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"Anger, Compassion and Disease"

Mark 1:40-49

Rev. Alan Taylor

Epiphany 6, series B
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 

+ In Nomine Jesu +

"A leper came to Jesus, imploring Him, and kneeling said to Him, 'If you will, you can make me clean.' Moved with compassion, Jesus 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."

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

The Little Girl

A little girl whose Daddy was dying of cancer came out of his room, she fell into her Mother's arms and said, "I hate cancer."  It's not likely that she really knew very much about her father's condition.  She only knew that she hated what was happening to her Daddy.  People called his disease "cancer" and so, quite naturally she hated "cancer."

Anger, which can often be such a destructive force, was, in this case, rightly placed.  What takes many of us years, perhaps even decades to learn, the little girl seemingly knew instinctively.  She didn't hate the doctors who couldn't heal her father.  She didn't hate God for not making her Daddy well.  She didn't hate herself as if she might, in some way, have been responsible for Daddy's sickness.  No, she hated cancer, the disease that was draining the life out of her father. 

In a poem titled, "Call to Resist Evil," Judith Mattison writes:


Rage against the evil!

Fight it in all forms-

most especially evil which is


and insidiously oppressive

so that one chooses not to fight

from lack of self-respect

or fear of failure.


fight the cancer

which destroys from within.

Flail, scream, fight!

Give power to the life

which is intended to survive!

Rage against the evil!

(Judith Mattison, Life is God, Life is Hard. Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1987, pp. 54-55.)

The Textual issue

This discussion of anger and how it relates to disease may seem to have little to do with the Gospel reading for this morning.  After-all, in the passage that I read just a few moments ago from Mark 1, there is no mention whatsoever of anger, either on the part of the leper or on the part of Jesus.  In fact, most of the English translations tell us that, in seeing the man struck with leprosy, Jesus had "compassion" or "pity" on him. 

It is true, however, that there are a couple of alternate Greek texts that use the word "anger" in place of "compassion" or "pity" in Mark 1:41.  If we were to go with one of those alternate renderings of this incident, the passage would then read, "Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched (the man) and said to him, I will, be clean.'" As is the case with all such variations in the ancient manuscripts, the change is subtle and it doesn't materially affect God's revelation to us through Holy Scripture.  In this case, however, we gain some insight into the place of anger, a very human emotion, in dealing with disease and sickness.

Since Jesus wept at the grave of His friend Lazarus, we can certainly understand how He would be angry that the man before Him in this text was marred and disfigured by leprosy.  His anger, mind you, would be directed, not at the man, but, at the consequence of sin. 

Righteous anger over disease and its source

Anger, rightly placed, or, rightly directed is a good thing, evidenced by the fact that even Jesus, the One who was without sin, was driven to anger.  Thus, when the Temple, His Father's house, was turned from a place of prayer to a place for changing money, Jesus drove the money changers out with whip and He overturned the tables they were using to peddle their wares.  He was right to be angry because what was holy was being trampled upon by those who despised the presence of God in their midst. 

We, of course, don't have the capacity to be angry as Jesus was, namely because our anger is never really driven by completely pure and holy concerns or motives.  When it comes to disease though, our anger, when properly placed, is good, namely because disease represents an intrusion of the profane into the divine.

The point is, God did not create us to suffer or die.  But because the Devil was able to coerce Adam into trying to write his own script for life and happiness, both suffering and death are part of our existence and our experience.  They come, however, not from God's hand, but, from the cunning and treacherous hand of the devil.  Thus, when the Pharisees objected to Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath, He said, "And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?"

The little girl didn't hate the doctors who couldn't heal her father.  She didn't hate God for not making her Daddy well.  She didn't hate herself as if she might, in some way, have been responsible for Daddy's sickness.  No, she hated cancer, the disease that was draining the life out of her father.

Compassion and its role in Jesus' ministry

Though I've taken the liberty to speak thus far about Jesus' healing of the leper based on an alternate reading of the text, it is important to note that Jesus did have "compassion" on the man as well.  In fact, the word "compassion" is used in the majority of our translations of Mark 1:41.  While anger is our general reaction to suffering and pain, Jesus goes beyond anger to tremendous acts of kindness and compassion.  He finds us when we hurt the most and He binds up our wounds with the balm of His forgiveness and grace. 

Unlike us, our Lord is able to make what is broken whole again.  Sometimes He does it through the healing of our bodies.  Other times He lets our infirmity remain in order to show us something we could never see when we were whole. 

Nicholas Westerhoff, who lost a son, writes of the tragedy in his book Lament.  He wrote "I shall look at the world through tears.  Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see." Later in the book Westerhoff also quotes from Augustine's Confessions (IX, 12): "The tears...streamed down, and I let them flow as freely as they would, making of them a pillow for my heart. On them I rested."

Either way, whether God takes away our suffering and pain, or, turns it into a source of hope and light, His compassion overwhelms us, even as it changes us.  The cross of our Lord and the blessings of those pierced hands and feet that flow into our lives through this Supper of which we are about to partake, is God's compassion that triumphs over evil and the anger that it creates in our broken hearts.  Perhaps it is then, when God has had such compassion on us that we learn to be more like the little girl who suffered the loss of her father.  She hated cancer, rather than the doctors, herself or even God.  And by God's grace, like Westerhoff, who lost his son, "though she looked at life through tears, perhaps she will see things that dry-eyed she could not see." 

"God His own doth tend and nourish;

In His holy courts thy flourish.

From all evil things He spares them;

In His mighty arms He bears them."

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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