A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched him, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them.”
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
Before we unpack what was unusual about the encounter in Mark 1:40-45, the OT book of Leviticus gives us a biblical-contextual understanding of who this leper was and what leprosy was about. Understanding the Old Testament allows us to understand the New Testament and the gospels in the fullness of their biblical-historical context. One of the best ways to read and understand the Bible is therefore through the lens of the Bible itself. The table below breaks down the key points of the passage:
Back to Mark 1:40-45: this leper who approaches Jesus should by all accounts be required to live in isolation apart from his community. He is a societal outcast, quite literally an untouchable. Luke 5:12 even tells us that this man was “full of leprosy”!
By now it should become clear why the encounter between the leper and Jesus was unusual. Jesus whose status was that of a common Jew, was inside of society, while the leper was outside of society! Their paths were not supposed to cross under any circumstances.
Given the culture at the time, some might describe this leper’s actions as audacious. Such a scenario may be hard to imagine in Singapore as ethnic and community tensions are somewhat mitigated by social cohesion policies that are put in place by the government. Somewhat. In many countries around the world such discrimination and drawing of fault lines still exists. India’s Dalits, or untouchables, are one example, and discriminatory segregation between black South Africans and African Americans is another.
Perhaps an equivalent would be someone in torn clothes smelling of sweat and urine walking into a fancy restaurant in MBS and asking one of the diners to do something for them. What would you do if someone like that walked into your air-conditioned church and asked around for a favour, perhaps even for someone to pray for them? Before they can even open their mouth to ask, I’m not proud to say that the majority of us, myself included, would probably tend to judge them on their appearance. Friends, would a leper be accepted in your church?
But here’s another way to look at it: the leper’s actions in Mark 1:40 can be thought of as desperate rather than audacious. On one hand, he’s desperate, but on the other, also hopeful, trusting and deferential. His actions (i.e. kneeling, imploring) and what he says display faith in Jesus, rather than an arrogant challenge to Jesus’ power. Hear his words! “If you will, you can make me clean”.
So whose will is the leper focused on for his cleansing? Note that he begins his request by saying ‘If the Lord is willing’. Jesus’ ability and His power are not even in question. How often do we find ourselves praying “Your will be done”? There are churches that teach that God just cannot wait to pour out His healing upon us and our unbelief is in fact preventing God from working His healing power! So all we have to do is to receive. Just name it and claim it.
But is that really what the Bible teaches? We see here that the leper did not say to Jesus ‘I declare that there shall be healing in your name or that I am safe from all harm and affliction’. Instead he says “If you will, you can make me clean”. We should not be in any doubt about God’s power to save or to heal. But we should not presume God’s prerogative to deliver that healing.
In some ways, the leper’s posture of submission to the will of God over his circumstances gives us an example of how we are to come before God. The leper recognized the authority and the power of Jesus Christ – and in faith, asked Jesus to make him clean. Friends, do we adopt the same posture that this leper – one whom our hearts would be quick to ostracise and judge – adopts? We have much to learn.
3 details stand out immediately (Mark 1:41) from Jesus’ response – (i) First, Jesus was moved with pity; (ii) Second, he stretched out His hand to touch the leper; and (iii) Third, He cleanses the man by the power of His word.
If Mark is in such a hurry, why does he emphasize the first two details? “He stretched out His hand to touch the leper” take up 9 precious words of bible real estate amid the urgency of Mark’s gospel. He could have just said something like “…and Jesus made the man clean”. It’s also interesting that Jesus doesn’t always lay hands on those that He is healing. Therefore when He does we should ask if it has any significance.
The answer is in Lev 13 – remember that lepers were not supposed to come into contact with anyone. Anybody who came into contact with a leper became ceremonially unclean. Even Jewish rabbis, who were supposed to teach and model godly behavior for the people, have been known to despise and shun anything to do with a leper’s presence. If you think about it, the only way you can touch someone or something unclean and not become unclean yourself is if you make the other person or thing clean. You can’t both stay the same. The people at the time knew this. There were only two logical outcomes for a person who had the audacity or the misfortune to touch an unclean leper – they either became unclean, or it must have been God Himself.
Only God Himself, pure and holy, could choose to touch this leper in order to demonstrate His power and His divinity. And notice that His power was demonstrated by his word. “Be clean”. Therefore, when Jesus reaches out to touch this leper, He cleanses the diseased man instead of becoming defiled by him. With one touch He reveals His identity, and implicitly reveals Himself as the fulfilment of the Law. This should be apparent to the priests in the temple!
In Lev 14, there are certain prescribed ways for lepers to re-enter the community. On the rare occasion that they recover, they had to approach a priest for re-examination and perform a whole bunch of other rites as part of their purification and re-entrance into the community. The priest also has to affirm the leper’s recovery. This was clearly set out in the Law.
Therefore, Jesus’ instructions in Mark 1:43-44 can be explained by two main reasons: the first was quite clearly to enable the man’s reconciliation or reintegration into the community. Basically, what Jesus told him in Mark 1:44 is i.e. “don’t make a big fuss out of this, go straight to the temple and let the priests examine you. Then do what the Law commands and offer the sacrifices that you need to offer for your cleansing”. This will be a proof to the priest. We see that this was a priority for Jesus because He sternly charged the man with this instruction and sent him away at once. Jesus cares about the restoration and the reconciliation of the lost and outcast.
The key to understanding the second reason is right at the end of Mark 1:44 – “for a proof to them”. What ‘proof’ did Jesus intend the priesthood to have? Another word for proof is also testimony – the man was to go straight to the priests to get himself examined and restored to the community, but more importantly, so that having been cleansed, he would give testimony of the one who had cleansed him. The one they call Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ power and the miracles that He performed pointed to His divinity. The message for the priesthood would have been loud and clear – the Messiah has come; the Kingdom of God is at hand. And He had come not to overturn the Law, but to fulfill it! So the second reason for Jesus’ instruction to the man was that it was intended to reveal Himself to His people, specifically, to the priests and the religious leaders, the shepherds of God’s people, as the Messiah.