notre dame montreal

Reverence for Life

Sermon on Mark 1:40-45 preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
16th February 2003

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: "See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them." Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.  Mark 1:40-45


Most parts of the world do not have to face leprosy as major threat any more, but the reading from the Gospel is still very relevant to us today. Leprosy was a nasty illness at the time, but it was more than that. A Leper was physically ill, but they were also social outcast and they were considered to be spiritually unclean as well.

So when we consider this story of how Jesus treated a leper, we are considering issues about prejudice and acceptability and judgmental attitudes.

The Church of England and the Methodist Church are moving towards the great day when a covenant will be signed between us which has been described rightly or wrongly as an engagement to be married. There are some who have problems with theological difficulties which most people would consider totally obscure but God willing the covenant will be signed and we will fall deeper in love and get married.

This will present no great difficulty to us. Essentially our two churches were made for each other because we cater for the same social group. We might be from different denominations but we are alongside each other anyway in the workplace, we go to the same social activities outside church, it will be painless.

We are largely all white middle class who shop at the same stores, read the same newspapers etc., we are comfortable with each other.

This morning I want just to touch on the difficult subject of people who are different from us. The enormous number of people who do not form a part of our churches, who do not conform to our model.

Jesus and challenges us to ask questions about our attitude and response to human life. A man comes to Jesus with leprosy who was an outcast from his community. People looked down on Lepers because they were afraid of catching their disease, they also felt that they were like that for a reason. You didn’t just get sick like that, you must have done something, which made the situation your fault.

We can dismiss that attitude as primitive, we can tell ourselves that we are not judgmental in that way, but actually it has always been around.

When we see people in difficulty we often slave our consciences by telling ourselves that in some way they have contributed to their own plight.

One of things which I quite quickly learned to appreciate as a Minister, but which I had not really thought about much before was just how much people were victims of their circumstances rather than masters of their own destiny. The idea that we all possess the capacity to make choices and change our circumstances is a complete myth.

As an example, children of parents who are abusers, violent, or uneducated have a much harder job to break the cycle and change that from being their own destiny.

It is a difficult example but think of the tendency that we all have to look scathingly at the plight of some people in our community and blame them for not doing more for themselves. The woman (or man) who remains in an abusive or violent relationship, those who drive up mountains of debt, those who drift from one unsatisfactory employment to another and cannot hold down a job. The huge number of people in our prisons.

There is within each of us a willingness to be critical of whole masses of people who we regard as being at to blame for their situation. It is perhaps reassuring for us to imagine that the answer lies in their own hands, if only they did…..’

To take such a position makes no allowance for the wheel of misfortune upon which many people find themselves. They perhaps have known nothing better, had nothing but poor role models. Perhaps the influences which have moulded their lives have provided marred examples for them to set about casting the pattern of their lives.

I am not saying that it is OK to be violent, make a poor contribution to society, live what you and I would regard as a dysfunctional life etc. I am simply saying that many children grow into adulthood having missed the opportunity to be shown something better and as Christians we have somehow to be able to reach out.

Personally I look at the temptations which children face today, the norms presented in the lyrics of ordinary pop songs, let alone the extremes of gangster rap, which glamorize illegal as well as immoral behaviour and I wonder how we expect them to cope.

This is to acknowledge how difficult it is to break free from the influences of society around us. We must recognize that it is even more difficult to make changes when we are all in part prisoners to genetic forces which seem to condemn some to perpetuate the unfortunate choices of parents.

So what of it all ?

What is to be the Christian response to that part of society which we find to be different from us, or even beneath us ?

What is to be our position when justifiably we recognize people with dysfunctional lives ?

I am not seeking to say that we accept or tolerate things which are bad. But when we come up against those we regard as the sinners and the great unwashed, we must have the same response as Christ. How did he behave towards the outcasts, the ones that were spiritually, socially and physically impure - the one word which stands out from the reading today is compassion

Jesus looked at the threatening behaviour of the leper who approached him and instead of throwing a rock at him and telling him to go away, we are told that Jesus had compassion.

There is a theme in Mark that all kinds of people want to be touched by Jesus and Jesus wants to touch all kinds of people.

Blind people
Diseased people

Lots of people, they all wanted to touch Jesus because they knew that he would not turn round and blame them or make them feel lacking in worth. Proximity to Jesus was a safe place, they wanted to be near him and touch him and if they couldn’t touch him then they make do with touching a bit of his clothing, such was the joy of being in his presence.

(See Mark 7:33, 8:22, 10:13, 3:10, 5:27, 6.56)

Conclusion: so what do we learn?

We learn just how much Jesus is prepared to overlook, and what great social barriers he is prepared to cross. We learn that he was not somebody who considered either

Human sin
Social sin
Spiritual sin or
Physical disease

to be a barrier to his compassion.

But, God’s capacity to forgive and touch, is greater than our willingness to go.

Henri Nouwen said

‘Too often our help remains somewhere between our minds and our hands.’

Well that may be so, but often we do not even allow the need to enter our heads because we convince ourselves that some people are literally undeserving. And that is where today’s sermon really kicks in. In God’s eyes there is no such thing as the undeserving.

I was reading this week some of the writing of Albert Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer is not a name we hear very much these days, but at one time he was as famous and popular as Bob Geldof. This great man gave up a brilliant career to found and run a hospital at Lambarene in equitorial Africa. Throughout the many years of his work there he, his wife and his staff, worked - often in desperately difficult conditions - to help anyone who was suffering, and particularly those with leprosy.

