Reading: Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
What is your image of God?
Most of the squabbles and debates about faith or unfaith turn on how we answer that question.
One example: I was asked by a friend, someone I pastorally care for, to listen to a UTube talk by a contributor to the AA 12 step programme. It was a long talk (over an hour) but the speaker talked about what he called emotional inebriety and people who were caught up in self-hatred, who were rigid and spiritually dead – and he said their condition reflects their image of God (i.e. their image of God is lived out in their lives.)
Another example: my late-afternoon routine during the week often has me in the car listening to the national radio afternoon programme (and its panel of highly opinionated commentators). A few weeks ago I caught an exchange about how we comfort people in grief or explain loss and suffering.
I nearly crashed the car when I heard one commentator claim that a theologian had explained that suffering ennobles us! The rest of the panel were merciless with such comments as ‘What sort of God demands this?’; ‘Would put us through this?’ etc. Those were just the polite and respectful comments! (Do we have an image of God as one who wills suffering?)
What we think about God, how we think about God, affects us.
For instance, think about the phrase ‘God’s will’ and how often we may have used it or heard it: how often that phrase makes God responsible for some disaster or tragedy; or for some loss.
That is where the gospel this morning takes us.
As with the gospel last week, I see the first lines of this gospel as an icon, an image. There is this afflicted and desperate man (one can think of the leprosy as a metaphor for all afflictions) and he kneels before Jesus with these stark words “If you choose you can make me clean.”
This statement is about God’s will, God’s purpose; it is an implicit question about the will of God or, using the Greek, the thelein of Jesus. This man is like any of us who may be afflicted in some way – he is wondering where God’s will may be in all of this.
He voices our question about God; perhaps the question we have not put words around: he is not sure about God’s will … he uses that conditional conjunction… ‘if’. So there he is in front of Jesus, kneeling in the dust, and voicing that gnawing fear-filled uncertainty about God, ‘if you choose’, ‘if you will’.
See it as an icon, an image – of our condition and of our image of God.
This gospel passage does not explain why there is suffering; it does not explain evil; it attempts none of those things. It holds both our doubt and our need before God and awaits Jesus’ response.
The response is unconditional. “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’”
We need to add another panel to the icon, to our image of God. This is the image of a God driven with compassion and purpose; a God who reaches out, touches us and wills us into wholeness. You could read it as a summary of the gospel – God takes on our humanity, comes among us, and reaches out to us in our affliction and restores us to wholeness.
That is not the whole story. The hazards of life and human evil are daily with us: but the image of God we bear in our hearts is the Jesus who says to us “I do choose. Be made clean”. That is the image we live by and seek to be formed by.