Summary: Jesus Embraces the Embarrassing; He Repairs the Repulsive
It’s down to two: a Labradoodle and a Portuguese water dog. Don’t tell me you haven’t been following President Obama’s search for a suitable “First Hound.” On election night Obama promised his daughters that they could get a pet for the White House. It’s turning out to be a “ruff” choice. One thing is certain the Obamas have indicated their willingness to pick a pet from the pound. But there are all kinds of dogs in animal shelters. Some are mangy and disgusting. What would your reaction be if the President picked a dog covered in sores and scabs? “He did what!?!” you’d say. “I wouldn’t touch such a creature with a ten foot pole!”
While I doubt very much President Obama would choose such a dog to run around the White House and play with his daughters, we’re going to hear how Jesus chose to show compassion to a cast-off in a way that made the people say, “He did what!?!” What Jesus did is embrace the embarrassing, and repair the repulsive – something he thankfully still does today.
Large crowds were following Jesus somewhere in Galilee one day when a pitiful cry caught Jesus’ attention. It wasn’t the cry of a child who had scraped his knee; it was the groan of an adult desperate with despair. Jesus didn’t have to look around long to see where the voice was coming from because there was its source – face down on the ground before him. The crowd that had only moments before been jostling to get close to Jesus must have slowly backed away as if the man on the ground were a cobra that could leap up and strike them at any instant. This man, you see, was a leper.
Much has been written about leprosy but I think it’s enough to say that the Greek word lepra means “scabby.” Leprosy was a term used to describe various illnesses that affected the skin. Psoriasis was a form of leprosy but so were more serious illnesses that ended in death. We don’t know what form of leprosy this man had but it doesn’t matter. As a leper he was an outcast. According to God’s law he had to live on the outskirts of town with his hair unkempt and his face covered while crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” should a “healthy” person venture near. Lepers weren’t allowed to touch healthy people otherwise they would make them unclean. What that meant is such a person could not go up to the temple and worship until he had been sprinkled with the water of cleansing and waited until the evening. This was the same thing you were to do if you had touched a dead animal. God’s message was clear: lepers were the living dead. They were cut off from their families and the rest of society. They were even cut off from God’s temple.
You’d think people would feel sorry for lepers and do something to help them. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however. Rabbis, Jewish teachers, decreed that no less than six feet must be kept between you and a leper. And if you were downwind from a leper, then you needed to put 100 feet between you and the outcast. One rabbi even boasted that he threw stones at lepers to keep them from getting too close (Edersheim)!
It’s amazing then that the crowd that day didn’t turn and run when the leper approached. Perhaps they were following Jesus’ lead. While others instinctively backed away Jesus stood his ground and listened to the man’s plea: “If you are willing,” croaked the outcast “you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40b). This man may have been a pariah but he knew how to pray! He expressed his confidence in Jesus’ ability to cleanse him yet he didn’t presume to tell Jesus what to do. Nor did he demand an explanation as to why he had contracted leprosy. He simply acknowledged that if Jesus wanted to, he could cleanse him and restore him to health, to his family, to his work, to his life! But he left that all to Jesus trusting that Jesus knew what was best for him.
How do your petitions compare to this pariah’s prayer? Are you as trusting? Or are there certain things that you don’t think Jesus can do like fix your marriage or help you let go of a grudge? Are you as humble? Or do you demand that Jesus answer your prayers according to your timetable to prove his love to you? This leper may not have always been as trusting and humble but that must have changed after he was diagnosed with his condition. As a leper he would have been “forced” to rely on the Lord since no one else seemed to care about lepers. It’s just as the Apostle Paul explains: “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5).