Mark 1:40-45 ‘Jesus – the Healing, Restoring Compassion of God’
I wonder how many of you enjoy going to the theatre, the cinema, or perhaps watching TV drama? I personally like watching drama, thrillers, full of suspense and tension! You know, when the audience is not sure what is going to happen next, especially when two or more characters meet together in an emotionally ‘charged’ situation. The sort of encounter that has us sitting on the edge of our seats!
Well, if we think of our verses today from the Gospel of Mark in terms of theatre, of drama, then maybe we can appreciate more fully the atmosphere of tension – the suspense – that surrounds the story we’re told there.
Imagine then the scene set before us. Jesus and the four new disciples (whom we have been hearing about over the past few weeks) have left the hometown of Simon and Andrew, James and John – where Jesus had begun his healing / teaching ministry in earnest. Simon’s mother-in-law had been sick with fever, but had been touched by Jesus and been healed. And many, many people that had been sick and in the grip of ‘evil spirits’ had come to him and received healing themselves. Jesus and his new disciples had then left that town, and proceeded into neighbouring ones where he had taught in synagogues and brought healing and wholeness to all he touched.
It seems that so many are the people that came to Jesus, and so varied their maladies, that Mark has no time or space to be specific about the nature of their complaints. That is the case anyway until, as Mark tells us, a LEPER appears on the scene – and what a dramatic ‘entrance’ this individual makes! For this person does not simply walk on ‘stage left’ and casually approach Jesus to talk with him. No – he RUSHES on and THROWS himself to his knees at Jesus’ feet, exclaiming – even BEGGING him – “If you choose, you can make me clean”.
Now HERE is a dramatic scene, fraught with suspense, if ever there was one! Imagine the scene as the leper IMPLORES Jesus to ‘make him clean’, and imagine the intensity of Jesus’ response as he (as Mark tells us) ‘is moved with compassion’, reaches out to touch the unfortunate individual and says, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Jesus then immediately instructs the healed man to present himself to the priest – but NOT to say anything to anyone about how he has come to receive ‘cleansing’. But such is the ELATION of the man that he just can’t help but proclaim the Word and the works of Jesus, as he has experienced him, and by whom he has found healing. Such is the power, such is the intensity, of the atmosphere which surrounds this story, as it is ‘played-out’ in Mark’s Gospel, reflecting the dramatic nature of the healing.
But let us take a step back from the story for a moment, to look at what happened a little more closely, and what it meant for the people involved.
Firstly, what was it to be a leper in the time of Jesus? The term ‘leprosy’ was used as a description for a whole range of bone and skin conditions – some of which were temporary, others permanent – but most of which were highly contagious. The ‘Purity Code’ of the Jewish Faith decreed that anyone who had such a condition should be pronounced ‘unclean’, and that they should be made ‘outcast’ from their families, communities and, indeed, from participating in the worship of the synagogue. Thus, ‘lepers’ were thrown out of their towns or villages in which they had lived, and into the wilderness. They became isolated, feared – and despised – by the people they once lived among. They were considered to be ‘apart’ from God and God’s mercy. For they lived at a time when disease and misfortune were considered to be punishment from God.
So, in the story we see one such despised, feared and isolated individual BEGGING Jesus for his healing touch. And we see Jesus’ response: he responds with COMPASSION – indeed, we are told that he is MOVED with compassion. Now this IS a powerful emotion, compassion. It is not ‘pity’ (as some bible translations have it). Pity is to ‘feel sorry for’ (from a [safe] distance). Compassion derives from the Latin ‘com – passion’ which means, literally, ‘suffer with’. [Think of Jesus’ ‘Passion’ / suffering on the cross]. Some ancient biblical texts tell us that Jesus was moved with ANGER, and comes to the leper’s aid. Either way, Jesus is not distant from the suffering, the feelings, of the afflicted. Rather, he SHARES with him in it, and takes the RISK of being infected himself.
So, we have two important insights into Mark’s story of Jesus healing the leper. Firstly, that healing takes place on two levels – the individual and the community. The afflicted, suffering person finds that the condition that has been causing so much pain and anxiety has been healed, bringing great joy to his life. But the message that underlies this healing story is that an important aspect of healing comes from the community, the gathered people. For the joy of healing would be rather lessened if the cleansed leper was not able to re-join his family, his community – to participate once again in the worship of the synagogue. For here lies true healing – the full integration of a person back into the life and faith of the community to which they belong.
Secondly, there is the important insight that Jesus is not a distant healer, who looks on from a ‘safe’ distance and simply ‘feels sorry (pity) for’ those that suffer. Rather, in COMPASSION he ‘suffers with’ and shares in the plight of people in their suffering – he reaches out and touches us, he is alongside us in our pain. Indeed, and although some might have difficulty with associating this emotion with Jesus, he looks upon the causes of peoples’ suffering in ‘anger’. This takes us to the heart of the nature of God, to the Divine anger of the Old Testament, as it is expressed by God in love for all people who face injustice and oppression – the Divine anger over all that imprisons, binds and sours human life.
So, we can appreciate the story of the healing of the leper on two levels. There is the story of a suffering, isolated individual who, through the healing touch of Jesus, is welcomed by and restored to his family and community of faith. There he is able to share once again in the companionship of family and friends, and the support of community prayer. And there is insight that Jesus meets, reaches out and touches – and shares with – those that suffer, in the very fullest sense.
Then there is the discomfort we may feel with the image of the angry Jesus, who looks upon society and the world, and who displays his fury at anything that excludes or isolates people from fully participating in life. He asks us the question, “Who are the oppressed, the marginalised ‘outcast’, the excluded of our own day – and does the church have the strength to take the risk of showing its anger – God’s righteous, Divine anger – and show that we are in solidarity with those that suffer – as Jesus did?”
But perhaps the most powerful image we are left with, and which we can relate to as individual Christian people, is that of the prayer of the leper. For his appeal to Jesus, kneeling and begging at his feet, also seems somehow to echo the deepest longings of humanity. Caught-up in the leper’s “If you choose” are the world-wide cries for justice, freedom, and peace, so loud and prominent today. Caught-up in his “If you choose” are the many silent sighs of individual sufferers, whose lives we are often privileged to share. Here we touch the emotional heart of prayer, with its wrestling, struggling and yearning – its deep desire for God, for understanding, for the healing of a loved-one, the healing of the world.
Jesus knew of this yearning, the offering-up of ‘Prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears’ (Heb 5:7). And he also encouraged his disciples to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom. So in our discipleship – in our prayers and in our putting our prayers into action – in our ‘begging’ and our ‘kneeling’ - we also look for, and work towards, the healing, the restoration, of all God’s creation.
For us, then, the healing ministry Jesus calls us all to participate in is based upon a ‘partnership of passion’ (you and me with Jesus), where human longings are responded to and met by our passion for seeing the Kingdom of God realised in all its fullness here on earth. And this passion finds its focus in the Passion of Christ Jesus, for it is his striving for God’s Kingdom of justice and peace and joy (which is so evident in the conclusion of the story of the leper) that led him to the Passion of the cross, restoring us all to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Disclaimer: I have been privileged to share with God’s people, for more than ten years since my Ordination, many, many sermons and Bible studies. As so often, preachers ‘absorb’ words and other insights without knowing or remembering their original source. If any of the above seems somehow ‘familiar’, please accept my humble apologies – I have not wittingly reproduced any writing as my own that should be otherwise acknowledged.