Moved With Pity

February 12, 2012

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It’s 1986.  You’re a seventeen year old junior in high school and Valentine’s Day is on a Friday that year.  There’s a beautiful sophomore who’s caught your eye.  Her older sister is a model and she’s better looking than her older sister.  You go to the store to get her candy—Russell Stover’s or Brach’s, Russell Stover’s or Brach’s?  You go with Russell Stover’s, because you find a stuffed bear holding a heart-shaped box of Russell Stover’s chocolates…perfect.
You arrive at school with your game plan: between second and third period you’ll see her in the hallway by her locker, give her the bear and candy, and ask her on a date for that night.  You have your speech perfected, rehearsed, ready to go.  You’re crazy about this girl, but you’ll be cool, casual, maybe even a bit suave.  As your second period history class is winding down your palms begin to sweat, your heart begins to race.
The bell rings, you enter the hallway and begin walking toward her locker, but she’s chatting with a couple friends and you panic because you wanted a private moment.  You stand frozen in the hallway and before you know it the bell rings and you tuck the bear and candy back under your Levi’s denim jacket and rush off to Trigonometry, thinking to yourself, “No problem, I’ll ask her after school.”
The final bell rings and you again walk down the hallway toward her locker—palms sweaty and heart racing yet again—only to see her blushing as she receives some flowers from another guy and smiles at him, “See you tonight,” she tells him.  As the guy waltzes past you, he gives you a smirk.  He’s going on a date with her that night; you’re not.   It’s too late.  You missed your chance.
You drive home with the bear and candy in the passenger seat, the bear silently staring at you, seemingly mocking you.  When you get home you give the bear and candy to your little sister— she thinks you’re so nice to do that and you smile and say nothing.  Later that night you sit alone in your room feeling a like a loser as you watch Miami Vice, wishing more than anything that you could be as confident and cool as Don Johnson….
Valentine’s Day is just a couple days away—and it’s is a mixed bag, isn’t it?  Going all the way back to elementary school when you had to give Valentines to everyone in your class… which one do you give your best friend?  Which one do you give to person you have a crush on? Which one do you give the weird kid in class? (That’s the most important because you certainly don’t want to send the wrong message to the weird kid ).
All the way into adulthood Valentine’s Day can be thrilling for some, riddled with anxiety for others—the flowers and candy usually have strings attached.  For still others, Valentine’s Day is one of the loneliest days of the entire year.
To be a leper in Jesus’ day meant you were often alone.  If you were a leper, listen to what the Old Testament mandated about you:

