Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

15 Feb 2015

Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 15 February 2015

Stephen Fry – English pundit, TV personality and writer – recently stirred up a controversy on Irish television. An atheist himself, he was asked what he thought of the God of traditional religion and he responded that he thought that god was “capricious, mean-minded, stupid… a selfish manaic”. Asked what he’d say if he discovered after death that there was, indeed, a God waiting for him at the pearly gates, Fry responded that he’d demand of God some explanation for why he’d created a world so full of injustice and suffering, a world in which children get bone cancer. Mr Fry went on to say that he wouldn’t want to go to a heaven where people were expected to spend eternity kneeling in thanksgiving: he’d prefer the Valhalla of the pagans.

Fry was of course being deliberately provocative, even if he has since feigned surprise that people were offended. The god he damned was of course a caricature. Nonetheless, many people, at one time or another, share his anger and puzzlement about the evils of this world and especially about innocent suffering. Evil and suffering should, indeed, perplex or exasperate us. Of course, we know that much that is wrong about our world is because human beings actively choose to do wicked things or to do nothing when they could help; the only way God could stop us doing or wrongly permitting evil would be to take away our freedom and turn us into robots. We realize, also, that any material universe must have its own laws or rhythms, and that if God were constantly intervening to upset those laws there could be no predicting, planning, choosing: we would all become victims or puppets in a divine comedy with a capricious director. And we believe, thirdly, that our God is wise and loving and so we may guess that any alternative arrangement of the universe would actually be worse. Yet for all our explanations there remains a certain remainder of vexing mystery: how is it that the innocent, especially, can suffer as they do?

In our Gospel passage today (Mk 1:40-45) God-made-man encounters the evil of leprosy. He responds, not as Fry would have it, as a capricious sadist enjoying people’s suffering, but rather with the words “Of course I want to heal you” followed by touching and healing him. What was it moved Jesus to respond so immediately and risk ritual and medical contamination Himself? Two different words were used in ancient manuscripts of this Gospel and there is an enduring dispute about which is best. Our lectionary prefers the more comfortable variant, σπλαγχνισθεις, which means being moved with pity or compassion.  However many scholars prefer the less comfortable word, óργισθεìς, meaning anger.  On this view, Jesus was incensed or indignant, and this variant seems to fit better with Jesus’ mood in “sternly” charging or reproving the leper and then “dismissing” or expelling him, like the demons he charged and exiled in last week’s Gospel story (Mk 1:29-39).

Although seen in several places in the Gospels (e.g. Mk 1:25; 3:5,21; 10:14; ch 11; Mt 16:22-23; ch. 23), most famously in the cleansing of the Temple (Mt 21:12-13 et par; Jn 2:13-22), the idea of Jesus being angry scandalizes some people. After all, emotions such as anger, fear and hatred are mostly judged negatively in the New Testament. The ancient thinker Marcion thought such emotions only proper to the God of wrath found in the Old Testament and unfitting for the God of love who superseded him in the New. Modern Marcionites think the Dies Irae should be replaced with songs such as God is a butterfly. Yet the universal human experience is that emotions come to us unbidden and so are not morally problematic in themselves; the question is: how do we respond to them, what choices do we make next, what habits do we get into? Furthermore, there are some things that should enrage us. Jesus is angry with holy anger which hates what God hates. He is affronted by hard-heartedness, unbelief, rebellion, ingratitude, impiety. And in Him wrath and love, justice and mercy, are complementaries rather than contradictories: He is a merciful Shepherd and a just Judge, he is a defenceless lamb and the King of Kings.

So what is it in today’s Gospel that gets Jesus’ goat and what does that tell us? Leprosy and the other diseases from which Jesus cures people, like demons and other constrictions from which He liberates them, bring Him face to face with the power of evil. Jesus is angry: at Satan, who seeks to deceive and destroy; at Sin that spiritual leprosy that people choose above God and good; at the hereditary Chaos that results and leaves innocent victims in its wake. Jesus’ was the anger of divine judgment on Satan and Sin and Disorder and it is these, rather than God, that should trouble Mr Fry and each of us. Jesus’ physical cures are a kind of spiritual judgment or exorcism, the incursion of God into Satan’s realm, establishing God’s kingship over and against all principalities and powers (cf. Eph 6:12).

In the ancient world, leprosy was presumed to be a divine punishment that lepers somehow deserved and under the Mosaic Law it made them excommunicate or ‘unclean’ (Lev 13:1-2, 44-46). Healing, then, could only come through turning to God, acknowledging guilt, and praying for a miraculous cure. In this context, the kneeling leper’s confident plea to Jesus takes on special significance: it is one of several examples at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel of people according Jesus divine power or authority.

Jesus responds to this small act of faith and big expression of need with His healing touch, demonstrating that divine anger is directed at the evil but divine pity at the victim. In touching this man and so risking excommunication himself, Jesus displays a justice and mercy, anger and pity, superior not only to disease but even to the Law. Perhaps this is why, contrary to such clear instructions, the healed man goes off proclaiming Jesus rather than fulfilling the Law’s prescriptions. For Jesus has done what the Law could not do: the Law could only declare the leprosy in remission; but divine Grace could rout the power of leprosy itself. In the subsequent chapters of the Gospel which we will be reading for much of this liturgical year, we will see Jesus with that same divine wrath routing every enemy of human happiness, by entering into the suffering and conquering it by love. It is to this man and God that we come, like the leper, with our little faith and our great needs, confident in His anger at evil and His pity for its victims.

Words after Holy Communion for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 15 February 2015

This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we may come to receive the ashes on our foreheads, we must abstain from meat, and we should fast. In so doing we mark the beginning of a season of repentance, in which the Church exhorts us to make a Good Confession and to embrace extra prayer, penance and charity in preparation for Easter. One of my friends, instead of giving up something he doesn’t eat much anyway, such as chocolate, for Lent is going to eat half of whatever he is given at every meal; another friend is giving up SMS-texting and Facebooking, especially at the dinner table. Lent challenges us, like today’s Gospel story, with the question of what we do about our internal, spiritual leprosy. Do we go to Christ for healing? Do we join Christ in confronting the evils of our world but also within ourselves and ask him to touch us as He did today’s leper? Or just let things slide, blaming others, even God?

Please pray for your Archbishop and for the Church that we will make a good Lent, returning to God in shame for our failings and in confidence in His mercy. In return I will pray that each one of you makes a very good Lent!

2.E.g. the King James, Douay-Rheims English, Revised Standard (and related) and Good News versions, though many of these give the alternative reading in a footnote.
3.E.g. the New International, Common English and SBL Greek versions.