A Faith Past its Use-by Date
One of the features of modern elections is that, like the photos in fashion magazines, the candidates’ pictures on the election posters and flyers frequently show signs of air brushing. Presenting an edited version of the person to make them more presentable is not a new phenomenon. Roman emperors had the sculptors enhance the emperor’s muscles and smooth their faces. One who insisted on a more honest approach was Oliver Cromwell who had a notoriously lumpy face. When he saw his portrait artist’s fawning attempt he dismissed the effort with the now famous expression that he wanted to be “painted warts and all”.
This brings us to this morning’s verbal picture of Jesus painted by Mark. In the oldest versions of Mark gospel such as the one in the precious manuscript called the Codex Bezae held in the University of Cambridge library we can see the original which said bluntly that Jesus, confronted by the Leper, “was moved by anger”(Mark 1:41. The translators of the majority of manuscripts since that date say that Jesus was “moved by pity”, verbal airbrushing, no doubt designed to present a more acceptable version of Gentle Jesus meek and mild. What even the ancient version doesn’t say is why he was angry. Perhaps it was anger at the way the leper had been treated, or even the fact that he was actually in the Synagogue, the last place a leper should have been after being identified as unclean. To airbrush away the anger may be well meaning, but is certainly not true to what Mark was attempting to say.
But this meeting of Jesus and the Leper has another set of meanings which gets to the heart of Christianity as a religion.
Although scientists tell us that the human species has been around in recognizable form for at least 2 million years, formalized religion is much more recent. Because each religion has emerged and been shaped to serve the needs of different communities and because communities change, many of these religions have died out or simply become irrelevant. This is not to say religion itself has outlived its usefulness. A few years ago there were a series of psychological studies that showed that people who were comfortable with their religion lived longer and happier lives. On the well-being scale there was a distinct correlation between faith and psychological health. In short, faith can provide the principles to help us order our lives – and where the principles help us get on with our fellows there is much that is positive as a result. Yet the detail and explanation side of faith is constantly changing as more knowledge is uncovered. It is there that if the thinking doesn’t change to fit new situations, eventually people have to abandon their faith.
There is no shame in believing that disease is caused exclusively by demons and bad magic, but only if you have never learned about bacteria and viruses. But once we do have that knowledge about the causes of disease, there is no room for witches in our belief system: let alone witch burning.
As long as the religion focuses on positive principles for living and helpful ways of treating one’s neighbors’ religion will always have value from generation to generation. This may be why the main branches of Buddhism and basic versions of Christianity have lasted so long in relatively unchanged form. But we also learn from history that when our religion is tied too closely to culture or when it claims to explain science and history with outdated knowledge or for that matter, when its leaders use it to control and limit behaviour .. then it has a short use-by date and is even self destructive. Maybe we simply hurry too quickly to thinking we have sufficient of the answers to have arrived at final truth. Richard Holloway in his thoughtful small book entitled “Looking in the Distance” even suggests a health warning is needed for those forms of religion that make claims beyond verification.
He also quotes Montaigne’s ironic observation that it is rating our conjectures highly to burn people for them.
This morning’s reading from Mark provides a perfect example of both the good part that lasts and the part of religion which has long since passed its use-by date.
First we have a leper. In Jesus’ day and right through the Middle ages, to get leprosy was a dreadful curse. Because leprosy often attacked the skin nerve endings deadening them to pain, the simplest skin aggravation, like a splinter or a thorn could sit undetected until the sore was heavily infected – and before long, feet and even hands would become misshapen and infections would spread. Although leprosy itself was not particularly infectious, even without knowledge of microbes, the population appeared to be aware that somehow contact spread the disease, and without access to any effective medicines or treatment known to work, the simple answer was isolation. The community leaders would declare the leper to be a non-person who must not be approached or touched. In the Middle ages for example, some communities set up a rule whereby the living leper was taken into a place of worship by the Priest wearing his stole, who would conduct a funeral service for the diseased person to show that as far as the community was concerned that person was no longer alive. From there on the Leper had to wear an identifying black robe, live separately with other lepers and the closest they could come to a Church service was watching the service through a peep hole in the Church called a leper squint. Because there are different forms of leprosy and because other skin conditions could be mistaken for leprosy every now and again someone would recover – but they would need to be carefully checked out by the standard procedures for the day before the cure would be accepted by the community.