In his biography, he said that he had been grappling for a long time with questions concerning the fundamental nature of civilisation and ethics. He said that he felt as though he was 'leaning with all his might against an iron door which would not yield.'

Then one day, out of the blue, the answer came to him. It was the dry season and he was sitting on the deck of a barge. As the barge searched for its way amongst the sandbanks, Albert Schweitzer was searching for what he called 'the elementary and universal concept of the ethical that I had not discovered in any philosophy'. He had covered sheet after sheet writing disconnected sentences, trying to make himself concentrate. Then, suddenly, everything slotted into place. As he puts it in his autobiography (Out of My Life and Thought, Chapter 13):

"Later on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase 'Reverence for Life'. The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the idea that I was looking for."

For me that is the message from Mark today ‘Reverence for Life.’ Jesus had it, Jesus showed it, he still shows it today as he welcomes us to his table, one and all. So what about us? Do we have that same reverence ?

Supplementary notes

In Jesus' day, the word leprosy was used for a broad range of skin conditions, many of which today would find a remedy in a good bar of soap. Sadly in the Old Testament they often thought that God afflicted people with leprosy as punishment (Num. 12:9-10; 2 Kings 5:27; 15:5; 2 Chron. 26:19-21).

Verse 41 presents us with a difficult translation problem. Most manuscripts say that Jesus was filled with pity or compassion (Greek: splanchistheis), but others say that he was angry (Greek: orgistheis). Compassion makes more sense in this context, and some good manuscripts use splanchistheis. However, there are also reasons to read anger (orgistheis) here:

First, a standard principle of translation says that the more difficult reading is to be preferred, because copyists are tempted to "improve" a manuscript by changing a difficult reading to an easier reading, but not the reverse. In this case, they would be tempted to change Jesus' anger to Jesus' compassion to make the reading easier, but would not be tempted to change compassion to anger.

Second, Matthew (8:1-4) and Luke (5:12-16), who use Mark as a source, avoid any mention of Jesus' emotion. If Mark had used the word compassion, Matthew and Luke could be expected to include that in their accounts. However, if Mark used the word anger, Matthew and Luke would be more likely to drop that from their accounts.

What would Jesus be angry about? Scholars discount the possibility that he is angry with the leper for transgressing the fifty-pace rule, because Jesus shows no reluctance to touch the man. They don't think that Jesus is angry at being interrupted, because he is often interrupted but doesn't usually respond with anger. They favour the idea that "Mark does not intend us to understand Jesus' anger as directed against the leper at all, but against the evil forces which have claimed the man as their victim" (Hooker, 80).

This prayer for animals was written by Albert Schweitzer himself:

'Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that will be put to death.

We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity, and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion, gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful.'

I was thinking recently about the Ku Klux Clan and the manner in which over the course of their history in America they singled out every minority group for attack, the blacks, the Jews, the Italians, the Catholics. It is a shocking surprise to many children in their history lessons to hear that it was only recently that black people had to stand up on buses; that African heritage was such a social disability that white shop keepers would slap a black customers' change on the counter to keep from touching their hands. In some eateries, dishes or glasses used by blacks would be broken immediately after they finished eating. If a black swam in a public or hotel pool, it would immediately be closed, drained, and disinfected. And in some of parishes, blacks were denied the Sacraments, or required to wait until all the white parishioners had received the chalice before presenting themselves at the altar for Communion.

Albert Schweitzer
Albert Schweitzer

The son of a Lutheran pastor, Albert Schweitzer was born in Alsace, then part of Germany and later part of France. By the age of 29 Schweitzer had already authored three books and made valuable contributions in the fields of music, religion, and philosophy. He was an acclaimed organist and world authority on Bach, a church pastor and principal of a theological seminary, and a university professor with a doctorate in philosophy.

At the age of 30, aware of the desperate need of Africans for medical care, he decided to become a medical doctor and devote the rest of his life serving the people of Africa. In 1913, at the age of 37, Dr. Schweitzer and his wife, Hélène, opened a hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon - then a province of French Equatorial Africa. He devoted his life from then on to providing health care for the people in the area. Not even the serious setbacks during and immediately after World War I deterred him from his mission.

In 1915 he came upon the insight, "Reverence for Life," as the elementary and universal principle of ethics which he had been seeking. From the "will to live" evidenced in all living beings, Schweitzer demonstrated the ethical response for humans - Reverence for Life. By stressing the interdependence and unity of all life, he was a forerunner of the environmental and animal welfare movements.

In 1953, at the age of 78, Albert Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 1952. In the speeches and writings during the last twelve years of his life, he emphasized the dangers of nuclear energy, nuclear testing, and the nuclear arms race between the superpowers.

Although retired as a surgeon, Albert Schweitzer continued to oversee the hospital until his death at the age of 90. He and his wife are buried on the hospital grounds in Lambaréné.

In addition to his humanitarian work, Albert Schweitzer is remembered as an insightful author in philosophy, ethics, music, and theology. Out of My Life and Thought is his autobiography in which are summarized the principal themes of his writings. This book as well as Schweitzer, a Biography by George Marshall are available through The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, 330 Brookline Avenue, Boston, MA 02215. Phone (617) 667-5111.