03 March 2011

reflecting: Mark 1:40-45

I don’t envy the folks that do bible translation and scholarship. I’m in the second semester of my second biblical language and am tired of it. Most days it’s incredibly tedious. You spend essentially a whole semester learning language and syntax, vocabulary and verb conjugations, and only get to the gratifying stuff way later. With this in mind, it’s puzzling to me when I actually come upon a verse or word that these really smart academics can’t boil down.

So we find at the end of Mark’s first chapter in Jesus’ dealing with the leper. A man suffering from leprosy, a terrible disease where your flesh rots even though you’re alive, comes to Jesus in order to be healed. Rather than asking earnestly, “Can you heal me? Can you stop me from being the living-dead? From being a social, religious, and physical outcast? Can you make me whole?” Instead, with desperate confidence he states, “If you want, you can make me clean.”

It is in Jesus’ response that the translators and commentators make their money. If you pick up ten bible translations mostly likely seven will say something along the lines of “being moved with pity and sympathy” (Amplified Bible), “moved with compassion” (NLT/KJV), “moved with pity” (ESV/NRSV/RSV), or “Deeply moved…” (The Message). The greek word that yields these translations has to do with the human bowels (splangknidzomai). His guts; the very depths of the Jewish understanding of the person. His compassion is literally sympathetic, it makes Jesus sick to his stomach. It churns his insides to see this man in this state.

The other three bibles will say something along the lines of “Jesus was indignant” (NIV 2011/TNIV) or “Jesus was incensed” (CEB). What is ticking Jesus off and why? Is he upset at the presence of this man’s brokenness before him, his deadness? Put off by the gross display of depravity? What gives?

Readers of Mark’s good news have long tried to marry these two emotions of Jesus. Based on what’s just happened (the speaking with authority and confronting demons in Mk 1:21-28), both give us a valuable insight into how Jesus encounters and overcomes evil. Jesus has just cast out an unsettling and unclean spirit from a man at the synagogue and his fame is spreading. Mark scholar Joel Marcus helps us understand that, “Jesus’ rage at the disease or at the demon that has caused it is mixed with his compassion for the man whom it has attacked, and by his gesture of touching the man he even risks contracting ritual impurity himself. But instead of impurity passing from the man to Jesus, the purity of Jesus’ holiness passes from him to the man, and the latter is cured” (from Marcus’ Anchor Bible Commentary on The Gospel of Mark, Vol 1).

Jesus doesn’t merely rage at the evil that is singling this man out and ravaging his body. Neither does Jesus’ healing good news handle his broken, dirty death with the kid-gloves of disinterested pity. He takes it on. He feels and risks. He gets angry at the right things (because this man’s sickness isn’t what it means to be human) and responds in the right ways (because of his authority, things can be different). 

This is good news that reaches down to his guts.

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