Mark 1: 40 - 45
When Jesus heals the leper, he tries to keep it secret. He fails. Imagine trying to hide a healed leper in a small community: Jesus must have been out of his mind!
But, he did try. And he did fail. What's more he succeeded and he failed miserably. Both, not either.
He succeeded in his compassion to heal the leper of his awful disease. He failed to keep the news quiet. The news, once out, became part of the great pile of causes for Jesus' eventual resurrection. There are always people who can snatch defeat out of the jaws of success. There are always people who don't want good things to happen, especially if they can't take the credit for them. "The Empire Strikes Back," we often hear. Or "No good deed goes unpunished." Jesus understands this pattern in human life. That's why he tried to keep the leper's good news quiet.
Fortunately, he failed. Here we can look at both his success and his failure. Both are mysteries. Mystery is not the absence of meaning but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend. Who knows why this one leper got healed? Yes, there are others, even today. Who knows why this one leper "talked?" There are others who would have been glad, if healed, to disappear into the woodwork. If we know Jesus at all, we know him as one who spilled over with compassion, so much so that sometimes he did things that were not prudent. Healing the leper was not prudent: it would only draw more.
Once in Capetown South Africa, in a city where 1 of 18 people is HIV positive and over 3000 children live on the street, I made the mistake of giving a beggar a small piece of change. Within minutes, I was surrounded by the his friends. I was scared: I knew I had done a compassionate thing but one for which now I was going to be punished.
Jesus probably also knew -- but probably, also, didn't really care. For a moment of compassion, punishments can't be too severe. At least we still have the moment of compassion.
Gabriel Marcel speaks often in his work of the difference between approaching life as a problem or as a mystery. When we approach our charity as a problem, we are always counting. Always calculating, always watching for where and when the empire will strike back. When we approach our charity as a mystery, we forget a little about cause and effect. We do what we have to do because we just did it.
The wife of the clergyman who took in hundreds of Jews during the second world war was asked why she took in the first one when her husband was away. "Because he was standing there," she said.
Jesus probably healed that leper because he was there. He might have healed others who came to him. This one he healed because he was there.
Jesus success came from mystery; his failure came from the problems in our world. Jesus lived more comfortably with mystery than most of us. Why? Because of his close relationship with God. When we have that relationship, we aren't so bothered by the empire's inevitable strike back. We are still with God. Faith, in Evelyn Underhill's famous words, is that confidence in God which no circumstance can alter. Imagine that. Something so large that no circumstance can alter it.
On a Sam's discount store one Ester, a sign read, "Jesus is Risen but Sam's price remains the same." Here we have a mixture of the world of mystery and the world of problem. Sam's is a problem solving kind of place; good stuff, cheap. Mystery is the Risen one. Jesus lived in the world of mystery -- no circumstance could alter his relationship with God, including his murder and death. Jesus wasn't looking for a bargain life -- he was looking for a life with God.
We too can have this kind of relationship with God. We can become more, mysteriously, than we are. We may not have leprosy but only the rare among us don't need healing. We need to be healed of our stuckness or our fears; we need to be healed for charity, not from charity. In Gail Godwin's novel, EVENSONG, she says,
"Your vocation is something that keeps making more of you."
When we live in the world of mysterious healings, something keeps making more of us.
When we make more of ourselves by way of relationship with God, when we practice mysterious healings and get in trouble for them, we learn what it means to be a renegade. We learn what it means to be "off the reservation." The reservation is a place where problems, by God, are solved, or at least kept in a state of magnificent equilibrium. Off the reservation, there are miracles.
Ask Harry Potter. Ask the Muggles, those who don't understand magic. They'll tell you.
In Beacon Press's, 1998, OFF THE RESERVATION; REFLECTIONS ON BOUNDARY-BUSTING, BORDER-CROSSING, LOOSE CANONS, we hear what it means to be "out there"in the land of mystery, where lepers get healed. Off the reservation is an expression current in military and political circles, designating someone who doesn't conform to the limits and boundaries of officialdom, who is unpredictable and thus uncontrollable. Such individuals are seen as threats to the power structure. They are anomalies: mavericks, renegades, queers. Seen in its historical context, designating someone "off the reservation" is particularly apt. Originally the term meant a particular kind of outlaw, a Native person who crossed the territorial border, called a reserve or reservation by the United States or state government. In those days, when off the reservation, they were usually hunted down, and most, often summarily shot.
Jesus and his disciples were a collective band of renegades. They did things that weren't supposed to be done. They hoped for more than people thought it safe to hope for. They were problems that needed to be solved.
What gave Jesus the permission to heal the leper was his relationship with God. He didn't have a hard heart. He had a soft heart due to this relationship. Kathleen Norris writes often of hardness of heart or sklericardia. In her book, DAKOTA, p. 197, she adds theological symptoms to sklericardia. We are to renounce hard and sectarian views that are not large enough fro God's mystery. The classic sign of God's mystery is welcoming and making room for something other, the surprising, the unlooked for and the unwanted. Sounds like a leper to me. Sounds like the leper heals those of us whose heart has grown heart from insufficient mystery as well.
The capacity for healing mystery comes from knowing God. Once we know God, we can't ignore lepers. Antoine de St. Exupery says,
"In anything at all perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness."
We strip to nakedness when nothing gets in our way of knowing God. Then we have all that we need.
The present may still be "dense" in the words of Gustavo Guitierrez. But the present is also clear. It is not packed with confusion. It is packed with promise. We can respond to the lepers who come our way. We don't have to refuse them on behalf of previous commitments. That is a problem solving approach, not a mystery approach.
Even though Jesus must have known terrible fear after he cured the blabbermouth leper, he also felt clear, like in that song, "I can see clearly now, the day has come. Going to be a bright, bright bright, uncloudly day." He was in the density but he was also clear. God was not far.
Many of us need to get to this clear, dense place ourselves. We need to embrace the mystery. First we may need a spiritual catheritization or a balloon angioplasty.
Then we will be able to, in Margaret Atwood's line, "to give up the old belief that I am powerless." (in DIVING DEEP, p. 49)
We are not powerless. We are instead mysterious. All the lepers may not be healed. But some will. All the children who live on the street may not get a rand but some will. The empire will also strike back. But we will remain clear and glad. For we are not powerless. Nor are we problem-solvers. We are children of God.
Audre Lorde tells us "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House." (in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, N.Y.: The Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 11- - 113)
If we use the master's tools, of treating people as problems, of doing everything ourselves, of staying far away from God and God's transforming power, then even renegades will not heal lepers or house children who live on the street. But if we use the true master's tools, those of love inside the mystery, of staying close to God, there is nothing we cannot do.
Lepers will be healed -- and if not that, something even more mysterious and wonderful will happen. God can use either success or failure and often uses both.