In Mark we find Jesus meeting the leper. By the customs of his day, here Jesus was behaving strangely.
It may have been partly the leper’s fault. He was after all, supposed to call out a warning to Jesus, so that he can avoid the meeting. I don’t know what this warning was to be, but it may have been along the lines of what was a later custom….“Unclean – unclean”. Whatever the case instead he goes up to Jesus and the unusual bit was that Jesus stayed around.
We should not pretend there is enough written to know that Jesus had definitely cured the man of leprosy. What we should admit is that we don’t know what sort of skin disease the man actually had – nor do we know how effective Jesus cure actually was, because Jesus later asked him to go to the priest to be checked out – but the story doesn’t actually tell us what we hope and presume happened – which was that the man got checked out and was confirmed to be cured.
What we do know however was that whatever Jesus actually did, there is no doubt he was doing his best to leave the man better off. Leaving aside the actual cure, for Jesus to reach out and touch one who is cut off from contact is a huge step in signalling to this man that he is no longer rejected. Jesus also took the trouble to direct him to the standard procedure for being recognised as cured. Without this, his reinstatement into the community could not have happened. If there is principle that Jesus was recorded as modelling over and over again, it was that Jesus apparently spent most of his mission making lives less miserable. The details of each encounter are incomplete – and yes, sometimes we find understanding what happened elusive, but nevertheless this principle seems at the core of his dealings – and maybe this is the part we have the means to follow.
For church-goers today there is some attraction for leaving this at a story about a leper, because meeting those with leprosy is increasingly rare for people like us in today’s world. An SEP…. a someone else’s problem. Yet there are other “untouchables” who are our challenge. At the very time leprosy is now firmly under control, other diseases like AIDS still isolate the sufferers and create another group of untouchables. The real question for us is how those currently suffering from conditions with associated stigma might get to find out that Christ is still part of their reinstatement as accepted members of society. What will such people encounter when they meet those like us? After all arent we supposed to be the hands of Jesus.
There is also the question of faith healing. It is true that leprosy is only one of a host of diseases for which at one time there was only fear and superstition – but for which there is now hope.
But I said before, situations change. In Jesus’ day there were no antibiotics and if getting rid of leprosy was required, faith healing was about the only possible choice. Yet in practice, faith healing has a very low success rate for genuine serious medical conditions. Some time back, Shirley and I visited Lourdes in France and saw hundreds in wheel chairs and even a couple on hospital beds being wheeled to the healing waters of the springs. I did not see any empty wheel chairs of those returning.
However when it comes to leprosy today I am told that with the correct drugs there is almost one hundred percent cure rate. Knowing this, it seems to me that to deny a sufferer from leprosy access to effective anti-leprosy medication and to insist that faith healing should be their only option is not doing one’s best to reduce suffering and to make lives happier.
According to Mark’s version, Jesus’ actions also draw our attention to one final aspect of faith. Jesus gave strict instructions to the man not to tell others about what had happened….an instruction the man disobeyed.
To quote one of my favourite writers, Colin Morris:
The religious minds tend to be one of two types, crusading or crucified. The crusading mind is cocksure about what it knows, and unequivocal in its demands; all have heard and therefore all must obey. The crucified mind is diffident, almost timid in the claims it makes because it is always conscious of the mystery of the other as a personality with hidden sensitivities and private agonies…. (From Things Shaken, Things Unshaken)
Just maybe we should hesitate a little before rushing to crusade on Jesus behalf. It could even be that this faith we claim to be carrying is to be lived rather than merely talked about.