Summary: We come to the most shocking act of Jesus in his brief career - touching an untouchable.
I’ve coined a new name for Jesus. I call him Jesus the Great Gasper. He is the man who makes people gasp, who causes gaspers. Consider what he did in a twenty-four hour period. He amazed people by his teaching, just by his teaching! People are left astonished by the way he taught. Maybe they were not gasping for breath by it, but they most likely were by the appearance of a demoniac and Jesus’ casting the demon out. That was a gasper. And then there was the evening of healings and exorcisms. As many people who came to him for healing of whatever disease they possessed, he healed them. That was a gasper too. In our passage this morning we come to what is perhaps the greatest gasper up to this time. It seems to be little more than a sentimental healing story, and yet to the witnesses who would have been present, it was the most shocking incident in Jesus’ brief career.
As I said, the story seems to be a sentimental healing story. This is the first story in which Mark takes time to describe a little bit the manner of the person seeking help.
40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Our hearts go out to the man. We can picture him falling on his knees and earnestly pleading. We can imagine the anguish he is feeling. And then we are attracted to his childlike faith. He knows Jesus is able to heal, and though he is anxious for healing, he still addresses him humbly: If you are willing.
Jesus’ response is just what we would expect. Mark notes that he is filled with compassion. Well, of course he is. What else would Jesus be? Mark then describes how Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. Again, that doesn’t surprise us. It is a tender gesture that we would expect of Jesus. We all know how pleasing a loving touch is when we are grieved or stressed.
And then, Jesus’ comment – I am willing – is just the appropriate word that would come from a man of love. By now, the rest is commonplace. Jesus says the word and the man is immediately cured. Nothing new about that. The only thing that would have astonished us is if Jesus had refused to heal or had been unable. Otherwise, we mark it down as one more nice healing tale. If we had been present, no doubt we would have stood around with warm, cheerful smiles on our faces. Possibly, but I am more sure that our Jewish companions would have had mouths wide open in shock. This was another gasper.
So, what’s up with our Jewish friends? Let’s revisit the story. Go back to the beginning when the leper approaches Jesus. Note again that he falls on his knees and begs Jesus to heal him. We were thinking that such earnestness indicated the man’s anguish or pain from his disease. Perhaps we have experienced the same feelings. I know I did when kidney stones attacked me. I would have fallen on my knees before any doctor and begged for healing!
But there is more taking place here. What does he say exactly to Jesus? If you are willing, you can make me clean. This seems to be a courteous request for help. We often put our requests to friends like that: “Would you be willing to help me out?” But putting it all together, Mark indicates that this man had real doubt. This is the only instance of anyone asking for help questioning Jesus’ willingness. Why would he doubt? After all, the reason he came in the first place was that he had heard Jesus healed all the sick who came to him. Why would he be the exception? We need to understand the nature of his disease to understand why.
The first thing to note is that most references to leprosy in scripture are really not about true leprosy. Fortunately I am not a physician, so I have no temptation to introduce technical terms or enter into an elaborate presentation of the various medical conditions involved with this term. It was difficult enough just to wade through the reading on the subject, and I am not about to represent it in a sermon. I am personally satisfied with the NIV’s footnote: “The Greek word was used for various diseases affecting the skin – not necessarily leprosy.”
Leprosy, as we think of it, causes a loss of sensation. This loss of sensation in turn leads to ulcers on the skin and other malformations. There may be pain in the limbs and joints. The hands may curl into claws. It is, needless to say, a horrible disease. That’s probably not what the lepers in scripture had. Doctors reviewing the list of symptoms that are presented in Leviticus 13 would note that indeed some of them indicate mild skin problems. This again leads us to wonder why the biblical form of leprosy was considered so horrible.