3 Verse Jesus

Posted on September 28, 2015

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Is there a better, more concise, broad-stroke sketch of Jesus than Mark 1:42-44?  Jesus heals a man with leprosy.  Look at this bolded section, in context:

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”  Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

In only three verses, the author of Mark sketches out three characteristics that form the broad, skeletal outlines of Jesus’ full character.

  1. “Moved with pity….” Jesus is not an automaton floating through our universe.  He is not a Dr. Manhattan from the Watchmen, alien and removed from this world by his God-hood.  He is fully present here in this narrative, engaged with the stuff of life as it happens on the ground.  He sees human suffering and responds to it- and responds to it, not with apathy or ambivalence, but with action, and not with action that is unmotivated by something deeper.  Jesus was moved with pity.   His heart was engaged on behalf of this leper.  Jesus cared about this person’s life, his trajectory in the world that had been stunted by the terrible disease of leprosy.  Jesus. Felt. Something.  For the leper.  What we see in this moment is pity, is care.  We will learn later in this Gospel, and in the others and in the rest of the New Testament, that what this also is, is love.
  2. “And immediately the leprosy left him….”  Jesus supernaturally heals the man, completely and totally.  The leprosy leaves him, such that he is immediately clean.  His body is healed enough that Jesus can order him to go and show himself to the high priest as proof of what happened.  This is not normal medical work, this is not a normal biological development, and Jesus is not a normal man.  He is something- someone- else entirely.
  3. “And Jesus charged him sternly…” Jesus is not trifling.  He is not a wishy-washy figure, absent any inclination or willingness to order, to command, to be serious and expect seriousness in response.  He is, emphatically, Not Playing Around.  He has a task for the newly-healed leper to carry out, one which he is not gently suggesting or politely asking to be completed, ‘if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, my good man’.  He is telling.  Sternly.  In the text Jesus does not give any inclination that he feels badly about it.

I am, of course, fascinated by the economy of style that the author of Mark uses, as have many readers throughout history.  Mark is our action gospel, our compressed gospel.  There is no waste here.  And so it is fascinating to me that in just three verses, the Mark writer can plot out three critical points on the geometric shape of Jesus’ character.  He draws the triangle inside which everything else we come to know about Jesus will fit.  Loving.  Serious.  Supernatural.

It is also interesting to me because, in this story, the characteristics of kindness and sternness follow after one another so immediately.  Jesus takes pity on the man, heals him, and addresses him sternly.  Bam, bam, bam.  The tension between kindness and sternness is introduced by their immediate proximity, separated by just one verse.  And it is not resolved.

Resolving this tension has been a constant theme in the lives of individual Christians, and in the Church as a whole, almost since its inception.  How can God be both of these things?  Christians have routinely located this tension and, finding it difficult to live in, have instead often ‘solved’ the tension to one side or the other- focusing on God’s loving attitudes and posture at the expense of his seriousness, or vice versa.  This resolving act often looks like trying to stand on a ball.  Having chosen one side to stand on, love or toughness, they eventually find that the opposite side does not wish to stay opposite, and they come falling down.

Without belaboring it much, the fruit of such resolution is readily observed.  How we carry this tension will shape our understanding and expectations: of church, of worship, of the Christian life, and of life in general.  What should the songs we sing in worship talk about?  What is my walk with Jesus going to look like?  How should I respond to life’s varied occurrences, both good and bad?  What does God think about me?

In Mark 1 a tension is introduced that the author has no interest in resolving or explaining away.  Jesus, in one moment tender and kind with the leper, in the very next serious and stern.

What seems clear is that God retains the right to be fully whoever he wishes to be with us.  He will be tender, or serious, or supernatural, or any of his other infinite characteristics, and all in the same story if he chooses.  The ball is not for standing on.

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