I’ve written a letter to your gathering already, but Dio – that self-promoter – refuses to share it. So, if I come, I’ll bring it up in person. I’ll refute his baseless accusations against us, and point out how not only does he refuse to be hospitable to our friends, but even black-balls anyone else who does. Dear friend, don’t follow his bad example. Do what’s right. Like Demetrius, for example. Everyone loves him. He’s true blue. We vouch for him, too, and you know our word is good.
From early on, welcome and hospitality were one of the defining marks of Christian practice. But early on, the right to say who’s in and who’s out also became a defining part of Christian communities.
Today it’s no different. Lots of churches will tell you that their defining characteristic is how “friendly and welcoming” they are. And in many cases, that welcome and friendliness is still reserved just for insiders, and it’s still easy to find communities in which you’ll never feel really welcome until you have the approval of one or two key people.
While this is typical church behavior, this is another one of those dynamics that isn’t exclusive to church. Social clubs black-ball people all the time, on the basis of all kinds of things: income, race, personal preferences of a few. Businesses, families, little league teams, schoolyards – none of these is exempt.
So, think about what are really the criteria for welcome in your community? Whose approval do you really need to be a part of the in crowd?
What if you, like the writer of this letter were to bring it up in person? Who, like Demetrius, would remain true blue?
A contaminated man came and knelt in front of him. “You can purify me if you dare.” Enraged, Jesus took him by the hand and said, “Of course I want you to come clean.” And so he was. Then Jesus told him in no uncertain terms, “Go back to the priests and pay the legal fee for the certificate of reinstatement they refused to give. There’s spit in their eye!” But instead he went out and blathered it all over town, so Jesus couldn’t go into town openly. People had to come out to the boonies to see him instead.
Leprosy isn’t about Hansen’s disease. It’s about contamination. It’s about designating certain people as unacceptable. Who’s in and who’s out. Today, we have lots of leprosy tests. We’ve just changed the name of the test slightly to litmus test.
There are the biggies that churches and politicians love to argue over: divorce and remarriage, gay and lesbian, liberal and conservative, sprinkling and immersion, infant and believer. On and on it goes.
This little snippet in Mark, though, isn’t about any of those. It’s about someone who is just plain difficult. Starting with his attitude, “If you dare,” and ending with his refusal to follow orders. Is it any wonder he’s been branded a pariah by polite company? He’s got an attitude problem and a problem following directions. He’s the loud, obnoxious guy at the party that nobody wants to talk to, who’s ready to tell you everything he knows but doesn’t want to listen. He’s the one, who when you see him coming you say, “Oh, God, not him!”
He’s been so obnoxious that he’s been thrown out of the party altogether. Now, he’s coming to Jesus. Maybe he can tell Jesus a thing or two. Maybe he wants to see if Jesus is everything everyone has been saying about him. Responding to this challenge, Jesus’ response is right to the point: “Of course. Be clean.” It’s simple acceptance of who he is. “Yes, you can be in my company.”
There is a second part to Jesus’ answer, though. Jesus refuses to let his movement become sidetracked by any competing agenda. Jesus says, in effect, “Sure you can be with me, and here’s what it involves. Go back and tell those who’ve excluded you that you’re not going away. You’re back in.” It’s here that everything goes wrong, because instead of getting with the program, he misuses his encounter with Jesus as a license to be all the more obnoxious, to the point where Jesus isn’t able to go into town any more either. In effect, Jesus has become contaminated. This man’s “leprosy” has infected Jesus.
So, what to do about the obnoxious people? Did Jesus make a mistake? Yes and no. From a public relations standpoint this encounter is a disaster. It is, however, a typical result of offering a genuine welcome to everyone without exception: there will be some who just don’t get it and will make your life harder. The good news is that, if you don’t allow your mission to be sidetracked by the temptation to go into “damage control” mode, there will continue to be others who do get what you’re about, who will go out of their way to be a part of what you’re doing, like those who had to go out to the boonies to see Jesus.
Not everyone will understand what you’re about. Not everyone will be receptive of it. Some may even spread misinformation about it to claim some status for themselves. None of that is as important as being true to your mission.