Yesterday I began reading Mark’s Gospel, and I was struck by how he recounts Jesus’ act of healing the leper in 1:40-44. Mark writes:
And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.’
And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once and said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.'”
In this little story is packed a very weighty theological load. Yet, the weight and glory of the person and work of Christ is often obscured by two factors.
1) The modern reader associates leprosy of the Old and New Testaments with what is now known as leprosy. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease as it is known today, is a condition that affects the nerves, limbs, skin, and eyes. How many times have we heard from preachers that the leprosy Jesus healed deadened nerves causing digits and limbs to fall off? Such a misunderstanding of leprosy is often caused by the second factor that obscures our perception.
2) Most readers are unfamiliar with Levitical laws pertaining to leprosy. Here are some features that should assist us: a) leprosy was a skin disorder, b) leprosy made the individual unclean, c) the individual in question was inspected by the priests in order to deem whether or not he/she was clean, d) if unclean, the leper was excluded from the camp, e) contact with the unclean (person or object) resulted in a status of ceremonial uncleanness, and f) once the disease was healed, the leper presented himself for inspection by the priest.
Now that these obstructions have been removed, let us re-examine the text. The first thing that we should notice is that Jesus’ act can no longer be understood primarily in terms of physical healing, though it is most certainly that as well. Jesus’ act of physically healing the leper breaks into the social and spiritual realms. The leper is no longer forced to live apart from the community of faith. Furthermore, his status as ceremonially “unclean” has been changed to that of “clean.” It is easy to dismiss the social and spiritual ramifications of this text by falsely charging the religious authorities of injustice. After all, the chief priests, Sadducees, and Pharisees are regularly rebuked by Christ in the Gospels for their legalistic religious tendencies, hypocrisy, and unjust treatment of the poor. But notice that Jesus tells the unnamed leper to present himself to the scribes and to offer the prescribed sacrifice. He has been restored physically, spiritual, and socially.
The second feature we should notice is the super-priestly role Jesus possesses. In Leviticus and in the New Testament, the priest is only capable of inspecting and determining whether or not an individual possessed the inflection of leprosy. The priest is not able to cleanse the man. The leper, as it turns out, rightly recognizes that Jesus is able to cleanse him, and he places his faith in capable hands.
The final feature I want to drawn our attention to is the word ἅψατο “he touched.” Jesus “touched” the leper. Jesus TOUCHED the leper. Ok…some of you just aren’t getting it. Class, what happens when a “ceremonially clean” person touches a “ceremonially unclean” person? That’s right, he becomes “unclean” and must wait a period of time before offering a sacrifice for his cleanness. Yet, it is as if “cleanness” emanates from Jesus’ very being. He is not affected. Instead, a reversal takes place. The leper is cleansed. The infectious disease, which is sin, has met its anecdote. Christ is restores this man. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as restoring a broken creation. That restoration continues even today.