus is moved with compassion, He feels so deeply the suffering of the leper that it is just as if He himself is suffering as a leper. Jesus was not moved with pity, sympathy, or empathy. Each are too superficial or condescending. Jesus saw the need of this individual -- just as he sees the need of so many more -- with a hand-on-hand, heart-for-heart, gut-for-gut reaction. He feels His way into the leper’s needs. Jesus goes beyond compassion: he reached out and touched the leper. He violated every medical warning and social taboo. By touching the leper Jesus lets the leper know that He will take his place not just as a man with a contagious disease but as one who is socially contaminated as well. When we read this story we can not help but feel how little we know of true compassion!

One of the great stories of compassion that has the mark of Jesus all over it involves an elderly crippled lady who lived in Missouri during World War II. She spent most days lying on a day bed, knitting socks and other garments for her church’s thrift shop. Her husband was a small-town newspaper publisher, and he came home one day and told her that the son of a friend of theirs had been killed on the battlefields of Europe. She asked him, “What can I do for his mother? I pray for the soldiers, but I want to do more.” His response was, “Lou, you have a compassionate spirit. Write his mother a note and let her know how much you love her and that her son is in the arms of Jesus.” She did just that. For the next three years she wrote more than 300 notes to mothers who had sons killed in the war. She showed her compassion by touching the lives of hurting people. She was a servant of the grace of Jesus.

We can do no less. We can be the hands that touch a wounded soul. We can express the words that soothe a wounded spirit. We can be the arms that hold and hug a person who may be dying. We can be the friend who sits and listens and loves another because we see a special child of God in need.

We all have choices to make. Jesus had a choice to make. He could conform to the status quo of the temple or risk limiting his ministry by provoking the opposition. Later in Mark’s gospel it is said of Jesus, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” What a cost for compassion! Jesus has to give up his ministry in the city temple for the sake of a single soul. It became necessary for people to come looking for Jesus in out-of-the-way places like deserts, tiny villages, and along the seashores. Yet they came in thousands to hear his message and to find healing of body, mind, and spirit.

The leper, although instructed by Jesus to tell no one, went out and proclaimed his healing freely to the world. This action escalated the conflict in Jesus’ life. The more he served his Father, the more he came in conflict with the authorities of the church and of all authority around him.

This conflict led Jesus to the cross where he showed compassion to those who drove nails into his feet. “They know not what they do,” he said of the soldiers. To the thief hanging at his side, Jesus said, “You shall be with me in paradise.”

When have we reached out in prayer, in a touch, in a word, in a still, small voice, and said to someone who is at the bottom of life, “I am here in Jesus’ name. How may I help you?” It is then we feel the grace of God and share the love of Jesus!



Christopher Sikkema

Editor, Sermons That Work