Saturday, October 5, 2013

Jesus Cleanses a Leper and Suffers Some Consequences, Mark 1:40-45

40 And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
41 And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.
42 And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed.
43 And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away;
44 And saith unto him, See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
45 But he went out, and began to publish it much, and to blaze abroad the matter, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45)

In this story a leper comes to Jesus, asking to be cleansed. 

The way the leper risks the scorn and disgust of the people around him in order to get to Jesus tells us a little something about how people might feel coming to Jesus among Saints.  They might worry about not fitting in, about not being as good.  They brave rejection of society on the chance that they might be helped.  It tells us a little about how determined one has to be to come to Christ when the environment is disapproving or forbidding.  But we see it is all worth it.

That the leper asks to be cleansed is instructive to us.   The leper had spent much time calling, “Unclean!  Unclean!” to warn people away from him; it was the dearest wish of his life to someday be clean again.  His request to be cleansed can make us remember that without Jesus, we would all be unclean forever, outcasts from the presence of God, and that the hope to be cleansed of our sins and remain clean is one of the most important desires of our lives.

I love that the man knows that Jesus CAN cleanse him.  The question is WILL Jesus choose to cleanse him?  When we suffer disease, this idea of divine prerogative can help us in our faith.  God definitely CAN heal us.  The question is always WILL He?  If He chooses not to, can we maintain our trust in Him?

The neat thing to me is that Jesus’s compassion for the man caused him to touch him, knowing that he had not had normal human contact ever since he’d been diagnosed with the disease.  It is a compassionate act, and a healing one; the leprosy leaves the man.  It is a teaching miracle, meant to show Jesus’ power to cleanse and purify even the most virulent of diseases, and is meant to help people learn to believe Jesus can cleanse from terrible sins as well.  Just as Jesus’ touch cleanses physically, it cleanses spiritually. Jesus could not be contaminated.  Rather, He could sanctify.

In a different reading of this story, Jesus is not moved with compassion, but with indignation by the leper.  This is jarring, but we can understand why Jesus might be indignant—the leper is endangering others, risking contaminating others by violating the societal quarantine restrictions in the Law of Moses.  Healing the leper also saved others from being exposed to the same infection.  We can then understand why Jesus so carefully charged the man to go show himself to the priests.  The man broke the Law by coming in the city, so he was to demonstrate his healing by now keeping the Law and fulfilling all the forms set down for achieving reestablishment into society.  The forms made it official. 

Jesus had technically gone beyond the Law of Moses to touch the man, and perhaps He asked the man to keep quiet that He had touched him.  In spite of this, the man blazed the matter abroad and Jesus could no longer openly enter the city.  Perhaps Jesus had to go through a form of quarantine by staying out of the city for a while.  Still, people knew He hadn’t really been contaminated by leprosy, so they followed Him out into the desert places where He stayed.  One could say that from a certain point of view, Jesus took on Himself the penalty of the leper for a time, and this anticipated and testified of how Jesus would, in His atoning sacrifice, take upon Himself the pains and sickness and suffering of His people.

Jesus’ instruction to the man to not tell anyone what was done have always seemed to me to be odd.  He does this over and over when He does miracles, and so often He was disobeyed.  We know later He wanted His disciples to preach the gospel to every creature, so you’d think stories of miracles done would help that cause.  Sometimes it almost seems as if requiring silence was a ploy to get more attention in expectation that they would do the opposite.   But seeing it this way doesn’t work because we must believe Jesus spoke the truth, so we must suppose that somehow Jesus felt the cause of the gospel would not be helped by spreading stories of miracles.  How and why?  In thinking about it, I thought of a few problems that Jesus was seeking to prevent.

First, Jesus was trying to avoid self-aggrandizement.  He gave the glory to His Father, and He focused on His mission of saving souls.  He wanted people to believe in His saving power, but He didn’t want the wrong kind of publicity, and He didn’t want notoriety based on sensation.  He wasn’t a circus or an entertainer, and the spreading of miracle stories would have drawn people eager for sensation.  (We might ask ourselves, “In ways can I bring others to Jesus without drawing undue attention to myself?”)

Second, He needed freedom to move from town to town.  Preaching to a town at a time meant the numbers were controllable and He could be fairly confident of reaching just about everyone, and the weak or hesitant wouldn’t have to fight crowds to reach Him.

In short, Jesus was concerned that spreading the news would attract the wrong kinds of people and end up creating too great an obstacle for the right kinds of people to reach Him (“Right kinds” meaning “humble and repentant”).  We see later that He was justified in this concern; stories after this point speak of people who had to be pushy, or yell loudly, or tear up roofs of other people’s houses, or climb trees, or just squirm in close enough to touch His garment, and we can only dream of the people who might have been saved if they hadn’t been intimidated or discouraged by the huge press.  We see the huge crowds alarmed the Jewish leaders and they felt they had to keep an eye on Him and check His power with the people in any way they could, and He had to spend valuable preaching time parrying their attacks.

It is interesting that Jesus commanded the former leper to go show himself to the priests “as a testimony to them,” even as He commands him not to tell anyone else.  It sounds like Jesus privileges action and fulfilling the Law over telling of miraculous stories of change. 

The Law of Moses gave directions regarding how the priests were to diagnose skin diseases and declare someone cleansed or not, but it didn’t give any power to actually heal.  It was diagnostic, not therapeutic.  But having provisions for declaring a person clean shows that the Law had been given in implicit faith that the Messiah would come and heal people and healing was possible.  Who knows how long it had been since the leper-cleansing testimony provisions of the Law had been performed?  It would tell the priests in an unmistakable way that the Law was being fulfilled, even in little-known points, even in anticipatory senses.  They would see there was a healing power at work in the land, greater than the power of mortal priests.

Sadly, we have no mention that the leper went to the priests as a living testimony as instructed.  It is possible that he felt he could skip this step, reasoning that he knew he was healed so there was no point in being ceremonially declared healed.  There’s a lesson that is suggested by this speculation—it is important to go through all the forms required for repentance because they demonstrate our full willingness to submit to God.  Talk is cheap, and obedience is not.