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If You Are Willing

(2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Mark 1:40-45; Philippians 2:1-11)

Images of Jesus usually show him with little or no expression on his face.  Yet the Bible tells us stories in which Jesus is having strong feelings.  When Lazarus died and Jesus saw the grief of Lazarus’ sisters and friends, he wept (Jn 11:35).  And when Jesus came to Jerusalem and saw that there were people selling and buying in the temple, he overturned tables and wouldn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple (Mk 11:15-16).  When Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that he, Jesus, would undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed, Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan” (Mk 8:33)!  Jesus was a man on a mission from God, a mission to make the kingdom of God present, a mission about which he was passionate, and he had strong feelings as he went about his business.

When Jesus was approached by a leper begging Jesus to heal him if Jesus was willing, the Bible describes Jesus as having been “moved with pity.”   There is some debate about whether the original Greek should be translated as “moved with pity” or “moved with anger.”   A number of scholars think the better translation is “moved with anger.”  Even if we go with “moved with pity,” the Greek from which “moved with pity” is translated literally refers to having one’s intestines turned.[1]  When the leper approached Jesus and begged Jesus to heal him if Jesus chose to, Jesus had a strong reaction:  His stomach turned.


Now, why do you think Jesus had such a strong reaction to the leper and his request?  The fact that the leper used the phrase, “If you are willing,” gives us a key as to why Jesus reacted so strongly.  Because we know Jesus was pretty much always willing to heal people when they asked to be healed, it seems odd to hear someone say, “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” to Jesus.  Of course, Jesus would be willing to make him clean!   The phrase, “If you are willing,” then, says more about the leper than it does about Jesus. 


The leper didn’t say, “If you are willing,” because he had heard that Jesus was picky about whom he chose to heal.  The leper said, “If you are willing,” because he knew that he had an illness people were not willing to get close to.  The word “leper” in the Bible refers to a number of skin diseases.  This man may have had what we would call leprosy today, or he may have had one of a number of other skin diseases.  They were all termed “leprosy,” and those who suffered from them were termed “lepers.”  If a person had a skin disease that was termed “leprosy,” that person was considered in violation of ritual purity laws.  He or she would have been considered “unclean,” which is why the leper who approached Jesus said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Because the leper was considered unclean, he was separated from normal society.  People stayed away from him.  They probably also thought that he had been punished by God with leprosy because he had sinned.  So, in addition to being a social outcast, he was also thought to be a sinner.  As an outcast and a sinner, most people wouldn’t heal him even if they could.  And so, the leper said to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”


I think Jesus reacted so strongly, his stomach turning, because the plight of the leper angered him.  I think it angered him that people would not be willing to heal the leper even if they could because they were worried about the effect it would have on them.  They would catch the “unclean” disease.  They would become outcasts and sinners.  Healing the leper, responding to his need, came with too high a price to pay, and this angered Jesus.


I think it’s easy for us to judge the people who would not have chosen to heal or help the leper.  I think most of us think that we would have chosen to help the leper if we had been alive at that time.  But we must remember that the religious and social systems of that time taught people that lepers were unclean and that being in close proximity to them would make oneself unclean and that being unclean was unacceptable.  There really was a high price to pay for helping the leper.  Imagine that if you were to help someone in need you would become an outcast and considered a sinner, thrown out of polite society and shunned, treated like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.  That’s what it was like to help a leper in Jesus’ time.


And that is why what Jesus did was so amazing.  Jesus not only chose to heal the leper, thereby taking on the same outcast-sinner status, he also chose to touch the leper, which put him at risk of catching the disease.  He was so willing to save the leper from his physical illness (leprosy) his social illness (being an outcast), and his religious illness (considered a sinner) that he became one with the leper.  What is it that Philippians passage states?

. . . who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  (2:6-7)

Jesus emptied himself, took the form of the leper, and then brought the leper with him out of illness into health – physical health, social health, and religious health.


When those of us who are doing well are willing to enter the plight of those who are not doing well, we take all our wellness with us and give it to those who are not doing well so that they can come out of whatever unwell situation they are in into wellness with us.  It’s kind of like what happens when someone is drowning.  The lifeguard isn’t drowning, but she is willing to enter the water, go to the drowning person’s side, and bring the drowning person back to safety.  She could stay on the shore and risk nothing, but the drowning person would drown.  Or, she could enter the water, risk drowning herself, but at least have a chance of saving the drowning person.


The Christian story tells us that that is what Jesus did, not only for the leper but, also, for all of us.  Remember the Philippians passage?

. . . who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  (2:6-7)

Jesus entered our condition, the condition of being human, with all its illnesses – physical illnesses, social illnesses, religious illnesses, moral illnesses, ethical illnesses, so many illnesses – and brought all  his wellness with him into our world, inviting us to follow him out of illness into wellness.  He chose to become like us, to bring all his wellness to us, so that we might be made well.


