“If You Dare…”
Jesus came to proclaim the good news of the inbreaking of God’s dominion, not primarily to offer temporary healing from a human condition that is eventually terminal anyway. This is not to say that healing in this life isn’t a very good thing. Jesus the healer of temporal illnesses and difficulties, according to the earliest Evangelist, must be understood in the context of Jesus the proclaimer of something greater — the inbreaking of God’s kingdom.
“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 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.’ ” Mark 1: 40-44
Now isn’t that a comforting story from the Gospel of Mark. When asked, Jesus, moved with pity, reaches out and heals a person suffering a horrible disease and then directs him to follow the rules prescribed by the religious authorities to be welcomed back into the community. Does everybody here like that kind of compassionate, caring and law abiding Jesus? Before any of us get too comfortable with this story, on pretty good authority I want to present you with a much different picture of this early event in Jesus’ ministry.
Donald Juel says that “Jesus’ healing of the leper is the first of several stories that deal with Jesus’ violation of ritual boundaries”. He has already broken a few boundaries. He has already healed two people and those healings occurred on the Sabbath. So right at the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark Jesus challenges the people who hold the power. That brings me to what I’ll call a variant reading of Mark 1:40-44. The changes from what we read before come from equally ancient and accurate texts and could have easily been the more accepted version except for the call of the translator. So here goes:
“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to Jesus, ‘You could declare me clean if only you would dare.’ Infuriated, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Snorting with indignation Jesus sent him back, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priests, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony against them.’ ”
A person with this disease was considered to be among the living dead, an untouchable. By coming to Jesus the leper was the first to step across the ritual boundaries. He violated the rules of Leviticus 13-14. This particular leper does not cry out, “Unclean, unclean,” — a cry to have people stay away. Quite literally this leper repeatedly summons Jesus to his side.
And while some ancient manuscripts say in the forty first verse that Jesus showed compassion and had pity on the leper, others translate it as his being angry, even infuriated. Most modern translations have chosen to go with the emotion of “pity” or “compassion” and sometimes there is actually a footnote about the “anger” reading. Usually not.
Ched Myers in Binding the Strong Man opts for the angry reading. He includes our text under the great title: “Challenging the Ideological Hegemony of Priest and Scribe”. O.K., hegemony isn’t a word we run into on a regular basis and here is a situation where the correct word can get in the way of real understanding. The reason Ched Myers chooses the word ‘hegemony’ is that it correctly describes how the Priests and the Scribes, as a group held the preponderance of influence and authority over other people in the culture of Jesus’ day and resisted any attempt to take it from them.
After his comment about the leper daring Jesus to heal him, he writes: Jesus does indeed dare, but Mark tells us that he is angry. Then, after the declaration of wholeness has been delivered, Jesus, “snorted with indignation”, originally a word describing the snorting noise horses make, and dispatches the man back to the priests. Picturing Jesus as Yosemite Sam may stretch us quite a bit, but what do you make of these strong emotions? They only make sense if the man with leprosy had already been to the priests, who for some reason had rejected his petition. Deciding to make an issue out of it, Jesus sternly gives the leper these orders: “See that you say nothing to anyone! Rather, go back and show yourself to the priests and make the offering prescribed by Moses for your cleansing as a witness against them.”
What is the “witness” that the former-leper is to give them? The change from the singular “priest” to the plural “priests” in v. 44 is more than just interesting. He is to witness to “them” that his healing and the declaration of his cleansing took place outside of their jurisdiction. Someone, namely Jesus, is undermining their authority in the community. In spite of his anger, Jesus heals him. We are told quite specifically that against everything Holy, he touched him. Jesus willingly incurred uncleanness in order to help this person, yet nowhere are we told that he, like the man he heals, ever went through the prescribed ritual cleansing process. By intentionally touching the unclean leper — an act that makes him ritually unclean, Jesus challenges the authority of the priests and opposes the scribes.
The cleansed leper’s task is not to publicize a miracle but to help confront an ideological system: the change in object (from “priest” to “priests”) suggests a protest against the entire purity apparatus, which the priests control. He is to make the offering for the purpose of “witnessing against them.” This is a technical phrase in the Gospel for testimony before hostile audiences. Later, in Chapter 7, Mark will suggest that Jesus believed that with the inbreaking of God’s dominion these rules about clean and unclean, and indeed also various Sabbath rules, were obsolete. Very early in his ministry, still in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is already an outsider in human society.
Mark certainly wants us to understand that Jesus was emotionally affected by the encounter. It could be argued that his anger was focused on the suffering caused by the disease, both physically and socially. Most of us have felt such anger when a painful or deadly disease afflicts a loved one. While we have compassion for the person, there is anger at the cancer or the infection or the addiction that is sapping life away from the person.
Is the capacity for righteous anger essential to being a servant of God? Is the capacity for righteous anger essential to the community of faith who seek to follow Jesus, literally be Jesus’ hands and feet to continue his ministry? Can you imagine that if we are not angry we would dare do something about the evils of the abuse of power, the evils of economic injustice, the evils in a society that seeks its own salvation by incarceration and execution of its own, the evils in a global society that seeks by violence to control resources? And if we are not responding to destructive, dehumanizing and enslaving aspects of life, how well do you think we are listening to God’s? Is that not a rather accurate description of cheap grace – a grace that doesn’t produce anger within us at the injustices and evils and unfairness in society; a grace that doesn’t motivate us to do something to seek to remove such problems from people’s lives?
James Edwards in The Gospel According to Mark gives this story the title, “Jesus Trades Places with a Leper.” He concludes his comments with: ‘Mark began this story with Jesus on the inside and the leper on the outside. At the end of the story, Jesus is “outside in lonely places.” Jesus and the leper have traded places.’ And what does that say of our supposed purity? By our willingness to identify with the one who suffers, dare we abandon our privilege and presumed access to power and risk trading places.
Jesus came to proclaim the good news of the inbreaking of God’s dominion, not primarily to give offer temporary healing from a human condition that is eventually terminal anyway. This is not to say that healing in this life isn’t a very good thing. Jesus the healer of temporal illnesses and difficulties, according to the earliest Evangelist, must be understood in the context of Jesus the proclaimer of something greater — the inbreaking of God’s kingdom.
This story challenges us is so many ways.
Who are like lepers in our communities? What is our relationship to such people? Are there people who we prefer to not touch? Would Jesus touch them?
What are to think of this man having an apparently incurable disease who is driven by desperation to violate the social codes in order to find a cure. “Faith” is not mentioned in any of these first healings by Jesus. Mark’s understanding of faith is that it is a determination that will not let rules, customs, or even buildings stand in one’s way of getting to Jesus. Which of our religious “rules” might Jesus break were he walking around today? Which of our church “rules” might we need to break in order to get close to Jesus? Yet, can we say that the leper’s approach to Jesus — his disregard for the social and ritual rules — his belief that Jesus had the power and authority to cleanse him or declare him clean, if Jesus dared — are not actions of faith?
Have I ever felt like this leper? Have I experienced Jesus like this leper? How has Jesus healed and restored me to wholeness?
What kind of reception do we offer people who have concluded that they no longer need the rituals of “organized religion,” rituals which they feel are empty of the grace of the Jesus they have experienced? Do we limit the grace offered by Christ? Could it be that we are the priests in this story who need a witness about the power and authority of Jesus?