Lately, when I find myself getting ready to preach on a passage that I’ve preached on many times before, I’ve been asking myself one basic question to get around the dispiriting feeling that I’ve run out of things to say. The question is this: who is the most interesting person in this story (barring Jesus, that is)? Obviously, for Mark 1:40-45, that person is the leper. What I usually say is something about the unfairness of the leper’s social exclusion, because he almost certainly doesn’t have Hansen’s disease (what we think of as leprosy), and probably has something no more worrisome than psoriasis. But this is a cop-out, and lazy to boot. It may be true, but the text gives us many more clues to the leper’s story than that. I’m going to do something rare here, and take it line by line, commenting as I go.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Let’s start by thinking about the conditions of this man’s life. When his skin disease first became apparent, he would have gone to the priest to have it examined, as dictated by Leviticus 13. Here were priests who also acted as physicians, or at least diagnosticians. I imagine that this examination took place in some annex to the temple, maybe in a bare antechamber, with sunlight pouring through a high window and the priest turning the man in the light so that the whiteness of his diseased skin was totally exposed. Maybe the priest made some sound – an intake of breath, a murmur – that told the man that the patch of flaky white skin implied a coming life of isolation and neglect. Maybe the man felt the angel of death pass over him, since leprosy was viewed as a living death (this is detailed in Peter Bolt’s Jesus’ Defeat of Death: Persuading Mark’s Early Readers, pp. 100-101).
The man would be sent away from the priest to spend seven days in isolation, and then the priest would examine him again, to see if his skin had cleared up or if his condition had worsened. Imagine what the man must have felt like during those seven days. Most of us, most of the people sitting in the pews, have had that experience of having to wait for test results, of having to wake up every day worrying and knowing there was nothing they could do but wait. This worry in itself is isolating – we wake up worrying but the world goes on in ignorance of our worry. How much more isolating must it have been for the potential leper, who didn’t even have the casual routines of a normal life to mask his worry?
After those seven days, and a return visit to the priest, the man would know that he was a leper. This meant that he would remain isolated from the people around him, although he would be accepted into the community of lepers. He would spend his days with people who, like him, were all grieving over their separation from home and family. Worse, he would spend his days labeled a sinner. The outer corruption of the body was understood to be a sign of the inner corruption of the soul. And he probably agreed with this diagnosis – he had no reason to think of his condition as anything other than the result of sin. So he must have spent his days going over all of his past actions, looking for the sin that led to his condition. It would probably behoove all of us to make a fearless moral inventory from time to time, but every day, and without hope of redemption?
Moved with pity (anger), Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!
Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying 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.”
But 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.
Jesus’ political gesture of goodwill towards the priests doesn’t work. The man’s enthusiasm is such that he runs rampant. Which brings us back to the character of this formerly leprous man. He isn’t attuned to Jesus’ delicate negotiations with the priests. He doesn’t understand that Jesus wants him to go the priests because this will render Jesus himself less of a threat in their eyes. And maybe he has residual resentment and anger towards the priests, who made him an outcast in the first place. So he goes running all over town, spreading the word. It’s joyful, but was it right? What did this man think when he heard that Jesus had been arrested, and then crucified? Maybe it built further resentment towards the priests in his soul. Maybe it angered and enraged him. But if so, he would end up as much of an outcast as before, an outcast by choice, someone who wanted nothing to do with the priests or the whole religious system. I doubt he would ever understand his own culpability in this process of alienation. Jesus wants him to go to the priests so this process of alienation can be nipped in the bud.
As we come to know Jesus, as we feel ourselves freed of our ills and ailments and restored to ourselves, it is easy to give in to temptation in the way that the formerly leprous man did. Experiencing a new reality, we denigrate our pasts. It never occurs to us that Jesus wants us to bring words of comfort to our old reality, as well. Jesus wants us reconciled with our pasts, and the world around us. Whatever our own priests are – those seemingly officious, cautious, careful forces that led in some way to our isolation – he wants us to start up a conversation with them, so that we can all be redeemed.