The Leper in Galilee

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!

I put the “anger” in parenthesis because some of the ancient authorities read anger rather than pity.  Anger might be a more interesting possibility here, because it could be directed at several things, whereas pity probably only means pity for the man’s plight.  Jesus’ anger could be directed at the whole system of religious purity that would leave this man an outcast – but that reading is complicated by the following verses.  His anger could be a general anger at the forces of disease and illness – certainly an anger that anyone who has been ill or seen a loved one fall seriously ill can understand.  His anger could be directed at the man himself.  If I was the man, and saw Jesus angry, I would assume that the anger was directed at me.  What an odd encounter, then, to come begging on your knees and be met with anger.  In that instance, the man must have thought that he was doomed.  He must have seen himself as a worse outcast than a demonic.  Jesus was angry at him for daring to approach, for bringing his uncleanliness into the sphere of the clean.  How shocking Jesus’ next words must have sounded, then.  “I do choose.  Be made clean!”  And maybe that’s part of the point.  We go along with our little uncleanlinesses, hiding and festering within us, and we’re afraid that when we expose them to the light, we will be met by a priest who will carefully examine us and send us out into an isolated life as outcasts.  But when we realize how deeply we’re forgiven, it comes as a complete shock.  I see the man’s eyes widening, there in the dust of the road.  He realizes that the anger is aimed, not at him, but at the world around him, which has shriveled him in this way.
Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
This, of course, is not just a story about a person being restored to religious or even existential cleanliness.  It’s a story about a man’s sores actually clearing up and disappearing.  All of this talk about isolation and being outcast can lessen the fact that this is a miracle story, with a physical healing.  It’s easier to talk about this story in an existential way – to say that we all have our hidden leprosies, our little portion of death that we carry around with us, which would make us outcast if people knew about it.  But the meat of the story isn’t existential.  It’s physical.  The man is physically made well.
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.”
In healing the man, Jesus did not act outside of the regular norms of Judaism.  This isn’t a story about Jesus sticking it to the priests.  His anger may have been directed at the system of religious purity, but if so, why would he bother engaging with that system by sending the man back to it.  Maybe he does so for the man’s sake.  The man is still a Jew, in a Jewish world, and he’ll need to follow the rules and proscriptions to be accepted back into the company of his fellow Jews.  But let me proffer another idea.  As I said, Jesus’ anger may have been directed at the world of sickness and disease in general.  If that’s the case, then the priests of the temple are his colleagues when it comes to encountering that world of sickness and disease.  The purity laws weren’t arbitrary.  If you read Leviticus 13, you see how careful it is.  The system for diagnosing leprosy gave a lot of opportunities for the leprosy to go away or start to get better.  Turning someone into an outcast was a last resort.  And it wasn’t done out of cruelty.  It may have been cruel to the individual who was made outcast, but it was meant to protect the whole community from dangerous diseases, and in some cases it probably did.  Hansen’s disease (what we know as leprosy) came from China, and it doesn’t show up in fossil records in the west until the second century B.C.  Even after that early evidence, it’s very hard to find other evidence of the disease until the fourth century A.D. (as detailed in Robert Ian Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250, p. 44).  So we can say that the priests’ system, and other ancient systems of dealing with potentially communicable diseases, worked very well.  This is why I think it makes more sense to think of Jesus’ anger as directed at disease in general, and to assume that when he wants the leprous man to go to the priest, he is in earnest.  It’s not just a favor to the man.  It’s a sign to the whole community that they can rest from their fears, that the death and disease that Jesus hates has been stopped in this one instance.
It is also a message to the priests.  Jesus tells the man to tell no one what has happened to him, because he can imagine word getting to the priests and the priests feeling threatened by Jesus’ ministry (as, in fact, happens).  But this isn’t what Jesus wants.  He wants the priests to think of him as a friend and a helper in their work.  He sends the man as a message, a way of telling the priests that they’re not alone as they struggle with death and disease and the grinding worries of a whole society.
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.

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