"I'm not going to pray about it," said my Sunday school classmate, "because I wouldn't want to pester God. It's not that important." It was maybe third or fourth grade Sunday school, and we were sharing the small and large concerns that afflict elementary-school children: the stresses of grades and popularity, worries about pets and parents and siblings. I don't remember what it was that my classmate had decided not to pray about, but I do remember those words: "I wouldn't want to pester God."
The Sunday school teacher was taken aback. But we, the other children, nodded our heads sagely, impressed with our classmate's prudent decision. We knew from experience that it was a bad idea to voice too many appeals or complaints to the adults in our lives. If our parents and teachers were too busy to listen to a constant stream of requests, God must be even busier! A wise child made as few requests as possible, politely worded and carefully timed. Prayer must be like that, we thought. We didn't want God to think we were complainers or crybabies. Our poor shocked Sunday school teacher tried to explain that that was not the Christian approach, that prayer was not a scarce resource to be rationed out, conserved or hoarded, that God was always listening.
In today's passage, we hear the story of someone, as my classmate said, "pestering God," a leper who asks Jesus for healing. This passage comes from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark, the evangelist who was so anxious to get to the meat of the Gospel that he skipped the Christmas story. Mark starts with Jesus already grown and launches straight into his baptism. From that point, it is a rapid-fire narrative: all in the first chapter, Jesus begins to preach, calls four disciples, heals a man with an unclean spirit, then Simon's mother-in-law, then a great crowd of sick people and demoniacs. Immediately before the passage we just heard, Mark tells us that Jesus and his new disciples are setting out on a preaching tour of Galilee: "Let us go on to the neighboring towns," Jesus says, "so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." Off they go to spread the Good News. And that is when Jesus meets this leper.
There is a big question about one word of the original Greek text of this passage. Some of the ancient manuscripts, and therefore some translations, say that Jesus was splagchniztheis--moved with compassion. But other ancient manuscripts, and a few translations, say Jesus was orgiztheis--becoming angry. Angry! What an odd and uncomfortable idea. There are good arguments for either one being the original word, but most of our English translations choose to represent Jesus as compassionate, rather than angry.
I understand why, especially since I myself am uneasy with the idea that Jesus would be angry at a leper asking for healing. But at the same time, I am intrigued by the idea that Jesus may have been angry, just for a moment. Because to me, that sounds like a very human reaction. That sounds like the reaction of a God who has flesh and blood and unruly emotions like mine.
We have just been told, as Mark rushes through the Gospel story, that Jesus has set out with a mission: he intends to proclaim the message; he means to preach the Good News to all of Galilee. He is a man with a plan. And his plan has been interrupted, disrupted, by this man who approaches to ask for healing. So many of us are always in a rush, trying to fit more into the day, irritated just by missing a green light. There is a certain self-indulgent joy in imagining Jesus in a hurry: "Come on, come on," he mutters to himself. "I don't have all day. I have a sermon to write! I have to get to Tiberias!" But besides impatience, there are other reasons that Jesus might have been angry in that moment.
First, this man is a leper. In a society without modern medicine, with no understanding of germs, viruses, or the immune system, with no way to understand the causes of diseases and no way to treat them, many illnesses were feared; and people suffering from these diseases were outcasts. In many ancient cultures, including the Jewish culture of Jesus' hometown in Galilee, lepers were systematically excluded from society. For Jesus to speak to this man, let alone touch him, sets Jesus in opposition to the powers that be, as he breaks the rules of a social system that kept clean and unclean separate.
In the movie The Blind Side, a white family from Tennessee takes in a black teenager named Michael who is struggling in the foster care system. When it becomes apparent that the Tuohys are making Michael part of their family, the mother, Leanne Tuohy, starts to hear about it from her friends, who go to church every Sunday, but still think Leanne is taking her Christian values a bit too far. As they sit at a country club having lunch, one asks, "Is this some kind of white guilt thing?" "What will your daddy say?" another friend demands. Leanne is filled with the same anger I imagine Jesus felt on that road, as he realized that good religious people would scorn and reject him for helping this man. With her eyes blazing, Leanne snaps out a retort and nearly storms out before her friends back down and apologize. Her status in society as a wealthy, white American lady was not much like Jesus' place as a Jew in Roman-occupied Galilee. Nevertheless, both of them are risking judgment and shame because of their compassion, and that kind of injustice does provoke a certain righteous anger.
