Reflection 6th Sunday in OT
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.
It pains me, it really pains me, to come across people who blithely, casually dismiss the Bible as a load of codswallop, superstition and religious nonsense. They usually look blankly at you if you ask them what they know of the Bible; or what types of biblical literature they have a problem with. The fact is that in many cases we are simply confronting ignorance, prejudice and, in some cases, a very ill-informed militant atheism.
However, looking back to an earlier age, to the great radical atheist, the poet Shelley: I came across a note citing one of Leigh Hunt’s essays where he recalls how he once asked Shelley what book he would most like to save, and the great atheist replied, “The oldest book, the Bible;” “It was a monument to him,” Hunt says, “of the earliest, most lasting, and most awful aspirations of humanity.”
Which makes me ask a question: how did we get it, I mean, the Bible?
In the first instance we inherited the Hebrew scriptures. The Jewish tradition was the source from which the Christian church evolved. The earliest Christian scriptures originated from within the apostolic circle: in 2 Peter we find Paul’s letters to the early church being defined as scripture. eg: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:15,16)
But beyond that by 397 the Western Church had confirmed what the Canon of scripture was and the matter was closed. There were many texts available but the Fathers of the Church had sorted the wheat from the chaff: The Church Councils confirmed what they recognised from their own experience as something that spoke of God; they recognised the importance of trusted sources (apostles, prophets, witnesses); they referred also to the witness of the Holy Spirit in their hearts: a complex process, comprehensive, communal and cumulative in its workings. And, so many years later the radical atheist Shelley rightly treasured the oldest book, the Bible.
The question now is how might this oldest book speak to us this morning?
I find Mark’s telling of the story invigorating. He does not tell us or lecture us but he draws us into the story and helps us see it through and alongside the disciples as they try to understand Jesus.
We need to understand that from Old Testament times leprosy was imagined as a kind of death (i.e. maybe because of the pallor associated with it, and perhaps because of the ruthless isolation it imposed) and its cure was considered equivalent to raising the dead. Yet in the gospel this morning we hear a leper approach Jesus and say ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’
Implicit in those words may be a sense of who Jesus is, a vague recognition that Jesus is the powerful one of God.
But also hanging there is an implicit question in the words ‘if you choose’: it is a question we recognise from within our hearts; ‘Is God good? Does God care for us? Will God choose to help us?’ Think of the times when we have been desperate and have prayed desperately: maybe our prayers have been answered; maybe they have not, or not how we wanted. In the oldest book, our most contemporary, most human, questions can be heard.
There is that curious conclusion where we see the man instructed to say nothing but just confirm the healing with the religious authorities and be silent. But he has heard God say “I do choose”; God has said “Yes!” So, this is also the man who cannot now be silent and we see the consequences as people flock to Jesus. The leper has hit the jackpot and everyone wants a share in this. So do we. We want to hear God’s ‘yes’ to us.
In the Eucharist we receive God’s yes to us.