Lenten Devotional (Day 3) - Moved by Mercy
Updated: Feb 24
Friday, February 19 - Scripture: Mark 1:35-45
In today’s readings in Mark’s Gospel we encounter Jesus healing a man with leprosy. Like many of the stories in the Gospels, this one is a reminder of the cultural distance between the world of the text and our contemporary setting.
Leprosy is not nearly as common an ailment here in 21st century Canada as it was in the 1st century in Jesus’ setting. However, this story has much relevance for our modern ears and culture. Leprosy much like the current COVID-19 virus, is a highly contagious disease which would have been the impetus for social distancing from all those afflicted. Adding another layer of uncleanness was the commonly held perception in the first century that all forms of illness and disease of this nature were directly a result of sin or unfaithfulness in the afflicted or their family (also see John 9 for this assumption even from Jesus disciples in their encounter with a man born blind).
To have leprosy was to be both physically afflicted as well as socially ostracized. And while we may not be able to relate to leprosy directly in our culture, we certainly have people and people groups in our culture that are deemed just as unclean and marginalized as lepers were in Jesus’ day.
What is fascinating in this particular story is both the leper’s request of Jesus and Jesus response. The leper begs Jesus both to heal him and make him clean which are further clues that the challenges for him were not merely physical but social. He desired not only physical healing, but perhaps even more fundamentally to be loved and included in the life of the community.
In response we read that Jesus “was moved with compassion” and did the unthinkable—he reached out and touched him. I often wonder when the last time this ostracized man, excluded from community life, would have experienced the physical touch of anyone. It was the compassion of Jesus which led him to cross over the cultural boundary of clean/unclean to bring both healing and social inclusion to this leper.
Stories of Jesus like this one can and should challenge all too common notions of holiness as distancing oneself or one’s group from people and groups deemed “unclean”. Jesus life and ministry deconstruct impoverished notions of holiness, embodying the word of Jesus, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. True holiness as defined and embodied by Jesus is not distancing oneself from those deemed unclean out of fear of contamination, but like Jesus, being moved by mercy and compassion to bring the healing light and love to those marginalized and viewed as unclean.
In his superb book “Unclean” psychologist and theologian Richard Beck writes,
“Specifically, how are we to draw the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion in the life of the church? Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the “clean” and expelling the “unclean.” Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries.”
May we be moved by compassion to lives marked by mercy and motivated by love, which crosses over religious and cultural boundaries to extend hospitality and mercy to those whom, like the leper, desire to be included and loved.
Who are the people and groups which are ostracized and marginalized by our culture and/or by the church?
How does Jesus reframe what true holiness looks like?