But there's a second reason that Jesus may have found himself angered as he heard this man's request. Perhaps he was beginning to realize that his life was going to be shaped and marked by the unrelenting needs of all of the people in pain and distress around him. It was just never going to stop! For the rest of Jesus' ministry, people will be clamoring for his attention: crying from the roadside, grasping at his garment hem, lowering a sickbed through the roof, trying to get the healing he can offer them. You can't blame them. These are people in need. But I imagine that living with constant, overwhelming requests for help would be exhausting for anyone, and Jesus had so much to do and so little time. I imagine that if Jesus were angry for a moment, it may have been, in part, at the realization that there would never be just a sermon, just a dinner with friends, just a moment to pray. He was going to have to live with continual interruption.
We live with continual interruptions too, don't we? There is always something coming up, something clamoring for our attention. As those interruptions arise, we struggle to balance them: a stranger whose car needs a jumpstart when we're already late for a committee meeting or a daughter's soccer game. A child who enters our home, filling our hearts with joy even as our lives change forever. A church member weeping in the pews on Easter Sunday because she was just diagnosed with cancer. This story of Jesus interrupted on his preaching mission teaches us something about how to handle those interruptions, how to live with the uncertainty of changing schedules and shifting priorities. Jesus may become angry for a moment--it is only natural to feel frustrated or disoriented or, yes, even angered when our hopes and intentions are thrown into chaos. But Jesus does not let that first emotional reaction control his response.
In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines a correspondence from the mentor demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood who is trying to turn a man away from God. Time and again, Screwtape urges Wormwood to shift the man's focus toward his internal feelings and emotional state, rather than focusing on God and on living out his faith. "Keep them watching their own minds," Screwtape advises, "trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they mean to ask [God] for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings. . . When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. . . . Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling."
Too often, we get drawn into believing that faithful discipleship means cultivating the correct emotion in our hearts: peaceful contemplation in worship, when truly our minds are roiling with worry; sympathy for a person in need, when truly we are preoccupied with our own concerns; excitement for a mission trip or a life change, when truly we are apprehensive. When Jesus feels anger and then acts with compassion, he reminds us that discipleship can mean loving God and our neighbor with our actions even when we are angry or anxious or distracted. Discipleship can mean responding faithfully to God's surprises and life's curveballs, even when it is hard. And in that endeavor, friends, we are never alone.
"I wouldn't want to pester God," my Sunday school classmate said all those years ago. Maybe none of us do. Maybe we all wonder, as the Psalmist asked God, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them?" (Ps. 8:4) What am I that you are mindful of me? Maybe, like my Sunday school classmate, we fear that we are not important enough to notice, not worthy of God's attention. That might be the reason that so many of us are in such a rush! We are always trying to be more important, to be more productive, to convince ourselves and each other of our own value. We want to be people worthy of attention.
But there is nothing we need to do to earn God's attention or God's love.
The promise of this story is that Christ is always ready to turn toward us. On that Galilee road, with so many limits and demands on his time, with so many consequences for stretching out his hand, Jesus chooses to touch and heal because, to Jesus, each one of God's children matters. Each one of us is a beloved and beautiful child of God. Each one of us is unique and precious. The good news of this story is that you matter to God.
The challenge of this story is to go and do likewise. The challenge is to approach those interruptions and disruptions, those unexpected intrusions and inconvenient crises, those times of uncertainty and change, as moments of opportunity. The challenge is to set aside everything we think we know about God's plan for us, all of our rush and hurry, all of our ideas about who and what is important, and to turn toward our neighbors to bless and heal, to be blessed and healed. Because when we do that, friends, when we take a moment, take a breath, and turn towards each other, we see Jesus, with us on the road.
Let us pray. Open our eyes and our hearts and our minds, God of surprises. Teach us to meet each new turn in the road with wonder. When we are angry or indifferent or anxious, bless us with wisdom to hold our emotions gently, neither to squelch them and ignore them nor to banish them, but to see and feel them and choose your way of love. Give us the courage to bridge divides, to stretch out our hands to one another and to follow wherever you lead us and bless us with a certainty that we are never alone. We pray in Jesus' name, Amen.