Helping others can sometimes come at a high cost. Visiting the sick can lead to us catching their sickness and suffering from it ourselves. Getting involved with another’s personal issues can lead to late night phone calls, inconvenient interruptions, and squabbles over boundaries. Sometimes when we give to another in need, we open ourselves up to being taken advantage of.
I remember my husband telling me a story from his childhood. A couple asked his parents for money to get to another city. His parents did not have a lot of money themselves, and the couple swore they would repay the money as a loan. His parents agreed to help . My husband says he asked his dad what he would do if the people did not send them the money back, and his dad answered, “Nothing. I gave that money to them. If they do what they said and send us the money, that’s just a bonus.” Showing compassion is a risky business because it can cause us to suffer unintended consequences.
As we turn to Mark 1:39-45, we feel the tension of the consequences of compassion.
And so, Jesus went preaching into their synagogues all over Galilee. Also, he cast out demons.
And a leper comes begging on his knees, saying to him, “If you want, you can cleanse me.”
And feeling compassion, Jesus stretches out his hand, touches him and says, “I want to. Be clean.” And at once, the leprosy left him, and he was clean.
And growling a warning, Jesus dismissed him right away. He says to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go. Show yourself to the priest and offer gifts for your cleansing – what Moses commanded – as a witness to them.”
But the one who was dismissed began to broadcast and spread the story around so that Jesus was no longer able to show his face in the city, but he was out in the isolated places. Yet, they kept on coming to him from everywhere.
We left Jesus in the previous verses confirming his choice to prioritize the message about God over the easy path to power through miraculous signs. In verse 39, Mark confirms that Jesus gave priority to teaching his message. He also links the authority of Jesus’ message with his power in the spiritual realm. Because he can control demons, he has the right to teach us about God.
Yet, Mark always presents a tension. Jesus, as the son of God, commands demons and they immediately obey. Jesus heals sickness and it is immediately cured. Even with his unquestioned power, Jesus does not compel obedience. Ironically in freeing a leper from the isolation of his situation, Jesus’ own freedom to move about is taken away from him. But, this is what we will come to expect from Jesus. He is willing to make our troubles his own.
Leprosy in the ancient world
This encounter with leprosy has a few ancient expectations built into it that we may miss as modern readers. Jesus is confronted by a leper, who is begging him on his knees to be willing to cleanse him. Notice, the leper does not doubt that Jesus CAN cleanse him, he asks him if he is willing to cleanse him. Most people would find a leper offensive and would avoid the situation completely. This leper has faith in Jesus’ power, but he wonders about Jesus’ desire. Does Jesus want to mess with disgusting leprosy?
Leprosy is a catch-all term used by the ancients. It can certainly refer to the dreaded disease that we call Hansen’s Disease, but it could also describe any of 72 different skin ailments. Any skin problems could be indicative of a seriously contagious disease. There were protocols for someone with skin problems to protect the health of the community. For the Jewish society, these protocols were listed in Leviticus 13. If a person had a sore, boil, rash or burn, they had to have it examined by a priest who would observe the problem for color, depth of infection, longevity of the problem and whether it was spreading. The priest determined one of two diagnoses: clean or unclean. If unclean, the sufferer must tear his clothes, keep his hair unkempt, cover his nose and mouth, live in isolation and shout “unclean” everywhere he went.
Notice that the leper asked to be cleansed, not healed. Leprosy was a state of uncleanness, which was a different designation than sickness. Jesus could heal invalids, but a leper must be cleansed. A leper was unclean not only because he had a sickness, but because he was being judged for something he had done. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was given leprosy as the judgment of God for speaking against Moses’ wife. Because of this story about Miriam, the Jewish people believed those suffering from leprosy were getting what they deserved. They were considered dirty, soiled, polluted and foul. That is why a priest was involved in pronouncing the state of uncleanness. It was a dreaded pronouncement that the whole person, physically and spiritually, was defiled.
When this defiled person approaches Jesus, Jesus does not back away. He leans in. Mark lets us know what he is feeling: not revulsion, but compassion. Jesus reaches out. He touches the unclean, and instead of catching the defilement of the leper, the leper catches the purity of Jesus. Jesus’ cleanness overcomes the pollution of leprosy. The leper, condemned to a life of isolation, dirt and foul sores finds that Jesus desires to clean him, touch him, and grant him a life free from the burden of being unclean and separated.
Remember that Mark uses the word “immediately” or “at once” to highlight a part of the story, like a bullet point. The two bullet points Mark uses in this story are :
- Jesus is able to clean a person spiritual and physically, in an instant.
- Jesus dismissed the man quickly.
Jesus cleansed the man immediately, but until he was cleared by the priest, he was still an unclean person according to the law. Mark says that Jesus casts the cleansed leper out using the same word he uses for casting out demons. He thrusts him away or dismisses him. Mark uses a strong word to describe Jesus’ admonition to the man. It a word that means his nostrils were flaring with urgency. Jesus strongly warns him to waste no time talking. His next stop needed to be at the priest’s doorstep. Jesus exhorted the man to follow the law God had given to Moses in response to his cleansing as a witness to the priests.
We don’t know if the man followed orders and went to the priests, but Mark has pointed words about the leper’s refusal to do as Jesus asked. Instead of following Jesus’ request for discretion, the man spreads the news far and wide. Mark says that the man’s actions had a direct effect on Jesus’ ministry. It hampered him from preaching throughout the Galilee as was his stated purpose. Instead, Jesus is swamped by miracle seekers in the cities, so he seeks deserted, isolated places. The irony is that in freeing the leper from isolation, he accepts a life seeking solitude himself.
Even though Jesus went to isolated spaces, the crowds did not give up. As the news of his miraculous, divine power spread, people found his isolated spot and they continued to mob him. He can no longer move freely without considering the impact of the large crowds flocking to him.
Jesus’ mercy and willingness to clean the leper had consequences for his own life. Through this story, Mark introduces us to the character of God’s Son. Jesus is willing to suffer the consequences of compassion. He is willing to cleanse us, even though it brings him trouble. This heartfelt compassion drives Jesus to continually reach out and lean in to those of us who carry physical and spiritual defilement. He is not afraid to touch us and he wants to make us clean. Jesus knows that his compassion comes with consequences for himself. His compassion will lead him straight to his own death. Regardless, he continues to reach out and lean into those who ask for his help.