“The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his

head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He
shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease… He shall live alone; his dwelling
shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45-46).
Imagine not being allowed to touch or be touched by another human being—no hugs, no kisses, no handshakes, no pats on the back, no comforting caresses, no high-fives.  Imagine people avoiding you every day, avoiding eye contact as they hurriedly pass you by, parents turning their little kids away from seeing you.  Imagine being allowed to attend worship at a synagogue only if you stood behind a screen that isolated you from everyone else, so that no one would even have to look at you.
This is the kind of person who approaches Jesus for help, literally begging on his knees, utterly broken, utterly desperate.
“If you choose,” the leper says to Jesus, “You can make me clean.”
If you choose…
In the Old Testament there are many passages about choosing to serve the Lord, the most well-known being Joshua’s charge to Israel: “Choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
That’s the law.  Just choose to serve God.  Just make that choice.
But interestingly enough, there is nothing in the New Testament about choosing to serve the Lord or choosing to do much of anything else.  Instead, the New Testament emphasizes that God has already chosen you.
That’s grace.
At the Last Supper Jesus, only hours before his death, told his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16).  The Apostle Paul put it this way: “(God) chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). The Apostle Peter put it this way: “You are a chosen race” (I Peter 2:9).
Now that we are well into February many people have punted on their New Year’s resolutions, things they chose to do or not do in 2012.  Resolutions tend to have a relatively brief shelf life,
“Good resolutions are useless attempts to interfere with scientific laws.  Their origin is
pure vanity.  Their result is absolutely nil… They are simply checks that people draw on
a bank where they have no account.”
Do you think the leper chose to be a leper, to be isolated and ostracized and alone, all the time? Do you think all he had to do was make choices and resolutions to improve his circumstances?
It’s not just lepers in Jesus’ day.  How many of you are in situations you did not choose, situations that defy your resolutions?  Ranging perhaps from emotional disorders to toxic family dysfunction to mountains of debt to chronic medical conditions to addictions to feeling trapped in a marriage where you feel tolerated rather than cherished—situations you would never have chosen for yourselves.
The leper knew that ultimately when it came to his condition, that it was Jesus’ choice that mattered, not his own—“If you choose,” the leper said to Jesus, “You can make me clean.”
“If you choose” could also be translated “if you are willing” or… “if you want to.”
How did Jesus respond?
Mark writes that Jesus was “moved with pity.”
The phrase “moved with pity” can also be also translated “moved with compassion.” Compassion was always the starting point of Jesus’ ministry.  The Bible tells us: “When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
And Jesus was moved with pity, moved with compassion for the leper.
And defying the ceremonial and ritual law of the Old Testament, which forbade anyone from touching a leper lest they be defiled, Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched (the leper)”— perhaps the first time the leper had been touched in years.
And Jesus looked the leper in the eye and said, “I do choose.  Be made clean!”
In touching the leper Jesus incurred defilement according to Mosaic Law, but in spite of the finger-wagging of the self-righteous religious leaders—as scholar Walter Wessel put it, “(Jesus) boldly placed love and compassion over ritual and regulation.”
And Jesus’ compassionate touch healed the leper.  Mark tells us that “immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”
Have you ever received a compassionate hug that brought you comfort and healing?  It’s what can happen when a dad hugs his sobbing daughter who’s been used and dumped by a boyfriend, or when a sister hugs her addicted brother and reassures him that she still loves him, or when friends who have had a massive falling out are reconciled and embrace. It’s what happens when someone knows all about you—your successes, failures, neuroses, all of it—and not only still loves you but still likes you too—and gives you a hug to prove it.
That kind of compassionate touch heals.
Think about your life for a moment.  In the same way lepers in Jesus’ day had to identify themselves as unclean so that people would stay away from them, many people in their hearts feel unclean, and therefore think God wants nothing to do with them , that God wants to stay away from them.
Some people feel unclean in their hearts because of things they have done, things that were entirely their fault; others feel unclean in their hearts because of things that were done to them, things that were not their fault at all.  For many, it’s a combination of the two.
And this sense of uncleanness can blanket people with shame, and a sense that God could never love someone like them, never ever.
This sense of uncleanness is not something people choose for themselves, and it defies any resolutions to choose to get over it.
The only thing that can make people feel clean again, in their hearts, is the grace of God, grace like Jesus gave the leper, who was so moved with pity and compassion that he touched him and made him clean—immediately, completely clean.
In 2000 the band U2 released their album, All that You Can’t Leave Behind. The final track on the album is entitled, Grace, and Bono sings:
Grace, she takes the blame She covers the shame Removes the stain… Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
I heard it preached once that we often define ourselves either by what has been done by us or by what has been done to us.  But because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we are defined neither by what has been done by us nor to us; rather, we are defined by what has been done for us…in Jesus’ death on the cross.
In his death on the cross Jesus shed his blood for you, to make you clean.
It was not your choice; it was his choice.  God chooses to make you clean because he wants to.
God’s grace can take the ugly things in your life and make something beautiful.
A couple weeks ago I watched the film, 500 Days of Summer (2009), about a young man named Tom (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his 500-day relationship with a girl named Summer (played by Zooey Deschanel).  Near the end of the film Summer breaks up with Tom, but Tom is still in love with her.
Later Summer invites Tom to a party she’s hosting.  As Tom arrives at her party the movie then splits into two sections—the left half is subtitled “Expectations” and the right half subtitled “Reality”—and simultaneously you watch both scenarios played out.
On the “Expectations” half you see Tom being greeted affectionately at the door by Summer, and he gives her a gift for which she is excessively grateful.  The rest of the sequence shows Tom and Summer talking, flirting, and eventually kissing as they rekindle their relationship.  This is what Tom’s expecting and hoping for.
On the “Reality” half you see Tom being greeted politely but distantly by Summer, who smiles at the gift but is not at all touched by it.  The rest of the sequence shows Tom, nursing a drink and awkwardly trying to engage with various people in conversation, while Summer all but ignores him.  Then, as he sees Summer showing off a ring, he realizes that she’s engaged to another man, and that the party she had invited him to was actually her engagement party.
Obviously, Tom is devastated and quickly departs.  As he leaves the party the “Reality” half of the movie slowly expands until it covers the entire screen, literally erasing Tom’s “Expectations.”
It is a brilliant piece of film-making, and it resonates because how often in your life has the reality you did not want slowly covered your expectations, until your expectations and hopes are no longer even on the screen?
The good news of the gospel is that this is all reversed, that God’s grace—which eventually is better than anything you could have expected or hoped for— is the ultimate reality in your life, not your expectations.
That is what the leper encountered from Jesus, who was moved with pity and compassion, and whose touch healed him and made him clean.
And it’s the same for you.
God has always been and is now moved with pity and compassion for you, because he chooses to, because… he wants to.
And in time the reality of God’s grace will cover everything in your life, the entire screen.
Back to 500 Days of Summer for a moment… the movie doesn’t end with Tom leaving Summer’s engagement party (it wouldn’t be much of a romantic comedy if it did).  At the very end of the film he meets a beautiful girl at a job interview.  She smiles at him and introduces herself, “Hi, my name is… Autumn”—literally a new season for Tom .
So regardless of what kind of Valentine’s Day you have this week, be encouraged, because the grace of God in Jesus Christ is a Valentine for every kid in the class, including you, and there are no strings attached.
Amen.

Bible References

  • Mark 1:40 - 42

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