There was a great item on the Radio this Saturday morning about the Footballer Jermain Defoe. He has set up a scheme in the East End of London to support the sort of young people who easily turn to rioting and crime, as they did last year. But the important point is that he isn’t just a multi-millionaire footballer supporting this from afar. No, the young people who take part in the scheme actually find themselves meeting Defoe, and gaining inspiration direct from a man who made it from their streets. And Defoe makes clear that his inspiration for this is his faith in God, that, as he says, he must use the gifts God has given him.
This is the point of the Gospel today.(Mark 1:40-45) Jesus doesn’t heal the leper from afar, as he could have done. No. He does something quite unthinkable in those days; he reaches out his hand and touches the leper. Some of you may remember Princess Diana doing the same some years ago with people who had AIDS. It was headline news at a time when those with AIDS were being treated like untouchable lepers. So that is the first significant phrase in our Gospel, “He touched him.”
But then a strange thing happens. Jesus says that the leper must not tell anyone about this healing. It seems strange to us. Surely the more people who could get to know the wonderful power of Jesus, the better it would be, and yet the Gospel makes clear, here, and in a number of other places, that Jesus does not want this to happen. Why not?
The answer, I think, lies in the fact that the true Christ, the true Messiah, unlike the fake ones around at the time, did not declare his power by blowing his own trumpet, by standing up and saying “Look at me. Aren’t I wonderful!” We can see now that this is clearly the right way for Jesus to go. His power would be shown most of all when he was weak and powerless hanging on the cross. His power was not the kind we humans normally recognise, but something completely different.
This needs thinking about because we still live in a world where most of us are influenced more by people who are famous rather than people who are quiet and unknown. We look up to those who, in one way or another, push themselves forward. It is, after all, why the advertisers employ famous people to promote their products!
The choice of Jesus NOT to be like that – it was after all at the heart of all his temptations – is therefore a crucial one that we must allow ourselves to be challenged by every day. Each of us is called, as St Paul says in our 2nd reading, (1 Cor 10:31-11:1) to be “not anxious for my own advantage but for the advantage of everybody else.”
Have you ever thought that there is really no reason why God should have created the Universe at all? God doesn’t need to create anything. God is simply God and needs nothing else. But for us, God is always the creative force, the power of love and goodness, pouring out his presence through his Holy Spirit in so many different ways. That is why Jesus is also like this, not standing on high, telling people how to behave, but being in himself the compassion of God.
There is one more word in the Gospel that indicates this. It is the little word that you may not have noticed. The word “outside”. In the 1st Reading from Leviticus we hear how lepers were forced to live “outside”. They were not just untouchable, but they must be put away from the rest of society. To be a leper was to be an outcast, with a deformed body that made everyone shudder. Now notice what happens to Jesus. He not only touches the leper but takes his place. He ends up staying “outside in places where nobody lived”. The Gospel writer does not tell us this just as if it was a simple fact of history. Oh no! He is already pointing us forward to that moment where Jesus does not just take on himself the dark outside place of the leper, but the even darker place that is death itself. He accepts death so that all who accept him, accept his touch in their lives, may be given life. God enters into death and hell so that we will be saved from such an end. That’s why that little word “outside” is so important.
I have no doubt the footballer, Jermain Defoe, as a multi-millionaire lives in a big beautiful house, where he could simply ignore the poor people on the streets in Tottenham. But no! Inspired by Jesus, he reaches out and involves himself in their lives, and helps them by his very presence. and not just his money, to find a new and better future. We are not millionaires and may not be able to do anything as dramatic as that, but there are nonetheless all sorts of small ways in which we too can become more like Jesus.