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  • Ross Moughtin

How to become contagious


VIRUS PANIC! proclaims this morning’s Daily Mirror while at the other end of the news spectrum, the Financial Times, offers a longer headline “Virus triggers worst run on markets since financial crisis.” Increasingly the news – as well as our future – is being dominated by the spread of the coronavirus. “If this virus spreads, we are doomed,” tweets one Nigerian as his country registers its first victim of the virus. Contagion is a primitive terror. We instinctively recoil from the diseased; we fear contamination. The lepers ring their bells and shout “Unclean, unclean!” And so when Jesus reached out and touched the leper, he would have shocked those observing from a safe distance. Fascinating to note how Mark explains Jesus’ motive in healing this social outcast. The Greek word he uses can be translated as either having compassion or alternatively being angry: a challenge to the translator. So the NRSV gives us: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” (Mark 1:41) That sounds like Jesus. However in contrast, the other translation which I regularly use, the NIV, says: “Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man.” The textual critical issue here is a tough call. The idea of Jesus being angry does not appear to fit the context very well, while everyone already knew that Jesus showed compassion. He always did, and so why say it? And for this reason the great majority of recent commentators on the Gospel of Mark have decided that the original Greek here referred to Jesus’ anger. Jesus is angry at how this man, through no fault of his own, has been abandoned and abused. He is angry at the disease, he is angry at our response to the victim. He is angry for the way we recoil from his presence. Jesus doesn’t simply want to heal this leper: he wants to make a point about leprosy. So he reaches out and makes physical contact. However, Jesus appears to be violating the teaching of the Hebrew scriptures: he making himself unclean. Leviticus 13 goes into great detail about what happens when someone has a defiling skin disease, some 46 verses, culminating in “As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:46). Keep your distance, don’t touch. The Old Testament shows a concern for the divide between the clean and unclean. As it happens I have been reading about this this week following my BRF Guidelines. It’s about personal hygiene, of course. But more, we are entering a thought world completely foreign to our own, altogether alien to our way of thinking. So Leviticus 21 lays down clear rules as who can serve as a priest in God’s holy sanctuary. “No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord.” (Leviticus 21:21). On no account must such a priest be ceremonially unclean in any way at all. And then some detail as to who is to be excluded: “No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles.” (Leviticus 21:180 I can understand the point being made here – God is holy and those who minister in his name must demonstrate his holiness. Don’t forget that such is God’s awesome holiness that the people of the Old Covenant dare not even speak out his name. Jump forward a millennium to the Qumran community, the ascetic sect of Jews who lived in the Judean Desert at the time of Jesus. They gave us the Dead Sea scrolls and in scroll IQM they describe the great battle against evil at the end of time: “No lame, blind, paralysed person or any man who has an indelible blemish on his flesh, nor any man suffering from uncleanness in his flesh, none of these will go out to war with them.” This is the context of Jesus’ ministry. It is as if Jesus is taking these hardliners on when he tells the messengers of John the Baptist: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7:22). It is as if those very people whom the Qumran community would want to exclude Jesus actually welcomes into his community. At another time he teaches the story of the great feast. The man giving the banquet, when snubbed by his invited guests, sends out his servants, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” (Luke 14:21) Above all Jesus demonstrates his welcome to the outcast when the woman with a flow of blood, clearly rendered unclean by traditional teaching, takes it upon herself to actually touch Jesus’ tzitzit, the tassel showing him to be a member of God’s holy people. Such was her desperation for healing that she knowingly make Jesus ritually unclean. No wonder she is terrified when found out. And Jesus’ response? “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34) As the American theologian Marcus Borg explains “In the teaching of Jesus, holiness, not uncleanness, was understood to be contagious.” Let’s pray that we too become contagious with the compassion of the Christ. #holiness #compassion #gospel

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