Sunday Scripture Reflection: Jesus, A Leper, and Divine Power (Or, God is Not Like the Super Bowl)Posted: February 12, 2012
Today’s Gospel reading from Mark used to strike me as just one variation on a common theme of Jesus’ ministry: person is sick, Jesus feels bad, Jesus cures person, Jesus tells person not to say anything for some reason (fear of the paparazzi, perhaps), person tells everyone anyway. Rinse and repeat.
But then, this happened: When I lived in Wisconsin, I taught a fourth grade religious ed class. I was blessed with a great group of kids. My favorites were a pair of twins I’ll call Sammie and Alex. Sammie had Type I diabetes and a host of other health problems. She had been through more than 20 surgeries by the time she was 10 years old. She was about a foot shorter than the other kids, walked slowly, and had a slight speech impediment. She is incredibly sweet with a streak of sass.
Her brother Alex is a devoted caretaker, and genuinely seemed to enjoy coming to Tuesday night religious ed, which means he is likely bound for sainthood.
One night, when we were talking about the way Jesus cared for the sick and downtrodden, I broke the class up into groups and gave them different Scripture passages to act out. Sammie’s group was assigned this passage from Mark. Somebody had to play the part of Jesus. With a sensitivity surprising for 4th graders, the group suggested Sammie should take on the role. She did, with gusto, winning a nice round of applause for a convincing: “BE MADE CLEAN!”
Sammie was clearly the class’ best fill-in for Jesus: Jesus the wounded healer who says to the broken – to all of us – I know what it’s like to suffer and I will be with you in the muck.
Today marks the second of two straight sets of challenging readings that deal with pain and illness. We had the story of Job and a fever for Peter’s mother-in-law last week, and two references to leprosy this weekend. They both can cause us to wonder: Why do bad things happen? If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why doesn’t God do something to stop leprosy and Type I diabetes?
Last week, Msgr. Vince, the pastor at my parish, mentioned in his homily the 1978 spiritual classic When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who lost a son to a rare, incurable genetic disease. The book is beautiful and deeply sad and hopeful, but even if it were not well-written, Msgr. Vince said that it still would have shot to the top of the best-sellers list because of its title alone. Who hasn’t wondered why bad things happen to good people? Who hasn’t pestered God about it?
I wrestled with bad things happening to good people frequently during college, a common phenomenon among maturing believers whose simple childhood faith suddenly demands justification. Hurricane Katrina hit during my sophomore year, and images of seemingly pointless suffering were shown on TV for weeks. That fall semester, I wrote a term paper comparing Kushner’s book to that of a Christian scholar.
I’ll resist the urge to upload the paper here, and instead jump straight to my conclusion, which was that all of the most common theistic explanations for suffering offered throughout the ages are garbage. It is impossible to square an all-loving God with the list of typical responses to suffering: Like God is like a parent who sends a child for a tetanus shot: it might hurt now, but God always knows what’s for the best.
Or this one: God sends us trials to teach us things, like compassion. Look at all the outpouring of love and support after the hurricane.
Or: God just wanted your loved one to come home to him. He’s in a better place now.
These excuses have two things in common: they are all monstrously insensitive to say to someone in mourning, and they all fail if we want to think of God as all-loving. A loving God just couldn’t and wouldn’t cause such massive suffering to teach us a lesson. No lesson, no matter how important, justifies incredible pain. One of my favorite of Rabbi Kushner’s points is that God does not send suffering, but weeps with us in it.
That idea is comforting, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, which has to do with God’s power. God’s empathy seems insufficient if he has the power to do something – to spin the hurricane out to sea, to zap leprosy with a divine laser, to make sure Sammie’s pancreas worked before she was born.
