Thought for the day
To us, leprosy or any serious skin condition is a medical and perhaps a cosmetic issue. In Jesus’ day, by contrast, such things entailed social exclusion and sufferer became literally untouchable. Hence the shock in the Gospel: he touched him. Before congratulating ourselves for not being so “primitive,” it might not be any harm to ask who are the marginalised and excluded in our own time and culture? The categories are wide: socio-economic groups, ethnicity, orientation, religion. Are there people I never encounter?
Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found; Brought here together by Christ’s love, by love are we thus bound. No race or creed can love exclude, if honoured be God’s name; our common life embraces all whose Father is the same.
Taken from Where charity and love prevail.
Mark 1:40 Now a leper came to him and fell to his knees, asking for help. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” he said. 41 Moved with indignation, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” 42 The leprosy left him at once, and he was clean. 43 Immediately Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning. 44 He told him, “See that you do not say anything to anyone, but go, show yourself to a priest, and bring the offering that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” 45 But as the man went out he began to announce it publicly and spread the story widely, so that Jesus was no longer able to enter any town openly but stayed outside in remote places. Still they kept coming to him from everywhere.
There are two stories here. The first is a fairly straightforward miracle story, showing the usual steps. The second deals with the reaction to the miracle story and it needs a special comment (see below).
Kind of writing
The first story is an anecdote or typical story of Jesus. The stages of a miracle account are present: condition, encounter, request, gesture and word, healing, proof.
The second story needs to be read at two levels. Historically, Jesus may very well have been cautious about his reputation and in particular about being identified as the messiah. However, Mark has raised this caution to a new level in his Gospel, giving rise to the scholarly hypothesis of the “Messianic Secret.”
According to this hypothesis, Mark tried to account for Jewish non-recognition of Jesus as Messiah as actually God’s plan, so that when God’s first chosen people would fail to receive Jesus, his offer of salvation might be extended to those “outside”, that is, the Gentiles. This may seem very artificial at first glance. However, Mark does reflect both Jesus’ own caution and what actually happened, as the gospel spread among non-Jews from very early on. The hypothesis offers considerable hope: God takes the negative of the “no” of Israel and turns it into the positive of the “yes” of the Gentiles. Perhaps the best comment on all this is Romans 9-11 (not easy to read but very helpful). There is one more level in Mark: this Gospel writer portrays the effect of Jesus as a kind of wildfire.
Old Testament background
The term “leprosy” refers to a variety of conditions, characterised by chronic discolouration of surfaces, including human skin and the walls of houses. There are detailed regulations about this in Leviticus 13-14, with narrative examples in 2 Kings 5 (Namaan) and 2 Chronicles 26 (Uzziah). Within the culture, persons infected were regarded as ritually impure and were to be exiled from the community (Lev 13:44-46). Touching and ministering to lepers would be a shock at the period.
“But if there is on the bald head or the bald forehead a reddish-white diseased spot, it is a leprous disease breaking out on his bald head or his bald forehead. The priest shall examine him; if the diseased swelling is reddish-white on his bald head or on his bald forehead, which resembles a leprous disease in the skin of the body, he is leprous, he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head. The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:42-46)
In the patristic period, these texts were read as allegories for the exclusion of the sinner from the community (the original excommunication). Correspondingly, the restoration of the patient was taken to refer to absolution from sin and restoration to the community of the faithful.
New Testament foreground
Lepers: Matt 8:2; 10:8; 11:5; 26:6; Mark 1:40; 14:3; Luke 4:27; 7:22; 17:12.
Moved with pity: this is a very important expression. Here are the instances in Mark (different English expressions translate the same Greek word).
Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mark 1:41) As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34) “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. (Mark 8:2) It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22)
Sternly warning: In Mark, Jesus does warn people not to speak. However, the word used here is quite unusual and calls for a special translation. In Greek, the root meaning is to snort (!), with the extended sense of to be angry at or to warn very sternly. The only other occurrence in Mark is 14:5.
Sent away: Again, the Greek is bit stronger. Ekballō, literally to throw out, means to force to leave or to send away in a strong sense. Earlier, the Spirit “threw” Jesus out into the desert (same word in Greek).
In the story as Mark has it, we note verbs denoting strong emotion: anger/ compassion, angry, dismiss. In a pre-Marcan form, the story may have portrayed Jesus’ anger (see below), not at the man, but at the forces of evil holding him captive.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Romans 11:17-24)
Verse 40 “Kneeling” – also done by the young man in 10:17, but with very different results. The man’s direct petition implies both great need and great faith.
Verse 41 The first word in this verse splangchnistheis, translated as “moved with pity”, is key word in the NT (see above). It is used only of God in the parables or of Jesus in the narratives: Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Luke 7:13; 10:33; 15:20. It illustrates a characteristic of Jesus and a very important aspect of his proclamation of the Kingdom. The literal meaning is to be disturbed almost physically, “in your guts”, a kind of spontaneous, maternal compassion.
A very few manuscripts give as an alternative “he was angry” which just might be the earlier tradition. It is easier to imagine a scribe changing anger to pity than the other way around (the lectio difficilior). Both Matthew and Luke avoid this difficulty by simply omitting the reaction of Jesus.
Verse 42 “Immediately” is typical of Mark. The cure is swiftly recounted.
Verse 43 For sternly warning and the “secret”, see above.
Verse 44 The priest was responsible for making the judgement that the disease was over and the person could be re-admitted to the community. “To them” may mean to the priests only or, perhaps, to “the Jews”. Mark was written at the time when the break with the synagogue was taking place or was just about to. Notice that the healed man is disobedient twice: he does not go to the priest and he does not keep silent.
Verse 45 It would naturally be a bit hard to “say nothing to anyone”, because the excluded person could now resume a normal life. But this man goes much further: he proclaims (using the NT technical term for effective proclamation, kerygma) freely and spreads the “word” (using the NT shorthand term for the Gospel about Jesus, reflecting the later church context of writing (Mark 2:2; 4:14-20, 33; Acts 6:4; Gal 6:6; Col 4:3). The effect on Jesus is a pattern in Mark: he seeks seclusion, but the people seem him in his hide-away.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus’ compassion for people’s suffering was an outstanding characteristic of his ministry. We see the healing power of God at work through him. Recall times when the compassion of others has had a healing effect on you. Remember also when your compassion towards someone in trouble brought them hope, healing or strength.
2. “If you choose, you can make me clean”. Our choice is a key factor in how we affect others. We cannot choose to have no impact on the people in our lives. Even a choice to do nothing has an effect. When have you been particularly aware of the importance of your choice to be a positive influence on another?
3. The leper was not just cured from a physical disease, he was also readmitted to contact with the community. Perhaps you recall people who were once ostracised being brought back into family or community. Who was the Jesus person who helped this healing to take place?
4. The joy of the leper on being healed was such that he could not keep the good news to himself. Bring to mind occasions when you were so filled with good news that you could not keep it to yourself.
We come before you, O God, confident in Christ’s victory over sickness and death. Heal us again from sin, which divides us, and from prejudice, which isolates us. Bring us to wholeness of life through the pardon you grant your people.
This prayer we make through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.