Summary: The healing of the leper is not just another in a long line of healing stories in Mark, it is a strong statement both of Jesus' compassion for those in need, and his frustration with the systems that ostracize people and push them out when they are most i
One of the interesting things about living with a six year old is you get constant reminders of all the social taboos we live with that children are absolutely not aware of. For example, this winter (though it’s not really been cold yet) we have been eating soup some, and each time we dive in, Ken has to remind Mary Ellen that it is not polite to slurp. You know how it can be with kids, right? We head into the bathroom with the grandchild, and the next thing we know, the child is announcing to everyone in the facility the details of male and female anatomy. Or we have to remind the little two year old when it is okay to flash the belly button and when its not so appropriate. These are all the kinds of things that have become second nature to us as we conduct ourselves in day-to-day living. We know what clothes are expected for certain events, we know which fork to use when we eat salad at a formal dinner.
Then there’s all those unwritten rules about how to conduct yourself when you’re sick with something contagious. Stay home. Wash your hands regularly. Take your medicine. Don’t breathe or sneeze on anybody. Now, in our world these days, these sort of expectations are not written down anywhere in some sort of official book or law. “You must behave in this way under these circumstances.” But, in Jesus’ day they were. We think of the “Law of Moses” as the Ten Commandments, but it was much more extensive than that. And if you were a faithful Jew, the expectation was that you would follow the letter of the law; every last bit of it. There were specific instructions about how to prepare foods, everything from herbs and vegetables to various kinds of meat. The law covered the particular dress that was expected for nearly every occasion. Just about every possible situation you could imagine, there was a law that directed your behavior in that context. This included what was expected for all sorts of illnesses, and how you were (or were not) to interact with people with those inflictions; among them, leprosy.
Leprosy was one of the most feared illnesses, probably because people didn’t understand it. Leprosy in Jesus’ time included any skin abnormality; a poison ivy outbreak, rashes, chicken pox, pimples. The list could go on and on. And anyone with leprosy was deemed by the law as “unclean,” and cast out to the literal fringes of society. They could not live in the villages with their family and community. They were cast out to leper colonies away from the “clean” and “healthy” people. So you can imagine the miserable existence of a leper; sick, lonely, outcast, judged, ignored. Lepers were ostracized and they were sneered at. They were judged and avoided. Healthy people did everything possible to stay away from lepers because if they came into contact with one, they became unclean themselves. Besides, it was the law.
In this morning’s passage, Jesus and the disciples have left Capernaum and they are headed to “another village.” We don’t know what village that is, somewhere in Galilee. And as they go, it seems, they near a leper colony. This “colony” as it were, was probably out in the middle of nowhere. It would not have been in or near a village because the “clean” people would not have wanted to have any chance of being exposed to the “uncleanliness” of the lepers. Now, unlike that incident where the hemorrhaging woman quietly reached out and touched Jesus’ robe, in this case, a leper approaches Jesus. The man dropped to his knees and begged Jesus. “If you are willing,” he said to Jesus, “you can make me clean.”
Now, if a leper had approached any other passerby in that day, the person most certainly would have looked at the man, sneered, and then walked by on the other side of the road, as far away from the unclean man as possible. But that’s not what Jesus did, not even close. Our scripture says that, “filled with compassion (moved with pity), Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” In that one little action, there is so much that happens. In Jesus’ three simple words, “I am willing,” there is so much that is said.
Jesus’ radical proclamation disrupts the social order and breaks the long-standing boundaries that were set up by the law. Jesus extends his hand and simply touches the man. He offers personal presence to this man who had been so condemned and without contact for so long. Jesus’ hand is the supreme expression of mercy that transcends the laws of the purity of religious dogma. Jesus’ touch is a sign of mercy and shared life; a sign that goes against the grain and disrupts the social order so that liberation and reconciliation can reign. Jesus’ compassion compels him to reach across the boundary of disease to touch an “untouchable,” thus violating a Jewish law. And in doing that, Jesus put himself in the leper’s place, with that touch that made the leper clean, Jesus himself became unclean. Instead of confirming the man’s exclusion by shunning him, Jesus reaches out and through his healing touch symbolically draws him in. He shatters the long-standing boundaries of purity and in the process rewrites the book on the nature of God’s beloved community.