Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who happened to meet an ugly frog, a talking frog as it turns out. "Hello, beautiful princess," said the frog. "I'm not really a frog at all. I've been enchanted by an evil sorcerer. If you kiss me, I will turn into a handsome prince."
So the beautiful princess looked around to make sure nobody was watching, then bent over and kissed the frog. Just as you might expect, there was a loud noise and a puff of smoke. When the smoke cleared it revealed two frogs sitting side by side.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who happened to meet an ugly frog. "Hello, beautiful princess," said the frog. "I'm not really a frog at all. I've been enchanted by an evil sorcerer. If you kiss me, I will turn into a handsome prince."
This beautiful princess forgot to look around to make sure nobody was watching. History is unclear now whether the frog ever became a handsome prince. But there is no doubt that gossip forced the princess to leave the castle in disgrace. After all, she might start developing warts on her face. And who could predict what new scandalous behavior she might take up? Or what new scandalous companions she might take up with?
It is really, really hard for us to understand the world Jesus lived in. Ancient Jews didn't live the way modern Christians do. It is too easy for us to see them through twenty-first century eyes, and miss what was really going on.
For instance, leprosy. Modern leprosy is a definite disease, sometimes called Hanson's disease. Ancient leprosy was a catch-all term for any kind of skin problem. I don't know this, but I can imagine that even teen-age acne could have been called leprosy. If you did have "leprosy" you were supposed to wear rags, not comb your hair, cover your upper lip, live outside of town, and shout "Unclean, unclean" to anybody who might be tempted to come too close.
Please understand: they were not worried about leprosy germs. Instead they were concerned with the proper way to worship God. People who were clean could approach God in worship. People who were unclean couldn't. The idea is that God needs perfection of body as well as purity of soul. That God can't stand the ugly.
There is an old story that two High Priests of the Jerusalem temple got into a scuffle. The current High Priest bit the former High Priest on the ear, so that he would have a permanent scar, and never be permitted to be High Priest again.
The ancient Hebrews thought God can't stand ugliness. God can't stand scars. God can't stand people who have touched blood. At least, that's what they thought.
Some forms of uncleanness could be fixed. If you had touched a dead body or a leper, you waited a set time and went through the right ritual washings to become clean again. If you had given birth to a baby, as Mary did to Jesus, you waited the set time and took the right sacrifice to the temple. If you were cured of your own leprosy you showed your fresh, unmarked skin to a priest, and waited the set time and went through the right rituals. Then you were pronounced clean, and they would let you in the temple again.
And some forms of uncleanness could never be fixed. The High Priest with the scar was out of luck. The same was true for someone born blind or crippled. Notice that it wasn't morality they were concerned with but what I call the “gross” factor. They thought God didn't like gross things.
Now please imagine a leper who breaks the rules. He is supposed to stay at a distance, but he comes up close. He is supposed to shout, "Unclean," but instead he issues a challenge: "If you really want to, Jesus, you can make me clean."
At this point we have a problem in the text. Our NIV Bibles, tells us that Jesus, moved with compassion, stretches out his hand. Other Bibles have a footnote, "Other ancient authorities read anger." Now we in the 21st century can understand why Jesus would feel compassion, but how do we understand the anger?
Verse 43 has a similar problem, the phrase "with a strong warning." Why is Jesus giving this man a strong warning if he formerly felt compassion? “A strong warning” probably isn’t strong enough, the Greek word means snorting with fury. What could it be that makes Jesus so angry?
Verses 44 and 45 might give us a clue. Once again the former leper breaks the rules, and the result is that Jesus can't go into a town openly. The image here is one of gossip: "Did you hear what Jesus did? He actually touched a leper! Does anybody know if he has been ritually purified yet? And what other scandalous unclean things might he contaminate himself with? And what other scandalous unclean companions might he be running around with?"
All my life I've thought verse 45 was good publicity. But what if it is really bad publicity? What if Jesus can no longer enter a town openly because it makes people squeamish? By touching the outsider, Jesus becomes an outsider, and eventually he will end up dying as an outsider, on a cross outside the city.
What seems to be happening here, is that Jesus is caught between a pushy leper and the community sense of propriety. The leper is pushing him to behave in ways he doesn't want. And he is angry because he is being put in a bind. Jesus wants to heal, but he doesn't want to be pushed outside. Jesus wants to be able to mix with the beautiful people, and yet his divine sympathies are linking him with the ugly people. In other words, he got seen kissing a frog.
