Mark doesn’t waste any time, does he?—I heard that statement expressed several times this past week. People were noticing that we were still in the first chapter of his gospel, and He was already casting out demons and healing diseases. We are not the first group of Christians to notice that Mark’s Gospel is more like a Passion Narrative with a prologue than a "normal account" of His ministry, whatever that means. In the last three weeks alone, we have heard the story of the demon being exorcised in the synagogue, the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law being healed, and now the story of the leper being healed. And still, we are in the beginning of the book! Mark writes like he did not have a lot of time or like he did not have much paper. Of course, when we consider that Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted only about three years, maybe the disciple learned something from his Master – time is of the essence.
Two weeks ago, we learned that Jesus had authority in the spiritual world. Last week, we learned that Jesus could heal the effects of either spiritual attacks or God’s punishment. This week, the focus of Mark shifts just a bit. As with fevers, leprosy was considered in the Ancient Near East to be a divine punishment. In the Jewish culture, in particular, it was thought to be a sign of judgment upon a notorious sinner. To be fair, Leviticus spends more than a dozen verses teaching priests the symptoms of leprosy, so it is only natural that the Jews felt it had a special place in God’s arsenal of judgments. And just so we are aware, leprosy in the ANE was not only what you and I know to be Hansen’s disease. There were a number of rashes, discolorations, and other skin ailments which could be called leprosy.
The reason that leprosy was more feared than fevers was the result of the disease. You might think that the outlook for those with Hansen’s disease would have been terrible, at least from a health standpoint. Even today, all we can do is arrest the effects of the disease. We, with all our expertise and knowledge, cannot cure it. Without medications, sufferers will often experience infections, gangrene, and loss of limbs after some period of time. As bad as that sounds, there was a worse punishment for lepers. They were considered in the culture in which Jesus ministered to be unclean. To associate with one meant that one became ritually unclean as well. If one socialized with a leper, one had to be purified before one could return to the synagogue. In a very real way, lepers were treated like living corpses. Imagine their lives. Imagine the isolation, the distance (both physical and emotional), the hurt, and the pain. Imagine if you did not have Hansen’s disease, yet you were still force to live apart. Now you know the leper’s hurt and pain. You have a terrible disease and must live apart from us because God is mad at you and is punishing you, at least that is what you have been taught.
Mark wastes no time telling the story. The leper comes to Jesus begging. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Has he heard how Jesus cast out the demon? Has he heard how Jesus cured the fever? Was it another miracle that inspired him? We are not told. What we are told, however, is that Jesus was moved with pity and stretched out His hand to touch the man. Imagine the shock and horror of all those watching this exchange. The Teacher has just defiled himself! Imagine the shock of the leper. People have gone out of their way since the diagnosis to avoid him, and now Jesus was intentionally touching him. A healthy, clean person was reaching out to him. And not just any person, but a rabbi and a prophet! He of all people would know what He was bringing upon Himself. And Jesus says the kind words, “I do choose,” and He commands the leper to be clean. Immediately, Mark relates, the disease left the man, and he was made clean.
Mark then gives us the stern warning that Jesus gave to the man. First, he tells the man to say nothing. Talk about countercultural! You and I are familiar with televangelists who, usually for a price, can offer you a fix for your ills. If you are not cured when he or she prays, the fault lies with your faith, not them. The ANE had similar charlatans in those days. Men would promote their ability to heal so as to gain notoriety and to increase their purse. Jesus, however, tells the man to say nothing. Simply go to the priest, let him see and judge, and offer the appropriate sacrifice as a testimony to them. Jesus wants no acclaim. He does not seek to promote Himself the way most PR people would teach us to promote ourselves. He understands that miracles, while powerful, do not always produce enduring faith. We have seen this attitude first hand in our experiences. Think of the miracles at Genesis, which, for a few months, produced a great deal of chatter and excitement, but ended with doctors and nurses assuming that the indications or tests were wrong, therefore the result was not as stunning. Jesus is calling for an enduring faith. And Jesus is living under the torah which His Father bestowed upon Israel. He understands better than everyone that bad things can happen to God's people and that God will ultimately redeem them, if they have faith!
Ominously, we are told that the man’s healing is a judgment upon others. The priests, in particular, named the man a leper and unclean. If the healed man follows Jesus' instructions and seeks readmission into the synagogue and among God's people, he priests will be the ones who name him clean and who restore him to the community of God’s people, once the thank offering has been made. Will they recognize that if only God can send the disease of leprosy that the One who cleanses others of it must also be from God? Those of us who have cheated and read ahead know the answer to that question. This cleansing will be among those reasons why Jesus is so harsh in His judgment about the priests.
Of course, we know the man was unable to keep silent. Can you blame him? Against all hope and expectation, he has been cleansed of a disease, touched by the prophet, and restored to community. His response is that joyful response we should all have when we come to the realization of what Christ has done for each one of us. And this man’s proclamation of what Jesus has done is so well done that Jesus is forced to stay out in the country because of the flood of people who flock to Him.
It is fortunate, if not downright providential, that our Healing Service includes these readings. In a few moments, we will gather around the altar rail. I will anoint and lay hands on those seeking healing in their lives. Make no mistake, what we seek is healing, not cures. Some may come forward with the guilt and shame of sin asking simply that God take it away and clothe them in His righteousness. Others may come forward with aches and pains and diseases and asked that they be removed as well. But always, always, we come to the rail praying for the healing that only Jesus can offer. Only He died for us. Only He was raised for us. Only He can give us lasting hope and true healing.
As a result of that healing He works in us, however, you and I become uniquely qualified and obligated to carry that message into the world around us. In a real way, you and I are called to a joyful proclamation not unlike the leper’s in this week’s story. And you and I are commanded, not asked, commanded to take that offer of healing and restoration to those in our midst who are most cut off, who feel most unloved, who live with the worst pain, confident in His ability to redeem all things.
Who in your life is like the leper? Who is it in your life that fails the “ick test.” Who is it, if you had your druthers, would stay “out there” and not be invited “in here.” Brothers and sisters those are the very people you and I need to be reaching. Those are the very people we need to be touching and helping and reminded that they are, too, just like us, loved of God. Maybe it is the AIDS victim in your life, maybe it the person whom you serve at Community Meal, maybe it a stinky drunk or druggie. You see, once we were just as unclean in His eyes, but now we are made clean through His sacrifice. Like the joyful leper today, we should be proclaiming the healing that He gives, that people will continue to come to Him from every quarter.