And that is what Jesus asks us to do for others.  He asks us to do as he did, to be willing to enter the plight of those who are suffering so that we might work with them to end their suffering.  He asks us to be lifeguards, to guard the lives of those around us, and to be willing to enter the water when we see people drowning so that we can bring them safely back to shore.


Just like in Jesus’ time, there are situations in which it is difficult for us to be willing to help.  Any condition that our society or religion says makes someone “unclean” – an outcast or a sinner – will create a situation in which it is difficult for us to be willing to help.  There was a time when having an addiction was considered a moral failure.  It was thought that people gambled or drank or spent themselves into ruin because they were morally weak.  Today, addiction is understood to be a disease, something over which a person has no control.  People who suffer from an addiction are treated with much more compassion these days.  Programs have been developed to treat the condition, such as the Twelve Step programs.  Treatment centers exist, such as the Betty Ford center.  Someone, somewhere, at some time, however, had to be willing to stand in solidarity with those suffering from addictions and work with them to end their suffering – the suffering they experienced from the disease itself, and the suffering that their society and their religion inflicted on them because they had the disease.


Mental illness was also misunderstood.  “Crazy” relatives were locked in attics or sent away forever to sanitariums.  They were a source of shame.  Today, we understand that mental illness is, primarily, physiological; that when mental illness is present there are chemical processes in the body and brain that aren’t working the way they were meant to work.  People who suffer from mental illness are treated with more compassion these days.  Various types of treatments have been developed that have had some success, such as medication, psychotherapy, and shock treatment.  Someone, somewhere, at some time, however, had to be willing to stand in solidarity with those suffering from mental illness and work with them to end their suffering – the suffering they experienced from the disease itself, and the suffering that their society and their religion inflicted on them because they had the disease.


We still have conditions today that are thought to make people “unclean.”   One in recent history is AIDS.  Some people think that AIDS was sent by God to punish people because they had sinned sexually.  That’s pretty much what people thought about leprosy, too.  The person must have sinned, or why would they have the disease?  That is the very attitude that Jesus was angry about.  Being on welfare is, in some ways, considered to make people unclean.  There is the assumption that the person has failed in some way – that they are lazy and suffer from a bad character.  Instead of looking at the ways in which the social structure and life circumstances have kept a person down, the person who is down is blamed for their condition.


Of course, there are times when the person suffering has played a part in creating the condition from which they are suffering.  The drowning person chose to go swimming way out in the ocean, where there are rip tides, right?  If they’re so foolish, why should we risk our lives trying to save them?  We do so because Jesus has asked us to be lifeguards, people who guard life, and someone’s life is in danger.  It doesn’t matter that they have played a part in creating the condition they are in; their life is in danger, and we are to guard it.


Now, that doesn’t mean that we enable people to keep hurting themselves.  If we know that someone is an alcoholic, we don’t just give them money that they say they are going to use for food and enable them to go and buy more alcohol.  Instead, we go and buy the food for them or give them a grocery store gift card, and we let them know that there is help for the addiction when they are ready to receive the help.  We let them know that we will love and support them while they struggle to heal from their illness.  We invite them to find a spiritual home with us while they seek the healing they so desperately need.  But we don’t enable them to continue drinking.  We must use discernment when helping others.  Are we supporting or enabling?


Here’s the last point I’d like to make.  Yes, Jesus asks us to be willing to help those who are in need.  He asks us to be willing to enter into solidarity with them and work with them to relieve their suffering.  But he also asks us to be willing to ask for help when we need it and to take it when it’s offered.  We will need help at times, too.  We are no better off than anyone else because, at base, we’re all in the same condition:  the human condition.  And the human condition is variable, like the stock market.  One day we have enough money, enough food, a warm house, a hot shower, clothes to wear, good health, and people to love and be loved by.  The next day we lose one or more of these things and are suffering and in need.  Maybe it happened because of something we did and maybe it just happened.  It doesn’t matter one way or the other when we consider asking for and accepting help.  It is a time for others to be lifeguards for us, to guard our life, and we would do well to be willing to allow them to tow us back to shore.


The question we must ask ourselves is, “Are we willing to be in relationships with each other to the extent that when asked to help we are willing to do so, and when needing help, we are willing to ask for it?”  I think, ultimately, that is what Jesus is asking us to do:  to care so passionately about others that we are willing to respond to their need, and to care so passionately about ourselves that we are willing to ask others to respond to our need and to accept their help when they do.  Let us remember that, confronted by the situation the leper was in – suffering from a physical illness and then persecuted by his religion and his society because he was suffering from a physical illness –  Jesus’ stomach turned.  He cared so passionately for people that their suffering caused him to suffer, and he was moved to take action.  This is the kind of passionate love Jesus asks us to have for others and for ourselves.  If we are willing, we can act with that kind of passionate love and work with Jesus at creating the kingdom of heaven on earth.  May it be so.  Amen.


Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, February 11, 2024, the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany.





[1] Texts for Preaching:  A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year B.  Walter Brueggeemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, and James D. Newsome.  Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, 150.

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