This is part two in a five part series from a paper I wrote about the ministry of Jesus to the social outcasts of his day. See the blog archive to the right of the page for part one. If you would like to read the entire paper you can go to: http://docs.google.com/View?docID=0AdbvKDlmSJmlZGZ3a2hxdHhfOGZ3YnE4NWhx&revision=_latest&hgd=1
Jesus and the Man with Leprosy: Mark 1:40-45
Also in Matt. 8:1-4, Luke 5:12-16
The Gospel of Mark begins very differently than the other synoptic gospels. Mark does not tell us anything about the birth of Jesus or his childhood. The account begins with a brief introduction of John the Baptist and the role he played in preparing the way for the Lord. The first event recorded in this gospel account is Jesus' baptism. Next, we are told that Jesus was in the desert for forty days being tempted by Satan, but no details are given. Mark wasted no time getting to the main point of his message. Only fourteen verses into the gospel, Mark wrote that Jesus went about Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. Jesus called the first set of disciples and went about exorcizing demons, performing healing miracles, and preaching in the synagogues.
In the midst of carrying out this mission, Jesus was interrupted by a man plagued with leprosy. The biblical use of the term leprosy could refer to the actual disease of leprosy or a wide variety of other chronic skin diseases.[i] Regardless, a person who "was identified as a leper was reduced to the most pitiful state of existence."[ii] A person afflicted with leprosy was quarantined because the disease was considered untreatable.[iii] The leper was declared ceremonially unclean and often forbidden from entering the city of Jerusalem.[iv] The physical anguish of the disease was often terrible, but the emotional pain of becoming a social outcast was perhaps much worse. Leprosy was among the worst afflictions of the day. In many ways, to be healed of this disease was the equivalent of being raised from the dead.[v]
The leper came to Jesus, fell down on his knees, and begged Jesus for a willingness to heal him. In this request, the man appealed to Jesus' will rather than his ability. Apparently this man had some knowledge of Jesus and did not lack confidence in Jesus' ability to heal him.[vi] The text makes it clear that the leper is acknowledging Jesus' ability to make him clean by healing him, and not simply declare him clean, something only a priest could do.[vii] It is interesting to note that the man makes a statement rather than a direct request.[viii] Gundry credits this fact to Mark's emphasis on Jesus' ability to heal over the request itself.[ix] According to Judaism, only God possessed the ability to heal a leper.[x] Therefore, Mark used this ability as a means to point to Jesus as the Son of God.
The opening phrase of verse forty-one offers a genuine textual dilemma.[xi] There is disagreement among manuscripts as to whether the verse begins "being angered" (Greek, orgistheis) or the more common translation "filled with compassion" (Greek, splangchnistheis).[xii] The later makes obvious sense, while the former is challenging to explain. Assuming the more challenging reading, there are several explanations that have been offered by commentators. The anger could have been directed at the man, although this is not consistent with the act of healing that follows.[xiii] The anger may be a righteous anger against the apparent work of the Evil One in the diseased and possessed.[xiv] A third interpretation is that Jesus might have been angry or upset knowing that the leper's healing might interrupt his preaching mission.[xv] This third interpretation makes sense given that the man's disobedient testimony forced Jesus to shift his ministry to more marginal settings. Regardless of which reading is applied to Jesus' mood, his compassionate nature is what manifested through his action.
Jesus reached out and touched the man, thereby declaring his willingness to heal the man. When Jesus spoke the words, "be clean," the man was immediately cured of the disease. The fact that Jesus touched the man is very significant, considering he could have healed him with words alone. The gospels record numerous occasions where Jesus spoke healing miracles without touching the person in need. In fact, the story that occurs immediately following the healing of the leper does not record Jesus touching the paralytic. Therefore, it is reasonable to question why Jesus touched the leper knowing that he was unclean. At first, it would appear that Jesus is either rebellious or ignorant of the law. Neither fits the general account of Jesus given in the gospels. Ironically, Jesus follows his act of breaking the ceremonial law by instructing the man to comply with the law by showing himself to the priest.[xvi] Jesus appears to have a healthy understanding and respect for the law, while also exercising the liberty to break it when the circumstances deem it necessary. When he chooses to trump the law, he does so for a reason. In fact, at times he seems to intentionally cause controversy by breaking the law, in order that he might present himself as both the fulfillment of the law and even greater than the law.[xvii] On this occasion, Jesus reaches out and touches the man because his compassion for the leper was greater than following the ceremonial law. In fact, Jesus came to usher in a new kingdom, where the law of love reigns supreme. By touching the man who was labeled untouchable, Jesus was not breaking a law so much as he was demonstrating obedience to a greater law. The law of love.
Jesus sent the man away with strict instructions to tell no one except the priest. He was to show himself to the priest and make the prescribed sacrifices. This action was important on several levels. First, it demonstrated Jesus concern to comply with the law.[xviii] The priest alone could declare the man clean. This declaration was important for the man to be restored to the community, and it also constituted the formal acknowledgement of the healing.[xix] Second, it would serve as testimony against those who charged Jesus of having disregarded the law.[xx] The text indicates that the man disobeyed Jesus' command, and instead went about openly sharing his miracle story. The text does not tell us whether the man ever made it to the priest.
The result of the man's big mouth is that Jesus can no longer enter the towns openly. There is an interesting exchange that takes place in this short healing account. Having healed the leper and restored him to community, Jesus himself is forced out of the community.[xxi] Jesus became the outcast so the Leper could be restored to fellowship. Perhaps in a small way this account foreshadowed the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, where Jesus took our sin upon himself so that we could be restored to God.
The story ends by stating that people continued to seek out Jesus, even after he withdrew into the margins. This conclusion may shed some light on the reaction of the man to Jesus' healing. Maybe the theme Mark was trying to convey was not the disobedience of the man, rather the impossibility that Jesus' healings could remain hidden.[xxii] This brings new meaning to the old cliché, "good news travels fast."
[i] Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26 (Dallas: Word, 1989), 73.
[ii] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 85.
[iii] John S. Roth, The Blind, the Lame, and the Poor (Sheffield: SAP, 1997), 109.
[iv] Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 73.
[vii] Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 95.
[x] Roth, Blind, Lame, and Poor, 109; Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 74.
[xi] Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 72.
[xii] George B. Telford, Jr., "Mark 1:40-45," Interpretation 36, no. 1 (Jan 1982), 55.
[xiii] Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 74.
[xiv] Ibid. See also, Lane, Mark, 86.
[xv] Telford, "Mark 1:40-45," 55.
[xvi] Ibid., 56.
[xvii] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 394.
[xviii] Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 76.
[xx] Ibid., 77.
[xxi] Karen Wenell, "Mark 1:40-45 Cleansing a Leper," The Expository Times 117, no. 4 (Jan 2006), 154.
[xxii] Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 79.