Encountering Jesus: A Leper

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 1:40

And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”

Mark 1:40 rsv


“Unclean, unclean!” That was the leper’s pathetic cry when he came near a human habitation, or when some passerby would venture too close. It was a confession, “I have a dreadful, contagious disease. By the authority of the priests in Israel, I have been declared an outcast.”

It was also a warning, this cry “unclean!” “Don’t come near me,” the leper was saying, “I’m a menace. I’m defiled. Contact with me would be disastrous for you. Stay away!”

Imagine the life to which lepers were consigned in such a culture. They were banished from all normal human interchange. There was no neighborhood within the city walls in which they were free to live. Any house they entered would be afterward condemned. Anything they touched became defiled. Even their breath was seen as dangerous. Each leper had to place his hand over his upper lip as he cried, “Unclean.” The law required that lepers wear torn clothes and let the hair of their head hang loose. All these measures were designed to guarantee that no normal person would unwittingly contract defilement.

It’s difficult to conceive of a situation more demeaning, more destructive of personhood. The leper lived in isolation, in rejection, under an enormous social stigma. His own children ran from him as though from a deadly serpent.

There was one hint of relief from this total banishment. Lepers were allowed within Jewish synagogues. They had to be separated by a screen from the rest of the worshiping congregation, although they were allowed to be present in the community of the faithful. But even here the reminder of their separateness, their exclusion from ordinary human fellowship, must have been exquisitely painful.

And we haven’t even mentioned the miseries of the disease itself. We aren’t certain exactly what the ailment was of the man described in Mark’s Gospel as a leper. Experts who have examined the biblical data in the book of Leviticus feel certain that the biblical term “leprosy” describes a wide variety of chronic skin problems, one of which may have been Hansen’s disease, currently known as leprosy. Whatever the exact symptoms, the disease of the man who came to Jesus was clearly disfiguring and debilitating. He was a wretched man in almost every sense of the word, exposed to sufferings and indignities we can scarcely comprehend.

We don’t know exactly what led him to approach Jesus. He must have identified himself in the customary way: Jesus doubtless heard from him, “Unclean!” He must have stood at an appropriate distance. But there was a boldness in his request, perhaps born of desperation. He had seen Jesus’ mighty works of compassion and healing or at least had heard the news of what He was doing. Into the blank despair of his life had come some hint of hope and faith. He pleaded with Jesus. He fell on his knees. “If you will, you can make me clean.”

That last phrase was his confession of faith, as it were. He was sure that Jesus could make Him well. He wasn’t asking for what an Israelite priest could do, that is, declare him ritually clean. He knew that Jesus was not a priest and he was painfully aware that the marks of the disease were still upon his body. No, this man wanted an outright miracle. He was asking for something unheard of, undreamed of, and he believed that Jesus could do it.

But would He? Was Jesus willing to do this great thing? Perhaps the man knew of no other leper who had been cleansed in this way. Would Jesus feel that such an act was appropriate? Would He care enough? Or were lepers perhaps beyond the pale of His concern?

Here, I suppose, is a kind of self doubt with which many of us wrestle. We have no doubt about God’s power to do wonderful things for us. What we sometimes question is His willingness. For the leper, perhaps there was the haunting fear that his affliction was a kind of divine judgment. Perhaps it marked him out as an especially grievous sinner. Would Jesus, the great prophet, the One who spoke from God, be willing to lift this divine curse? Or would He consider it fitting and just?

Maybe your appeals to the Lord for mercy have been shot through with the same anguished questioning. You wonder if you are worthy to ask these things or if your past failures and wanderings may have put you beyond the reach of help. Maybe you feel unworthy to ask or expect that the righteous God would lift some heavy burden from your life.

And so your plea, like that of the leper, is one both of assurance and of questioning, of faith and of doubt. You know that Jesus could help you if He would. But there’s the catch. So you say too, struggling with those tense uncertainties, “If You will, You can make me clean.”


Whatever doubts the leper might have had were quickly dispelled. Listen: “Moved with pity [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, `I will, be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”

Jesus, we learn, was moved with pity. The Greek word describing that is a powerful term referring to the visceral organs. This was a heart-wrenching kind of concern. You could say of Jesus that He “couldn’t have cared more” than He did. This was not mild emotion, not gentle sympathy, but what someone has called “a veritable pain of love.”

And then He did what the man could not possibly have expected. Jesus moved in the leper’s direction, stretched out His hand, and touched him. We aren’t told if anyone else saw that, if there were others who witnessed it. Any onlookers would surely have been shocked. Everyone in Israel knew that the last thing in the world anyone should do was to contact a leper in that way. That was to run the risk of a dreadful disease. It was to invite ostracism and rejection yourself. It was to violate the clear command of the law. But Jesus did it. And we get the feeling that He didn’t especially care who was watching.

