Summary: In healing the leper, Jesus showed his power not only over disease but all that disease represents in this world: the corruption and chaos of sin.
Jesus Heals the Leper
The miracle of healing which Mark records in today’s gospel lesson might seem, at first, to present a kind of contradiction in Jesus’ own ministry at this point. After Jesus has been mobbed all night long in Capernaum by people seeking him out to cure their diseases, Jesus has fled Capernaum – refusing to do any more healings there, because that is not what he came for. He came to preach the gospel of the Kingdom, and so has left Capernaum in order to preach in other cities. “That is why I came forth,” is what he tells his disciples.
But what we find here in Mark’s gospel are two more miracles of healing – in today’s gospel lesson, the healing of a leper, and the one we will consider next week, the healing of a paralytic. Mark presents these miracles to us – and, I am quite confident, Jesus performed these two miracles – in order to make a point OVER AND BEYOND the mercy which he showed to both men. The miracles were object lessons – for those who were onlookers, and for the Church, which has continued to ponder these miracles for the past 20 centuries.
So, let us pay attention to several details in Mark’s account of this miracle of healing, and ask ourselves what is the point of it all, not only for what Mark tells us about Jesus, but for what we ourselves are to make of this miracle early in our Lord’s ministry.
Mark first presents us with a picture of misery – the condition of the leper himself. The word leper appears to be all that Mark needs in order to tell us what kind of shape this man is in as he comes to Jesus. Luke’s account of this miracle adds a detail that is helpful here – namely that the man was “full of leprosy.” By this, I think we are to understand that the leprous condition of his skin had spread over his entire body.
Dr Paul Brand, a Christian missionary who conducted some of the most influential research on leprosy was able to explain why lepers whom he studied in India were missing so many fingers and toes. For a few lepers, their missing fingers were actually knocked off their bodies. But most of them seemed to lose their digits during the night. He set some people to stay up all night to observe the sleeping lepers, and what they found was this: rats would chew off fingers and toes while the lepers were asleep, but the lepers did not awaken, because they felt nothing.
As the leprosy spreads, many lepers go blind -- not because of the disease itself, but because, without feeling in their eyes, they forget to blink. Dr Brand writes this:
“The loneliest people of all are the ones for whom leprosy has also destroyed their sight. Like many others in the world, they are blind, but unlike most of the blind they can’t use their hands to bring them the sensations that their eyes are denied because they can’t feel either. They are really alone.” [Hat tip for the above for Coty Pinkney]
The leper before Jesus, however, was still able to see. And we find that his misery was not merely physical, but also spiritual. He fell down before Jesus, and Mark says that he was begging him, saying, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Here we have some powerful evidence of why Mark includes this healing, and why Jesus performed it in the first place.
First of all, note that the leper did not say, “You can make me well.” Instead, he says, you can make me clean. The leper was unclean, and that was the predominate notion of leprosy – a foulness, a rottenness of both body and soul.
Uncleanness is a concept very well developed within the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Most uncleanness occurred because a person touched something that was unclean – like a corpse, or any other thing that was unclean, such as certain animals or insects. For a great amount of uncleanness, the solution was to simply wait until sundown, then to bathe. Some uncleanness had to be removed by offering a sacrifice.
But, the uncleanness that attached to leprosy was incurable. You couldn’t make the uncleanness disappear so long as you had the leprosy, and in those days leprosy was utterly incurable. There was no medicine for it. Here is what the Law of Moses says about the person who is found to be leprous:
45 “Now the leper … , his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his upper lip, and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 … All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.