Epiphany 6 · Mark 1:40-45 · February 15, 2009
By Wally Becker
Mark gets right into the story. Immediately in chapter one, John the Baptizer is introduced and Jesus is baptized. He is tempted for forty days in the desert and then begins gathering his disciples. He drives out an evil spirit from a man on the Sabbath in the synagogue. Then, he goes to the home of Simon and Andrew and he heals Simon’s mother-in-law. After sunset, when the Sabbath is over, the whole town gathers at Simon’s door where Jesus heals many and drives out demons. Early the next morning, Jesus goes to a solitary place to pray. When his disciples find him, he leads them to other villages so he can preach and heal. The chapter ends with Jesus healing a man with leprosy.
Without debating the severity of the disease, we know that this man is an outcast, living outside the community. He is considered an untouchable and is not supposed to touch anyone else or they will also become unclean. Yet he has heard about Jesus and he has faith that if Jesus wants to, he can heal this disease. “If you are willing, you are able, you can make me clean.” There are some text variants concerning the emotions that Jesus showed. Did he respond in indignation or in compassion? Or both? It is possible that Jesus responded with compassion toward the leper as he did toward many others whom he healed, and at the same time responded with indignation toward the leprosy and the devastating results of sin.
Jesus responded by reaching out and touching the leper. Ordinarily such an action would have caused the uncleanness to transfer to Jesus, and he would have become unclean, but there is nothing ordinary about Jesus. With the words, “I am willing, be clean,” Jesus heals the man. The cleanness of Jesus is stronger than the uncleanness of the leper, therefore the cleanness of Jesus passes to the leper, and he is healed. A picture of this process is found in the story “Ragman” in the book Ragman and Other Cries of Faith by Walter Wangerin Jr. As the Ragman meets various hurting people he exchanges his “new” rags for their torn rags. As he does the Ragman takes on their hurt or infirmity and the individual leaves whole.
Jesus was able (and willing) to give physical healing to the man with leprosy, but he did not declare him ceremonially clean. That was still the job of the priest, and Jesus sternly commanded the healed man to show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices commanded by Moses (Lv 14). This would be a testimony to the priests concerning the one who had provided the healing. We do not know if the man followed these instructions.
Jesus also commanded the healed man not to tell of this healing to anyone else. The man did not obey Jesus. Instead he talked freely about Jesus and his healing to everyone. As a result, Jesus was no longer able to enter the towns and villages to preach, as he had desired to do, but instead stayed in lonely places.
Jesus took the illness of the leper and gave him healing and wholeness. Like the Ragman in Wangerin’s story, Jesus takes our hurts, infirmities, sin, and sickness into himself and carries them all to the cross, giving us forgiveness, healing and wholeness as we trust in him.
There are at least two other themes that present themselves. The first is that though Jesus is able, and in his compassion, certainly is also willing, why are so many of our prayers for healing for self or a loved one, even though offered in faith, not answered with physical healing as they were for the leper? We can all offer examples from within our families or our congregations of times when prayers for healing were offered fervently and in faithful trust, but the person died. We can often find consolation in the witness offered by the dying person and the testimony to the goodness and love of God that many get to hear and witness through the death of a faithful servant of God. We can draw on the example of St. Paul himself who was told by God that his suffering, his thorn in the flesh, was to be born in patience that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.
God certainly is able, but we do not know the mind of God, to know his plan and purpose in the situations of life that we face. He may choose to heal and bring glory to his name through that healing; or he may choose not to heal, but choose to give strength to bear the affliction, and to bring encouragement and hope to others through the faithful witness of the one who is afflicted.
Because of God’s compassion shown in Jesus, and because Jesus took our place in death on the cross, death no longer has the victory over us, so that when we do die, death becomes the passageway to heaven and the total healing that we shall receive when we see Jesus face to face. The person who dies in the Lord receives the ultimate healing from Jesus in heaven. That is also an answer to our prayers.
The second theme that could be followed is our response of obedience to the instructions we have received from the Lord in His Word. The leper’s disobedience did not nullify the healing. God did not take away his gift of grace to him. The leper’s disobedience did, however, hinder the work that Jesus wanted to do in that area. Jesus was no longer able to enter the towns and villages to do his work as he wanted to. How does disobedience in our own lives hinder the work that Jesus wants to do within us, and through us in the lives of those around us? Examining our lives, our attitudes, and our actions; turning from those areas of disobedience in repentance and receiving the forgiveness Jesus purchased for us; and asking for the help of the Holy Spirit to amend those areas of our lives, need to be a regular part of our spiritual exercise.
Jesus certainly is able to do far more than we could even imagine, and his will is to finally bring all things together under Jesus as head (Eph 1:10). In the meantime, we cannot always discern God’s will for us in a specific circumstance. Faith places the situation in God’s hands, and trusts him for the best way through the circumstances.