Perhaps our traditional view of God’s power needs adjusting. It’s popular to think of God as a sort of Super Bowl-ish deity: as strong as the Patriots’ 325-pound behemoth Vince Wilfork; famous like Madonna is famous; in control in the style of a good referee or Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin; dependable in the clutch in the fashion of Eli Manning; stunningly beautiful to behold like a supermodel spokeswoman. I sometimes think God, like the Super Bowl, is larger-than-life – something distant and unapproachable I will never participate in.
Sure, God is strong, famous, in control, dependable, beautiful, and can seem distant and unapproachable at times.
But to get a sense of what God’s power is actually like, we can take a look at this weekend’s first reading and compare it to the passage from Mark. We’ll see that the Super Bowl is a terrible analogy for how God’s power operates. In the passage from Leviticus from today, we hear how the Israelites dealt with lepers, per Mosaic law:
“The one who bears the sore of leprosy
shall keep his garments rent and his head bare,
and shall muffle his beard;
he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”
Well, that’s one approach. If that’s where the story ended, we could be tempted to throw up our hands and say, “Thanks for nothing, God. Seems like we’re just supposed to deal with suffering here on our own.”
But then we have the gospel, in which Jesus breaks down the wall of fear separating the healthy from the sick, the powerful from the outcasts. Here is God, in the form of a frail, homeless man, reaching out to touch a leper.
Yes, that touch is miraculous, and the man is healed.
And I don’t want to underestimate the miracle of that touch, but the point of Jesus’ ministry is not how cool he was to be able to bend natural law. There were plenty of other healers and prophets in first-century Palestine.
What makes Jesus different is that his power is defined by selflessness and boundless compassion. The same all-powerful God who embraced lepers also washed the feet of his apostles, said you’d be able to recognize him in the hungry and thirsty and prisoner, spent time with almost every brand of reject, and was executed naked in front of scores of onlookers. The miracles are important, but only in the way they get your attention and highlight Christ’s broader mission – his mission to show that small, quiet, steady, subversive acts of love are how God’s power manifests itself in the world. When we choose to act out of love and not of fear, as Jesus does in tonight’s reading, we participate in the life of God. We don’t need a cannon of a right arm or a blazing 40-yard dash to play. We’re in the game, just as we are, with all of our gifts and shortcomings and idiosyncrasies. And God, the head coach, says to each of us, “I can work with this.”
Many types of traditional human power were on display last Sunday night during the Big Game, but what blew me away that weekend was a momentary encounter with God’s sort of power a few hours before the game started.
Last Sunday, I took four high school students to a local nursing home for our monthly Mass and visit there. Two of the four students were cousins I’ll call Rachel and Celia, gals who come to literally everything I organize at the parish where I serve as youth minister (God bless them).
After Mass, we floated among the residents and spent time chatting with them. It’s a fairly challenging population at the home we visit, and Celia and Rachel are shy to begin with. The three of us sat with a woman I’ll call Carol who could sort of have a conversation, but whose encroaching dementia was obvious. After a few minutes of talking, Carol let out a loud cough, reached into her mouth, and dropped a bullet of mucous on the table.
My stomach turned, and my immediate thought was to yank Rachel and Celia away. But we sat there for a beat, and then Carol said, “That wasn’t a very nice thing I did just now.” I managed a weak smile. Celia and Rachel, however, instantly replied: “Don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal.” We sat there and kept talking for a few minutes, and then we helped pass out snacks.
That was godly power Rachel and Celia showed Sunday afternoon, impressing me much more than football players ever could. A linebacker’s powerful tackle could knock the wind out of me and maybe crack a rib, but the power of fearless compassion changed my heart, which is a transformation much more lasting and important.
Still, at the end of all this, I have no explanation for why bad things happen to good people. But to think of our God acting with “Rachel and Celia power” and not “Super Bowl power” is comforting somehow. Perhaps it helps me to hope that ultimately, God, who is love, will win. If we are to believe the Gospel, such a victory celebration will not resemble the Giants on the podium. It will be more like the joyful embrace between a healed leper and his friend who wasn’t afraid.