Commentary on Mark 1:40-45
This healing story does not actually belong to that “Day in the life of Jesus” which we reflected on over the past two days.
Lepers were among the most piteous of people in scriptural times. Although little was known of the origin of the sickness, it was clearly known to be contagious and therefore greatly feared. The only solution was to isolate the victim and not allow him/her to approach people. So, apart from the appalling physical disintegration of body and limbs, there was the social ostracism, the contempt and the fear which the victim engendered.
What was probably even more tragic was that many who were branded as lepers were suffering from some other ailment, which may not have been contagious at all – such as ulcers, cancer or other skin diseases (some of them perhaps purely psychosomatic). The signs for diagnosis are given in chapter 13 of the Book of Leviticus and, by our standards today, are rather primitive indeed. The room for a wrong diagnosis was huge. It was a question of being safe rather than sorry.
The leper in the story indicates his great faith and trust in Jesus, a necessary and sufficient condition for healing in the Gospel. “If you wish, you can make me clean,” he says. He knows this because he has undoubtedly seen or heard of what others have experienced.
Jesus is filled with a deep sense of compassion for the man’s plight. Highlighting the emotional feelings of Jesus is a characteristic of Mark’s gospel and is seldom found in Matthew. What Jesus feels is compassion not just pity. In pity we feel sorry for the person; in compassion, we enter into the feelings of the other, we empathise with their experience. And in doing so Jesus does the unthinkable – he reaches out to touch the leper. This must have been a healing act in itself. The leper was by definition untouchable. “I do will it.” says Jesus, “Be made clean.” The man is immediately healed.
But that is not the end of the story because the man has still to be reintegrated into the community – this is the second part of the healing process. He is told to go to the priests to make the customary offering of thanksgiving. They will examine him and then pronounce him fit to re-enter society.
He is also told not to say anything to anyone about it. Jesus wanted no sensationalism. But how could the man refrain from telling everybody about his wonderful experience of coming in contact with the whole-making power of Jesus? He becomes an ardent evangeliser, a spreader of good news – something we are all called to be.
What is the outcome of our experience of knowing Jesus? How come we do not have the enthusiasm of this man? It is worth noting that that experience was the result of his first having been the victim of a terrible cross. It is often in our crosses that grace appears.
Once again, Jesus goes out into the desert to avoid the enthusiastic crowds. Jesus was not interested in having “fans”, only genuine followers. He would not be ready until his full identity was recognised. That would only happen as he hung dying on the cross (Mark 15:39)
Before we leave this story, we may ask who are the lepers in our society today? One very obvious group are those who have contracted contagious diseases like HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases which are becoming ever more widespread. Even though these are of little danger to most people who have no physical contact, the victims are often rejected in fear or disgust or embarrassment by family members, friends, employers, colleagues, even medical people.
There are also people like homosexuals. If many of them are not lepers it is simply because they dare not reveal their orientation. They dare not do so because they are most likely to be “leper-ised” by even family and friends. There are other marginal groups – nomadic groups like Romanies, drug addicts, poor single mothers, the homeless, alcoholics… Indeed, we have many lepers among us. Let us examine our attitudes today and revise them if necessary.