Leprosy in Scripture isn’t the same as the disease we know by that name today. It was some form of chronic skin disorder. There were two primary regulations in the Mosaic Law regarding lepers and the disease, both of which Jesus challenged in the story you’re going to read. First, because leprosy was a communicable disease, people were forbidden to touch lepers. If they did, they would become unclean and unfit to participate religious rituals in the temple or synagogue. Second, if a leper was cured, a priest had to verify the healing and pronounce the person clean. (See Leviticus 13:2-14:57.) Jesus disregards, even defies these two regulations. The story at this point in the Gospel marks the beginning of Jesus’ attack on the religious leaders of his day.
Prepare to listen. Be still and silent in preparation to hear the Gospel. When ready, pray: I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. (Psalm 119:15)
Read Mark 1:40-45
40A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ This seems an odd request, implying two things. First, the leper believed Jesus had the power to cleanse him. Second, he wasn’t sure Jesus would be willing to do so. Notice that the leper asked Jesus, not for healing, but to be made clean, or ‘declared clean’.
Because leprosy was an unclean disease, lepers were forced to live on the fringes of society to avoid touching people. They were to warn the public with a loud cry of ‘unclean, unclean’ (Leviticus 13:45). Take a moment to imagine living without human touch. It will give you a sense of the horror lepers were forced to live every day. Only a priest had the authority to declare a healed leper clean. Jesus’ wasn’t a recognized priest and thus had no right, according to the religious rulers, to declare this leper clean. The leper knew this and thus the hesitancy of his request, giving Jesus a chance to refuse. “It is almost as if he says, ‘You could declare me clean if only you would dare’, ” writes Ched Myers (2015, p. 153). Jesus did dare. He ‘broke’ two laws when he healed the man—he touched an unclean leper, the first touch the man had felt in a while, and he declared him clean. The phrase ‘made [think declared] clean’ is an important one in this story, appearing three times.
Jesus’ response to the leper is equally odd. There are two times when Jesus is angry or uses strong language. The translation I’ve used says Jesus ‘was moved with pity.’ Other translations use the word ‘compassion.’ This makes it sound wonderful. But, the Greek word is more accurately translated as ‘indignant’ (as in the NIV) or even ‘angry.’ The second strong language is in Jesus’ instructions to the healed leper: “After sternly warning him he sent him away at once.” The Greek is much stronger with some commentators suggesting that Jesus was “snorting with indignation” (as in Myers. 2015, p. 153). Mark doesn’t explain with whom Jesus was angry; another mystery he wants us to ponder.
It is unlikely Jesus was angry with the leper. This would be out of keeping with Jesus’ compassion and concern for those on the margins, the poor, the alien, the outcasts and lepers. I think it would be safe to say Jesus was angry with the religious order and its failure to show compassion. Religious rulers forced lepers to live on the margins without human contact. We can wonder whether we’re in danger of doing the same thing ourselves, forcing some people who don’t behave according to the law (think gospel) as we understand it onto the margins, isolating them from Jesus’ compassion.
The story ends rather sadly. Having warned the man to keep silent with strong emotive language, the man disobeyed, and Jesus was forced to the margins himself, staying outside the towns. He’s now a ‘marked man,’ considered unclean by the religious authorities because he touched a leper and dared to declare the man ‘clean,’ usurping the role of priest. He could no longer go into the towns and the synagogues to teach. And teaching is what he came to do.
How does Jesus’ anger and strong language make you feel? Is your picture of Jesus being challenged in this story? If so, in what ways?
Respond to Jesus in prayer
Lord Jesus you so often behave in ways that challenge my nice ideas about you and make me feel uncomfortable. Help me know you, not as I want you to be but as you reveal yourself in your Word. Amen.
Go and live obediently in the world faithful to Jesus even when pushed to the margins.