…As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places (Mark 1: 45).
I read an excellent novel recently. It’s called Home, by Marilynne Robinson. She won the Pulitzer Prize and everything. In the story a prodigal son returns home in mid life, where one of his sisters is caring for their elderly father, who was the Presbyterian minister in a Midwestern American town for forty years. It’s a very sad story because they all struggle to talk openly to each other. Jack, the son, was always the black sheep of the family – involved in petty theft, didn’t join in family activities as a child, and later had a child out of wedlock, which he abandoned, before becoming an alcoholic (he even failed to return to his own mother’s funeral). The part that struck me most was a section in the book that points out how lonely Jack was as a child, even though he grew up in a house full of people. Sometimes they thought he had run away but he was just at the top of the tree in the backyard, listening for hours to everything going on in the house. It seems that even though he knew the family loved him, he felt they didn’t understand him. He didn’t understand himself, but he certainly knew that they didn’t understand him either. I think that is what loneliness is; the feeling that we are not truly understood. If you feel that others don’t know you, even though they ‘know’ you, it’s a very lonely feeling. On the other hand even if you are all alone, but you know there are people somewhere in the world who understand you and belong to you, you don’t feel lonely. It’s strange.
It seems to me that Jesus must have led the loneliest life there ever was. No-one he knew truly understood him. The more he knew himself, humanly speaking, the less they did. At the point of his greatest self expression and self awareness, his death, others exhibit the least awareness of his true self. Those he was closest to, the disciples, his mother, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, all at various times, or most of the time, demonstrate only the vaguest idea of understanding. He must have seemed, to himself, so so far away from them, even though his love for them was so deep it could barely be expressed. Now I know he had his Heavenly Father’s understanding, which was total, and made all the difference to him, but humanly speaking there must have been for him an unspeakable loneliness in the awareness that his truest deepest self was a dark mystery to his loved ones.
There is an account at the start of Mark that is interesting:
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)
Jesus heals the leper and as usual the healed man spreads the news about Jesus even though Jesus asks him not to. The willingness of Jesus to heal him, and to touch the untouchable, is very moving. But there is an interesting detail at the end. As a result of his act of compassion, and the man’s witness, “Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.” This is interesting because we know that this was the fate of lepers – they had to stay outside the towns and live in lonely places. Jesus swaps places with the leper. His ‘cleanliness’ becomes the leper’s, and the leper’s loneliness comes to Jesus. It’s a wonderful symmetry. It’s the gospel. Hebrews 13:11-14 says,
“The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
There’s so much we could also say about these verses, but let your eyes rest on this image of Jesus at his crucifixion, outside the city, like an unclean sin offering, burning in the place of disgrace and isolation. All this that we might be holy and belong in the city; not a city here, where we will never quite feel at home or understood, but the city that is to come, where we will know fully, and, wonderfully, be “fully known” (1 Corinthians 13: 12.). Here is the answer to all loneliness. He takes upon himself all our painful distance and isolation from God and one another, in order that we might take all his belonging and security. Now we will be full of sorrows and acquainted with grief, as the Messiah had to be (Isaiah 53: 3), but we are strengthened in the knowledge that the Lord God searches the heart, knows each and every fingerprint, and wants to take all prodigals back home, reunited; for them to feel at home, at peace, honestly open, and perfectly understood. That’s the green field of joy beneath the low sky of our sadness.