It is no secret that today there are deep divisions in our society and in our churches. This Sunday’s Scripture readings remind us that there were deep social and religious divisions in the Judaism of Jesus’ day as well and in the Christian communities founded by Paul. They also remind us that in their own contexts, Jesus and Paul tried to be uniters, not dividers.
In today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel a man suffering from “leprosy” approaches Jesus in faith and asks for healing. Jesus takes pity on him and heals him immediately and completely. He then directs him to go to the priests for verification of his healing. In response the healed man proclaims what Jesus had done for him, and the result is increasing popular enthusiasm for Jesus.
The term translated “leprosy” most likely refers not to what we call Hansen’s disease but rather to various skin diseases that were then regarded as infectious. Such conditions not only brought physical sufferings to the victim but also caused separation or quarantine from family and friends, and from Jewish society in general. The reading from Leviticus 13 provides a vivid picture of the kind of social exclusion that was imposed upon those who bore such diseases. Precautions had to be taken. Yet the biblical directive is both understandable and heartbreaking: “He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” One can imagine the sadness and isolation that such persons had to endure.
More than the other Evangelists, Mark gives attention to Jesus’ emotions. He tells us that at the leper’s request, Jesus was “moved with pity.” His compassion was undoubtedly a factor in his positive response to the leper’s request for healing. In restoring the man to physical health, Jesus was also returning him to full participation in human society and in the people of God. That is why Jesus instructs the man to show himself to the priests in accord with Leviticus 16—so that he might again be a full member of his social and religious community. In this text Jesus appears not only as a powerful healer but also as a compassionate uniter seeking to overcome separation and isolation from God’s people.
Today’s selection from 1 Corinthians comes at the end of Paul’s long attempt (8:1-11:1) to adjudicate a dispute between two factions in the Christian community. The dispute concerned eating meat and other foods that had been associated with rites in pagan temples. The “strong” held that there was no problem, since the pagan gods did not really exist. The “weak” felt that eating such foods indiscriminately might involve them in pagan worship. On the intellectual and theological level, Paul sided with the “strong.” But as a uniter and a good pastoral theologian, Paul did not regard theological correctness in this matter to be the ultimate value. He was more concerned with unity and mutual respect.
In summing up his advice, Paul urges both sides to “do everything for the glory of God.” Rather than quarreling over what one may eat or drink, Paul challenged the Corinthian Christians to aim much higher. He recognized how easy it is to become captive to routines and prejudices, to focus on the faults and mistakes of others and to become prisoners of petty animosities and squabbles. Instead Paul placed before the Corinthians the widest and noblest vision of human existence imaginable: “Do everything for the glory of God.” In that vision whatever we do becomes not only important and meaningful but also an opportunity to praise and worship God.
In support of this challenge, Paul points to his own example of trying to “please everyone in every way...that they may be saved.” As an apostle Paul was convinced that his special calling was to bring all kinds of people—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female—to understand and embrace the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. His goal in pleasing others was not simply to win a good reputation or personal comfort. Rather, his aim was to bring about good things for others: right relationship with God and fullness of life in God’s kingdom. This is the very definition of love: to desire and facilitate what is good for the other.
Paul closes by raising the challenge even higher: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” What does this imitation involve? It is not a mere external kind of imitation in dress or speech or physical mannerisms. This imitation must be deeper and more spiritual. Paul himself has provided us with some clues. To imitate both Christ and Paul is to do everything for the glory of God, to desire and work for the good of others and to live out the ideals and values that Jesus exemplified and Paul made his own. Those who embrace this challenge will turn out to be uniters, not dividers.