Imagine if you will the weight of the world is pressing down on you. Then somebody asks you to do something, though to you, it’s that “one more thing” that you had hoped nobody would ask of you. You are at the end of your limits, and you say with the sigh of a person overwhelmed with things, “If I could, I would.”
Despite his early morning efforts to be at prayer, the disciples find Jesus and urge him to leave with them. His prayers ended in haste, Jesus makes his way to whatever awaits him next, knowing that he must move onwards to the villages and countryside beyond Capernaum. The sense of not having a moment to step away sounds familiar, though this idea that Jesus goes without complaint is likely more novel. We tend toward the complaint or lament that this is how things go (i.e. “things to do” without end). We know when we have reached our limits, yet here is Jesus rising up and going.
Further, when he is approached by a leper asking for healing, he does not sigh and say, “If I could, I would” and head back to bed or at the least, this lonely place to continue his prayer. The leper says, “If you choose, you can make me clean. Jesus replies, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
This story confirms again what Mark has been saying since his opening words. This is a story of the good news of what God is doing in the world through Jesus, the Messiah/Christ and the Son of God. Our Christian beliefs affirm that Jesus is “very God of very God” yet fully human as well. He is indeed tired, wore out and in need of some downtime. In Mark’s gospel, everything leading up to this early morning retreat to pray and the unexpected early start “back to work” add right up to a good case study of keeping on track with God’s mission and the personal costliness that goes with it.
By this point, we have experienced many “familiar” stories: Jesus gets baptized with heavenly acclimation and a deferential, near demure John the Baptist. Jesus calls fishermen to follow him. Jesus teaches and heals the spirit-possessed and those with varying illnesses and infirmities. And by the time he meets this leper, it’s not even chapter two of Mark’s gospel! In addition to marveling at his endurance and dedication, the reader should note that Jesus is growing in recognition near and far. Some speak of his fame. Others seek to defame. And now, not only is Jesus asked to provide a healing for one stricken by dreadful skin disease, Jesus is stuck in the middle of a controversy!
When Jesus meets this leper, who approaches him without advance warning, it is a moment that may seem inconspicuous (i.e. of course Jesus takes good care of him. After all, he’s Jesus!). The story invites the reader to experience Jesus in the midst of the world he lived in (including overbooked, crazy schedules with a lot of surprises and unexpected encounters thrown in). In turn, the story of Jesus and the leper asks what a follower of Jesus (trapped in her own world over overbooked, crazy schedules with a lot of surprises and unexpected encounters thrown in) learns along the way.
To get into this healing (which has so many thorny issues accompanying this leper’s earnest request), we turn to the book of Leviticus where we read of the prescribed treatment of persons with leprosy. If so afflicted, you are to tear your clothes, look disheveled, cry out that you are unclean as you approach people, and live off by yourself. By the day of Jesus, these practices with lepers were well entrenched. You might be able to recover from your disease, but the leper still had to get ritual cleansing and a priest’s certification that you had recovered. (And you thought your insurance plan was difficult!)
Sadly, for lepers, this way of treating them caused no end of societal rejection, living on the fringes. Religiously, the practices kept them far removed as impure, unclean and marginalized. The leper was basically a vagrant, left with little if any resources and kept at arms’ length literally as well as religiously and socially.
This is the world Mark’s cast of characters lives in. And what does Jesus do? He reaches out a hand and touches the leper. “I do choose,” he says. “Be made clean!”
In the midst of this, Jesus is getting himself into trouble. Doing the right thing, as humane and compassionate as one could wish for, is a “line in the sand” for others who heard of what Jesus did in this moment. That’s why you see the curious note in the Greek New Testament texts where the editors place a note saying that some ancient manuscripts differ. Some say that Jesus did all of this as he was moved by compassion or pity (in the good, humane sense of the word). Another manuscript of Mark’s gospel has a different word describing Jesus’ response, and it changes the scene a bit, saying that he did so out of anger.
Scholars reading this variant would be quick to note that his anger is not leveled at the leper. It’s likely that if this is the right version of the story, Jesus is angry at “the way things are”, denouncing long accepted practices that deny the leper his basic dignity and the system that requires such a lengthy process of getting back in the good graces of those who keep a firm hand on what should be allowed as religious and societal norms.
Either reading could work, and I tend toward honoring both “compassion” and “anger” as valid. Reading Mark’s gospel, you learn quickly that the religious establishment does not like Jesus. You see the unease building among the religiously observant and the religious “powers that be” as Jesus gains recognition. In this healing of a leper, Jesus does not subvert appear to subvert the system’s expectations of a leper presenting himself for a priest’s certification, yet he has done so on two other counts. The leper has been healed by Jesus, one not with standing among the priests. Furthermore, in a religious worldview with defined expectations about purity, Jesus has dared to touch the unclean and become unclean himself by choosing to do so.
The story of the leper is again like other actions of Jesus in the gospels: ones that illumine the power of God yet point out that God is working through Jesus more than via “the establishment” (the Temple authorities, the religiously pious, etc.). Such healings may be called traditionally miracles, though scholar NT Wright points out that word is not actually in the gospels. He notes that “when things happened which seemed to give normal ideas of reality some sort of jolt, the gospel writers used words like ‘signs’, ‘powerful acts’, or ‘paradoxes.’ Further terms include such events described as ‘mighty work’, ‘wonder’, ‘portent’, ‘strange thing’, and ‘sign’ (Cf. Mike Graves, The Sermon as Symphony, 106). The healing is not meant to impress as much as it is to boggle the minds of those witnessing what happens.
Jesus heals a leper, and the reality shaped by religious and societal practices is given a jolt. The healings of Jesus are not the grand shows of a “faith healer”. These are acts that show God’s vision for the world. What more bizarre image can be given to the religiously observant of the day than a healer who does not keep the sick at arm’s length? He heals without reservation and does so “hands on” rather than “hands off”.
As for the leper, he offers a respect for Jesus that is hard won or hardly won in other quarters of religion and society. He approaches Jesus not with challenge or dare. A trust already exists within him. The leper knows Jesus can heal him. He humbly asks if Jesus will choose to do so. And Jesus chooses indeed!
For some, this scene would be a spectacle worth telling. The Jesus appearing in Mark’s gospel is reticent for any attention and asks with some strictness that the leper not share what happened. The leper cannot contain himself and shares this far and wide. Nothing can stop this leper from sharing the good word of gratitude. Jesus had some particular wishes to keep things low-key, but the gospel evidences that he will have many more long days ahead of him. The kingdom/Reign of God shall come only through the glimpses of these encounters, the teachings and spinning of parables and the fateful days awaiting him in Jerusalem at gospel’s end.
For the disciple reading this story, we are left with questions to ponder. Who is the person who is marginalized by social or religious norms? Are we willing to be with them as followers of Jesus? Will the “Reign of God” be glimpsed through our actions? Will followers of Jesus meet the basic human needs as well as stand up for the dignity of all persons? Do we practice a faith able to be moved to pity (the type that is about compassion) and anger (the type that is about the right thing being left undone)?
Do you follow the One who dares to become entangled in situations others deemed to be left well alone and says without reservation: “I do choose”?