I wonder if that pushy leper got Jesus to change the focus of his ministry. I wonder if at first Jesus was angry at being pushed, but later on realized, "This is what my heavenly father wants me to be: an outsider."
How do we apply this to ourselves in today's world? We're no longer afraid of being contaminated by a skin disease (although it's not very long ago that we were afraid of being contaminated by an AID's patient.) We're not embarrassed to wear a bandaid to church or even show off a scar. If someone really has a problem with how ugly they are, there is always plastic surgery. This has become a non-issue. Or has it?
Our society is obsessed with cleanliness as a health issue, but we don't care at all about cleanliness as a religious issue. So I think we need to translate the words "clean" and "unclean" into new words: "inside" and "outside."
It seems to me that the church is often caught in the same bind Jesus was put in, caught between pushy outsiders and a community sense of what is proper and dignified. We get pushed into a corner and forced to decide: will we just talk like Christians, or start behaving like Christ? It's alright to kiss frogs if we could be sure they would end up looking and behaving just like us. But what do we do if, after the kiss is over, everyone else still thinks the frog looks like a frog? What do we do if they think we are starting to look a little green and talk with a bit of a croak?
And this raises another question. Each of us is trying very hard to be an insider, to act like an insider, and to draw the boundary between us and "those outside." Yet each of us is secretly afraid that we are really outsiders, too. I can remember what it was like to be a kid in primary school, clumsy and uncoordinated, a kid who wore glasses, I was always chosen last for sports teams, a kind of outsider. And I have grown up with that feeling of being an outsider still "inside" me. Even though I deliberately joined an organization (the church) where I would be an insider, even though I behave like an insider, I still have that outsider feeling. I wonder if you feel it, too?
Maybe it was not the frog, maybe it was actually the princess who was under an evil spell. Maybe deep inside she was really a frog, and there was no way she could kiss another frog into being a handsome prince. Maybe evil enchantments don't make you look like an outsider. Maybe they make you behave like an insider.
It reminds me of a horrible Sunday School song I learned as a child:
One door and only one, and yet its sides are two.
I'm on the inside; on which side are you?
Because, you know, I don't think the outsiders can ever get inside. If we do manage to get inside one boundary, we discover that we are still outside another boundary. Becoming an insider is like finding the inside of an onion. There are always more layers to screen us out. Becoming an insider is an addiction like gambling: "If I can just get inside one more boundary, become part of the right group, I'll have it made."
I think Jesus could only help the leper by touching him. And in the process Jesus himself became unclean. I think there is no way Jesus can ever draw us "inside." That is why he has to come outside to us. The only way the princess can heal the frog is by becoming a frog. Or admitting to her own essential froggy nature.
And I think the church will never succeed in turning outsiders into insiders. The only way to help, the only way to heal, is by turning ourselves into outsiders.
We have a beautiful church, don't we? Beautiful stained glass windows. A magnificent organ, an awe inspiring pulpit. Wouldn't it be nice if we could get just a few more outsiders who want to become insiders who look and act just like us? If they don't come in too rapidly, we can teach them, socialize them into the right insider behavior, spray them with spiritual Detol(TM). Well, it didn't work for Jesus. And I doubt if it will work for us.
It's time to admit that we are all outsiders masquerading as insiders. We are all frogs pretending to be princes and princesses. Even as we show off our shiny shoes, we are secretly aware of the webs between our toes. As we sip our coffee elegantly and bite our biscuits delicately, we are all the time dreaming about licking flies out of the air in the privacy of our own homes.
We can never truly become insiders, so why not create a church for outsiders? Leigh Memorial Uniting Church, the church for outsiders! If Jesus could let a pushy outsider change the course of his ministry, maybe we can let frogs kiss us. Leigh Memorial Uniting Church, the church for outsiders. Maybe the respectable churches would shun us because of our frog germs. But I think we could pull it off, and change the course of our ministry.
There used to be a saying in the 1970's: The job of a Christian is to kiss frogs. Maybe we need to update it: The job of a Christian is to let the frogs kiss us. The job of a Christian is to become a frog. Or maybe to be the frogs we've always been.
What do you think?
With special thanks to Don Hoffman for inspiring idea