Epiphany 6: 15 February Mark 1:40-45
A leper! People would immediately draw back out of fear. Societies did not know what to do with them. Better to isolate them. Healing or remission was possible. Leviticus 13-14 set out in considerable detail the isolation as well as the tests for re-entry along with the accompanying rituals.
Hanson’s disease, modern ‘leprosy’, is not highly contagious. I recently visited the Leprosy Mission Hospital during a stay in Calcutta. Much of the work is reconstructive surgery where tendons are remade so that fingers are able to bend again, feet move and eyes close. Anaesthesia in extremities is a huge problem, leading to ulcers and often the need for amputation. The disease seems to be passed on through nasal discharges, according to one commonly held theory. Few people are susceptible to it.
Modern and ancient ‘leprosy’ are not identical, but they have much in common: dread, stigma, alienation. So it comes as a shock that Jesus is faced with a leper – a real test. Even more of a shock is the leper’s blatant disregard for the biblical rules: he approaches Jesus. He should have remained at a distance and called out, ‘Unclean, unclean’ (Leviticus 13:45). Codex Bezae and a few early Latin manuscripts even report Jesus’ initial response as anger. The man had defied the barriers which are needed for the protection of others. The balance of the evidence favours an opposite reaction: Jesus was moved with compassion. Jesus touched him and declared him healed. Touching a leper does not give you leprosy, but touching a ritually unclean person – and a leper was that – meant contracting uncleanness, not a huge problem. Contracting uncleanness was part of everyday life and there were straightforward ways of dealing with it. It should be avoided where possible. The story does not reflect on this as a problem, probably assuming that there was enough holiness borne by Jesus to reverse the direction: Jesus decontaminated the leper rather than his contaminating Jesus.
Something of anger is still there, however, in Jesus’ response. He sternly (perhaps even angrily) tells the man to follow the biblical procedures, to do what the ancient health department laid down for rehabilitation of lepers. The priests need to see the evidence before the man can be let loose in the community. The Greek words can be read as indicating that the man is to ‘bear witness’ to the priests, as if he is to tell his personal testimony, but that, to my mind, misreads the text. Jesus is simply telling the man to do what the Law requires. A healing does not become less spiritual because it engages ‘hospital authorities’ and normal medical practice, which was one of the temple’s roles. Jesus’ respect for Torah in this episode is an interesting foil for the disputes which immediately follow in 2:1 – 3:6. There people charge him with disrespect for Torah!
In Mark 1:40-45 the focus is on Jesus’ power to heal. Leprosy was seen as one of the hardest nuts to crack. This is miracle, a work of the Spirit through Jesus. However we understand such healing, we need to hear what is said within Mark’s frame of reference. The kingdom means freedom also for lepers. They are not the last group to be ostracised because of their illness. Most people who live with a disability can tell stories about being ostracised, especially if that disability is to be seen. People with AIDS carry a similar stigma.
One further detail calls for comment. Jesus told the man to keep the healing to himself, passing up an excellent PR opportunity. 1:45 tells us that the leper was still rebellious; he ‘knew’ Jesus needed better PR, so he blabbed. The result was that too many people came and Jesus had to stay out of town. The man was a wonderful advertisement. Advertising healings is not always the way to go. At worst it puts the institutions’ need for promotion ahead of the needs of the healed. The man really was annoying in his behaviour, which is why many scholars are inclined to side with Codex Bezae: he was maddening from the start. Some people who need help are maddening like that. Try being a leper!
The other neat shift in the narrative is that we find Jesus back in the wilderness, where he had been in the beginning and where he was in 1:35. In this way Mark reminds us of the beginning. We are being kept in touch with the bigger picture. Jesus is not being drawn off the rails by the odd and not so odd demands of those who follow him or are healed by him.
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