Mark 1:35-45
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
February 12, 2012


For their 30th wedding anniversary they splurged. They dipped into their retirement savings for the trip they had always dreamt of taking: Rome! Florence! Venice! They read the online travel catalogues.  She bought wrinkle-resistant dresses and he bought pants with hidden security pockets. They downloaded a travel book on their Kindle and updated their passports.


But a week before their flight, he noticed a slight twinge in his chest. He shrugged it off as indigestion, but the next day while he was reading up on the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, a searing pain shot through his left arm. He broke out into a sweat and had trouble catching his breath. His wife called 911 and he was rushed to the hospital. He survived, but by-pass surgery cancelled their trip.


Life throws us curves. And knuckleballs. And pitches we never imagined. Unexpected events erase the path we envision. Success or failure often becomes a test of our flexibility. Some get mired in the quicksand of regrets, others adjust and make the best of their situation.


Today's lectionary gospel reading reveals that Jesus experienced the unpredictability of life. Some have so deified Jesus that they imagine he was never caught off guard. Today's passage indicates that, in the opening days of his ministry, someone fouled up his plans and he had to alter his course.


Our passage opens with Jesus spending personal time with God. The sun has yet to rise and Jesus has found a deserted place where he can pray without interruption. In his early morning meditation, Jesus prays to discern God's guidance. He sets aside his personal agenda to discover what path God desires.


It is not always easy to carve out quiet, uninterrupted time with God. Our passage says that the disciples hunt him down and say, "Everyone is searching for you."


His prayer time abbreviated, Jesus responds, "Let us move on to the neighboring towns so that I may proclaim the message; for that is what I came out to do."


He begins to implement the plan, traveling to various towns in Galilee. However, in the midst of his mission he runs into an unexpected intrusion. A leper approaches him and begs, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Knowing that others approached Jesus and were healed, it's easy to miss the significance of this encounter.


The gospels portray Jesus as a teacher and a healer, and in some of the healing stories, the point of the passage is that Jesus possessed remarkable powers. However, the author of Mark does not relay this incident to dazzle us with the miraculous. After the leper begs for healing, the next verse says, "Moved with pity, Jesus said, "I do choose. Be made clean!"

If you followed along in the pew Bible you may have noticed that there was a footnote attached to the word "pity." The footnote says other ancient manuscripts use the word "anger." Puzzling. Why would Jesus respond with anger to someone asking to be healed?


The clues emerge in the next few verses. After Jesus touched him the text says "Immediately the leprosy left him." Well, thanks be to God! Right?


Not according to Jesus. The following verse reads, "After sternly warning (the man), Jesus sent him away at once, saying "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go show yourself to the priest. Why such curt language to a man who has just been given new life?


For centuries, lepers were untouchables. They were banished from the community and required to keep their distance from others. If anyone happened to walk in the vicinity of a leper, the leper was required to issue a warning while the other person was still at a distance. They were obligated to shout, "Unclean! Unclean!" This would warn people to cut a wide swath to avoid them, because anyone who touched a leper immediately became unclean and was banished from the community.


Jesus broke the rules by touching the man. That's why Jesus sternly warned him not to tell anyone. He did not want word to spread that he had touched a leper. Ironically, once the man presented himself to the priest - who would examine him and pronounce him clean - the man could reenter the community.  However, Jesus was now considered unclean. And not only unclean, but a willful violator of Mosaic law.


The leper confronted Jesus with a challenge: "If you will, you can make me clean." Jesus knew that if he healed the leper, his plans would be thrown off track. He would no longer be able to enter the towns he was planning to visit because he was unclean and the religious authorities could have him banished.


It seems those ancient manuscripts that said Jesus was angry, had it right. He was angry because he knew that if he healed the leper, his mission would be altered. However, despite the consequences, he reached out his hand and touched the man. When he did, he established a principle that would put him at odds with the religious establishment: people are more important than rules - even the law of Moses.  If there is a conflict between fulfilling a biblical command and extending compassion to someone in need, you are to extend compassion.


Later, Jesus would be asked, "Which is the first commandment?" His answer was to love God with your heart, mind, soul and strength. He quickly added, "The second commandment is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these." (Mark 12:29-31) All other commands are subordinate to the command to love.


Sometimes the teachings of Jesus are enigmatic and his parables puzzling. However, on this matter, Jesus is clear: Our primary purpose is to love.


A Lutheran pastor named Peter Marty remembers being interviewed for his first congregation. The last question he was asked has stayed with him for years. "Peter, do you love people?"

Peter says it sounded disingenuous and felt as if the questioner was setting a trap. He cannot remember his precise response, but it was some variation of "You bet I love people!" His response was more cheer than nuance, because he felt annoyed that anyone would infer that someone becoming a pastor might not love people.


He did well enough to receive the call to the congregation. That was years ago. Today he muses that perhaps he passed the test because he said "You bet!" with special gravity. However, the "Do you love people?" question has been rolling around in his head for 25 years.1


Do you love people or are they a means to an end? Raise your hand if there are people you genuinely care about? How do you respond to those closest to you? With empathy or compassion fatigue? How do you treat fellow workers? Do you tune them in or out? How do you react to the clerk in the checkout line? Annoyed that she's not quicker or sympathetic to her monotonous job?


Here's the tough one. How do you interact with other drivers on the road? Would your spouse, partner or friend say that it's apparent from your driving that you are a follower of Christ? You are forbidden to quiz my wife on my Christ-like behavior when I am behind the steering wheel!


In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul wrote about the genuine marks of a Christian and he used a beautiful phrase. He said that if we truly care about others, we will "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep." (Romans 12:15) Vulnerability leads to intimacy and healing.


But which is really easier? To shed tears with someone who is hurting or to be genuinely happy for someone who is celebrating? It's not always easy to keep from becoming jealous of someone who has reason to rejoice. The words, "I'm sorry" are often easier to speak than "I'm so happy for you."


Theologian Anthony de Mellow writes, "Sometimes people want to imitate Christ, but when a monkey plays a saxophone, that doesn't make him a musician. You cannot imitate Christ by imitating his external behavior. You must be Christ. Then you'll know exactly what to do in a particular situation, given your temperament and the temperament of the person you're dealing with...If you believe that compassion implies softness, (you do not really understand) compassion, because compassion can be very hard. Compassion can be confrontational; compassion can roll up its sleeves and operate on you.  Compassion is all kinds of things. It can be very soft, but there's no way of knowing that. It is only when you become love...that you will know (what to do)."2


People who think that being a Christian is primarily about believing certain church doctrines fail to understand what it means to be Christ to a hurting world. Jesus was a man of action who expected his followers to carry on his mission after he was gone.


In her book, Beyond Belief, Princeton Professor Elaine Pagels says that what made the early church so compelling to outsiders was not its theology, but its radical love. They adopted babies who had been abandoned on the streets, they took food and medicine to prisoners, and they bought coffins and dug graves for the destitute whose bodies would have been dumped outside of the city. And when the plague ravaged communities throughout the Roman Empire, they shocked their pagan neighbors by caring for the sick and dying, putting themselves at risk of catching the deadly disease.3


Christ-like love is not for the faint of heart. It dares to reach out in compassion and to risk the consequences. Sometimes it means abandoning our plans and becoming open to new ones. But how could we ever expect to follow Christ without running into a few surprises?




1.      Peter W. Marty, "Do You Love People," in Christian Century, October 4, 2011, p.10.
2.      Anthony de Mellow, "Being a Changed Person."









Westminster Presbyterian Church

1502 West 13th Street  w  Wilmington, DE  19806  w  302-654-5214  w  www.wpc.org