A Leper Like Us

My reading for this week is Mark 1:40-45. It reads:

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Once again, Mark is at work through a healing/miracle story, trying to prefigure what is to come as well as making a bold statement about the One in whom the kingdom is now present. However, what is interesting in this case is that there are two ways to read this story. Both make very bold statements about who God is, our brokenness before God, and Christ’s reconciliation of that tension.

The first reading is pretty straight forward. The begging leper, like all others around him, has been excluded from the larger community as per the instructions in the Mosaic law that lepers be separated. (Leviticus 13:45-46) In a way, his fate makes sense in that context in that the law prohibits him from further contact with others in order to protect them from the spread of the disease. That said, of course, a prognosis of leprosy would have been devastating for anyone who incurred it as it was a sentence of life in solitary away from everything he had ever known and loved.

With this in mind, we gain a sense of the agony likely in the voice of the leper as he cries out to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” On a first pass, what we have here is both lamentation and plea. It is likely the leper has sat there day after day, watching the world go by without him. In what is tantamount to a final plea for recognition and aid made to One he recognizes as having the power to change him, he wails at Jesus to hear him and take up his cause. If you choose, he says, you have the power. Much like the widow and the judge in Luke 18:1-8, he prostrates himself before this man of power and influence, begging for a different outcome.

I don’t think the leper expected much; why should he? No one had ever really responded before. Like many of us when a world of woe besets us, we feel isolated and alone; others seem at best passing in their attention and concern. Nevertheless, the leper casts out his final plea towards his only hope, and in this, I believe, we see a glimmer of what faith upon Christ really amounts to when the theological rubber hits reality’s road: a sense of utter and absolute dependence upon God for there is no other to whom we can turn.

For the leper, this day’s act of faith brings with it something radically different. Unlike the unjust judge in Luke 18 who hears, ignores, and eventually caves because the woman continues to pester him, Jesus’ reaction is different. Not out of duty, certainly not out of a sense of having been bothered, and not as a flippantly magical flip of the wrist, Jesus sees and hears this leper. When he sees and hears, he does so with the very heart of God that is pierced with the man’s sorrow and pain, from which flows a river of love and eventual healing. Mark tells us, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!'”  

The Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ (itself rather difficult to navigate) tells us a basic truth: Jesus was both perfectly and fully God and perfectly and fully human. These two seemingly contradicting concepts are held together in one person, and in this story we see the result. Moved with pity, with weeping, empathy and self-identification, Jesus sees in this man an expression of the brokenness of our nature made flesh with all its attending sorrows. Jesus is no Clinton! Moved by the power of God (for even the leper had confessed Jesus as dunasai, or having been empowered), that power responds to the deep need of our brokenness with compassion, mercy, healing and new life.

Taking it as step further, that power of God at work in Christ from which flows healing, brought on through a self-identification with the one who suffers, goes further and breaks down the dividing wall that separates the leper from the community — and by extension, all the suffering of the world. Mark tells us, just as in the case of Simon’s mother-in-law, that Jesus reaches out his hand and touches him. God in Christ touches the defiled flesh of the leper and by the strictures of the law becomes unclean. In this one act, we see Mark pre-figuring what will happen on the cross when Jesus hangs from the cross and touches/comes into contact with/takes onto himself our very mortality. Touching the leper, Jesus takes on his suffering and accursed state; tasting death, Jesus takes on the curse of all curses.

And he does this for us (pro nobis)! The compassion that compelled him to touch and cleanse the leper comes from the wellspring of God’s life giving mercy that chooses us at exactly the point of our undesirability. “I do choose,” Jesus says. He did choose, he does choose, and he will always choose us for we are His. No one, especially not those among the priestly class, and certainly none of us among the respectable community would go anywhere near that leper, but Christ chose to do so because he loved him. There was no part of that leper deserving of restoration, but God the Word chose him for relationship, for healing, for restoration and for a witness that God’s choice is the only one that matters.

There is a VERY important lesson here for us. We are the leper, period, end of story. There is no righteousness, beauty or purity of our own that we have of ourselves through which we could earn God’s recognition and love. At best, those great qualities about ourselves are gifts from God, and they are certainly balanced out if not outweighed by the gravity of our own brokenness. There is no choice or power or strength that I could produce to be deserving of such mercy – please notice, Jesus does not hold an altar call at the end of this convo!

No, here in this lovely story we are confronted face-to-face with the greatest truth we will ever know: “I do choose,” he tells us. Because of his choice for us, we embraced by a love that will not, nor could it ever, let us go.


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