That was the measure of His compassion. He cared so much, the need struck His heart as so urgent, that He didn’t hesitate to break the regulations of the ceremonial law. He was constrained by a powerful, healing love.

It wasn’t that Jesus had no respect for the law. After the healing, He urged the man to show himself to the priest and offer for his cleansing what Moses had commanded. That was the law’s precise requirement. But Jesus knew also the underlying purpose of the law, and He knew the Father whose loving will was behind it. Touching the leper simply revealed His consciousness of being the Father’s Son. There wasn’t with Him the slightest fear of contamination. He knew that a cleansing power was going forth from Him that no disease could withstand.

Then came the word, “I will; be clean.” It was like saying to a blind man, “See!” or to a deaf man, “Hear!” Or to someone who had just died, “Live!” It was a word with absolute power, accomplishing the very thing spoken. It sounds like those majestic commands we read about in the first chapter of Genesis, doesn’t it? “God said, `Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

Jesus showed Himself both able and willing to meet this man’s need. That should encourage us. The God revealed in Jesus is on our side. He wants the best for us. He wants our healing, our wholeness, our salvation. He wants it so much that He comes to us in our need, making Himself accessible to the most despised of human outcasts. And the way in which He accomplished this leper’s deliverance is a sign and parable of His ways with mankind.

God doesn’t stay remote from us, aloof in the heavens. Isn’t that wonderful? He comes down. He shares our humanity in Jesus of Nazareth. He doesn’t shrink from the worst, most repellent things about us. He’s not put off by our defilement. He reaches out to touch us.

The gospel goes even deeper than that. Jesus identifies Himself with us even in our sins. He stoops under the burden of them, bears them for us, dies to put them away. In the most profound sense imaginable, Jesus reaches out toward us in our need. He says to us when we hardly dare to believe or expect it, “I want this for you. Be cleansed. Go your way. Your faith has made you whole.”

And in that way Jesus the Savior becomes also a model for us. Where the love of Christ reigns in the hearts of people, there’s a willingness to reach across all kinds of barriers to touch people in the depths of their need. That’s what sends a Mother Teresa out into the streets of Calcutta to find the dying poor and give them comfort. Or think of the nurses and doctors who minister to victims of AIDS. They make us think of the Lord’s own loving touch.


Now for the sequel to this miraculous healing. Listen: “And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once, and said to him, `See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.’ But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.”

Let’s try to understand this. There’s a note of sternness in these words of Jesus. Having healed the leper with marvelous compassion, Jesus now speaks with urgency, almost severity, about what the man must do. First, he is not to speak about this to anyone. Why? This is a part of the reserve with which Jesus continually seems to have worked. He did not want His miraculous healings to be advertised. He didn’t want to encourage misguided conceptions about His Messiahship. He wanted simply to do these things, without any public stir about them.

In the case of the leper, this was not a prohibition for all time that he should never speak about it. But there were definitely things that Jesus wanted him to do first. He was to follow the prescriptions of the law, showing himself to a priest, bringing the required offerings, so that he could be then pronounced clean and resume his place in normal society.

Strangely, the healed man paid no attention whatever to these instructions. As far as we know, he did not visit a priest to follow the procedure Jesus had outlined. Instead, he began to do the very thing he had been forbidden to do. He talked freely about what had happened and spread the news of who had done it.

The man clearly felt that he knew best what ought to be done. Obviously a wonderful miracle had been performed by Jesus. The healed man must have thought to himself, “Shouldn’t everyone know about it?” Wasn’t he paying tribute in this way to the One who had made him so well?

His excited sharing of the news brought a strong reaction. But instead of enhancing the ministry of Jesus, it seemed rather to cause difficulty. He could no longer openly enter a town because of the widespread excitement over what He had done.

Whatever he may have learned from his healing, the man did not learn submission to Jesus’ authority. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? The fact that we have been shown love by Jesus Christ, touched and healed by Him, doesn’t make our obedience to Him automatic. It’s possible for us to accept His gifts and forget His commands. We may think that we know better than He how His cause can best be advanced in the world. But if we want to honor the Lord and serve His kingdom, we need more than the faith that He can heal us. We need also a trusting commitment to His lordship. That means obeying Christ, even when it cuts across our own inclinations. Paul writes in one of his letters about “receiving the grace of God in vain.” Oh, may that never happen to you, to me! When Jesus touches us with His marvelous love and healing power, may we be among those who rise up to obey!

PRAYER: Lord of cleansing and grace, we look up to You in our need and trust You to heal us, to save us, and then help us to obey. In Jesus’ name. Amen.