Can compassion be angry, or can anger be compassionate?
Mark 1:41 is part of the account of Jesus healing the leper who, against levitical law and social custom, dashed into the presence of Jesus and others in a desperate plea for help. In verse 41 we encounter an intriguing textual variant in the manuscripts. A textual variant means that early Greek manuscripts record different words.
The NIV reads “Filled with compassion…” using the Greek word splagchnistheis (“with compassion”) yet there is other manuscript evidence for the verse to read orgistheis (“with anger”). William L. Lane discusses this textual variant in his commentary on Mark.
The basic reason for believing that “anger” should be read is called “the harder of the two readings.” The harder of the two readings to explain is likely the original reading. Scribes would not change the word “compassion” to “anger” because that would be offensive. But it is possible to imagine a scribe changing “anger” to “compassion” out of sensitivity to Jesus.
We know that strong emotion was riffling through Jesus because in verse 43, Jesus with a note of harshness and exasperation (“snorting with anger”) strongly warns the now healed leper to be silent about his healing and go to the priest for the ritual certification of health. Later, in Mark 3:5 Jesus looks with anger at the hardened Pharisees.
Some Christians wrongly believe all anger is sin. We certainly want also a sweet, gentle Jesus, not a “snorting-with-anger” Jesus. We want so badly for Jesus to be a “nice guy” because aren’t all Christian men supposed to be “nice guys”? Isn’t Christianity about being nice? Alas, Jesus breaks the mold. He does make a practice of getting angry. Anger is a trait of God as a matter of fact. God isn’t a “nice” God.
So, can compassion be angry? Or, can anger be compassionate? Regardless of reading Mark 1:41 as “anger,” I cannot imagine Jesus’ heart being untouched by compassion as well. The leper was an isolated, lonely creature. His body became alien and dangerous to him; his family viewed him as untouchable; his community exiled him outside the city; God, as popular belief held, “struck with leprosy” those who flagrantly sinned. Sadly the leper was cut off from himself, his family, his community, and his God. Mother Teresa said the worst condition of the human being is “loneliness.”
I can imagine, then, this deplorable condition of the man made Jesus really angry. His anger was at the fallenness of the human race that created the extreme, painful situation of this human being. Since Genesis 3 things are “not the way they are supposed to be.”
What if anger is an indicator of what we really care about? What if anger is a major energy behind serious engagement with all that thwarts the will of God for people? What if the decision not to be angry is the trait of someone who doesn’t know or care about God’s deep and amazing grace?
What if anger is the expression of love against all that is unloving?
“Be angry, but do not sin.” Jesus did.
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