The Gospel in 4 Words
If someone were to ask you to write down four words that describe Jesus, what four words would you choose?
Well, that is in fact what I’d like you to do. Grab a pen, find a piece of paper. I’d like to you to take a moment and write down any four words that you choose to describe Jesus. Now, don’t worry, this isn’t a test and there are no right or wrong answers. There are many words we could choose. Just write down your four words and think a little bit about why these particular words to describe Jesus are important to you. If you want to share them in the comments or with the person next to you, feel free to do so.
One of the great questions of our faith is “Who is God?” or if you prefer, “what is God like?” As Christians we believe that Jesus, God the Son, is the one who reveals God’s character to us, the one who shows us what God is like. As John said in his gospel, “no one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” And so the words that we choose to describe Jesus are going to tell us something about what we believe that God is like.
Today’s gospel is only five verses long. It’s a brief account of Jesus healing a man with leprosy. But despite its brevity, this passage actually sums up Mark’s message about the whole of the gospel in a nutshell. And in this short passage, I think we can find four words that Mark chooses to describe Jesus.
Here’s the passage again, it’s the same one we just heard read, but in a slightly different translation. Have a look at it and see which words you would pick out as Mark’s four words to describe Jesus.
A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus was moved with compassion. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
Here’s what I think are the four words which Mark uses to describe Jesus, four words that summarize in a way his message about Jesus:
Willing (thelO – I am willing)
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Compassion: When the man with leprosy approaches Jesus and pleads with him to be cleansed, Jesus response is compassion. He doesn’t blame the man for his leprosy. He doesn’t judge the man for having just broken the law by even approaching Jesus. He doesn’t bargain with him, saying if you do this, or if you promise to believe that I will heal you. He doesn’t react to the man as unclean. No, Jesus is moved with compassion. It isn’t a rational, calculated response. It is an emotional response, a passionate response. Jesus is moved with compassion. The Greek word literally means that he feels it in his gut. What does this tell us about God, and about our relationship with God? When we come to God in our need, in our brokenness, as we are, God does not judge us, or reprimand us, or demand things of us. God’s response is rather to be compassionate, to be moved with compassion.
Touch: Sometimes we underestimate or take for granted how important touch is to us. Maybe less so these days, as the pandemic with all of its restrictions on human contact has re-awakened the longing for touch in so many of us. Touch is such an integral component of human relationships. Touch creates bonds. Touch is intimate. Touch communicates that we care, that we understand, that we are present to each other. The man with leprosy would have understood the importance of touch only too well, because he had been deprived of it, and made to feel apart and estranged. Jesus gets this. He could have healed the man with a word or with a gesture, but instead, he stretches out his hand and touches him. Isn’t it remarkable that our God wants to bond with us, wants to be in a relationship with us that is so intimate that God took on human flesh so that he could stretch out a hand and touch us!
Willing. The man with leprosy says to Jesus, “if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And Jesus responds “I am willing”. There is an intentionality about Jesus’ response to the man with leprosy. A choice. A commitment. Jesus heals the man not just because that is what the man wants, but because it is what Jesus wants, what Jesus wills, what he chooses. Our God is a God whose will it is that humanity be healed, restored and made whole, that we be freed from those things that oppress us. Even before we are aware of our own need, God wants these things for us and has intentionally chosen to act in our world to make these things happen. Not that the process of healing is complete by any means, our world still cries out for healing. But that process of healing has been initiated, initiated by God, initiated by God acting through Jesus and continuing to act through God’s Spirit, and we have been invited to become participants in that healing process.
And then the word that perhaps you might not have chosen. Lonely. Or in the greek, “erEmois”, desolate or desert. There is a strange reversal that takes place in this gospel passage. At the beginning of the text, it is the man with leprosy who is banned from the towns and villages because of his disease. He is condemned to live on the outskirts, in the wilderness, in the lonely places. But by the end of this passage, the man is enabled to return to his community and enter the villages, and it is Jesus who can no longer go into a town openly, but rather must stay outside in lonely places. There is a reversal here. Jesus, as a result of what he’s done, in effect, becomes homeless. This is the first hint in Mark’s gospel that there is a cost to God of God’s love for us. Later, as the gospel builds to its climax, we’ll get much more than a hint. The loneliness of Jesus will become painfully clear, in the Garden of Gethsemane, at his trial before the authorities when his closest followers betray and abandon him, and finally in the loneliness of the cross itself. We know that love can be costly. In loving we risk and we make ourselves vulnerable and there is a cost. God’s love for us, according to Mark, is no different.
And so these are the four words found in today’s text that describe Jesus:
Compassion. Touch. Willing. Lonely.
How do they compare to the four words that you wrote down? I expect that they’re quite different. Did anyone write down the word ‘lonely’? I know that I wouldn’t have. And as I said at the beginning, the point is not that there are right and wrong words that we could have chosen. The point I think is that Mark is trying to send us a message even in this brief passage that opens our eyes and expands the way we think about God. Because even though this text is about Jesus and a man with leprosy, it is also the story of God and us.
We are the man with leprosy. We are the AIDS victims of the 1980s. We are the ones with disabilities who are institutionalized. We are the ones with mental illness who are stigmatized. We are the ones who have needs and whose relationships are impaired and who struggle with the brokenness of this world. And when we turn to God, even before we turn to God, God sees us and is moved with compassion towards us. God longs to be in relationship with us, a relationship with all the intimacy that we associate with a loving touch. And God wills this to happen, he has chosen to take action to restore us, to forgive us, to redeem us, to heal us, he has initiated this mission of healing through his incarnation and through the on-going work of those who join in the mission of building God’s kingdom. But God’s choice to love us is not without risk and not without cost. The cost of God’s love for us, which often is not visible to us, was made visible for us in the loneliness of the cross. And yet, even that loneliness, that desolation, was overcome.
The gospel in four words: compassion, touch, willing, lonely.
Homily: Yr B Proper 6, Feb 12 2012, St. Albans
Readings: 2 Kings 5.1-14; Ps 30; 1 Cor 9.24-27; Mark 1:40-45
(inspired by and borrowed from David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=554 )
Image by TylerFrost Photography, Creative Commons