Find Mark 1:41 in your Bible. How does that line read in your version? How did Jesus feel about this leper who asked for healing?
Some versions say Jesus was filled with compassion for the leper who came to him for healing. My version (NIV) and a few other versions say Jesus was indignant. By my experience, there is a pretty wide gap between indignant and compassionate, so which is it?
There is a temptation to let that difference shake our confidence in the Bible or at least in our English translations of it. In fact, a famous atheist uses this very word in this very verse — alternately translated as compassion or indignant — as part of his argument against scriptural integrity.
I had not noticed this odd word before last week when folks at Mosaic were exploring this passage together using the SOAP method of inductive study. When someone else in the room noticed the difference between their translation and mine, we went scrambling. It turns out we’d stumbled on a big debate in Bible translation circles. Someone has written a whole book on this one word — 609 pages worth of debate between compassion and indignation.
Bruce Metzger says that of the 20,000 lines of the New Testament, only 40 lines have debatable translations. That means there is agreement among scholars around about 99.6% of what we read in the Bible. Nonetheless, there are going to be a few hard words, some things we have to wrestle with, some words or phrases that don’t translate easily into English. This word in Mark 1:41 is one of them.
So … is it compassion or indignation? A couple of versions even use the word “pity” or “anger.” But pity is not compassion. I want someone to feel compassion … but pity, not so much. Likewise, anger and indignation are not the same things. Indignation and pity are look-down-your-nose words while anger and compassion are feelings that can actually drive us toward people, not away from them.
According to my friend, Dr. Ben Witherington, the Greek word refers to the kind of feeling that comes from your bowels. The closest expression to the Greek is “the bowels of compassion.” The feeling evoked is something fierce or passionate — not just feeling compassion but the kind of concern that moves a person to compassion. Not just aggravated by a disease or a man who has lost his drive to go hard after his healing, but angry at all that has sapped the hope out of him.
And I’m thinking about Jesus as a healer and shepherd and it slays me to think that maybe God has inspired the use of a word here that means both things at once. Because a person can be both angry and compassionate at the same time. In fact, a person can be fiercely compassionate, moved to go after someone stuck in a pit while angry at all the things that got them there.
As a pastor, I feel this bowel-level burden for people. How often does my broken heart for someone push me to hang onto them long past good sense? How often do I get so angry with the demon someone is wrestling with that I’m moved to a simmering rage over the stubborn addiction, the serial relationships, the dysfunction? How desperately I feel the heavy weight of habits and wounds that leave people stuck, compassionate toward the person but indignant toward what got them there.
Of course, Jesus got angry! Not all anger is without compassion, and not all compassion is … well … without passion. Not just feeling compassion but moved by it to go after the healing.
To find this kind of complex, nuanced word in the Bible only makes this book more trustworthy, not less. I am stunned by the depth of it, the beauty of it, the brilliance of God himself. To hear in God’s Word his identification with the everyday work of a pastor like me is just stunning. In this word, Jesus sees not just the leper, but me.
Maybe this word in Mark 1 isn’t your word, but today I am even more compelled to urge you toward a regular and devotional reading of the Bible. I am convinced that if you will go digging — if you will find your own practice of inductive, devotional Bible reading — God will meet you and show you treasures and even show you yourself and his heart for you. He’ll show you that you are known at the deepest levels, in the places you may be most lonely.
Jesus knows you. And once you know that, you won’t be able to not share it with a lost and hurting world.