Mark 1:1-45 contains a number of stories that draw my attention. John the Baptist captures the imagination of all Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside. Jesus contends with Satan and then begins his ministry to the amazement of the people. Jesus prays at a time when I would be looking to sleep and as a result is confident of his calling even to the point of turning down a great opportunity to capitalize on his growing fame. All of these stories are compelling and deserving of attention, but my eyes are drawn today to the last story in our reading: Jesus’ healing of the leper.
No doubt, leprosy is a difficult disease in any society, and this would have been especially true in 1st century Judaism. In this context, leprosy could refer to any number of skin diseases as outlined in Leviticus 13, and we are therefore not exactly sure what kind of skin disease afflicted the leper in the story. We do know, however, that because he had been diagnosed with leprosy, he was considered religiously unclean. As such, he would have been avoided much like a person with the swine flu is avoided in our society today. His uncleanness was viewed as contagious, and people would have given him a wide berth. In fact, Leviticus 13:45-46 calls for drastic action in cases of leprosy. Lepers are commanded to “let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’” More than this, “They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” The man in the story is a man who has lost his standing in society. How long has it been since he last felt a human touch? And just what has he lost? Did he have a job? A family? We can’t know with certainty, but we do know this: the man is desperate.
Desperation first drives the man to approach Jesus. Remember, he is unclean and is therefore not exactly the kind of person you want getting too close. Yet he ignores convention and boldly approaches Jesus. And then notice his posture. He does not stand and ask politely to be healed. No, he begs on his knees. His very posture is a statement of his desperation. And then notice the content of his plea: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He seems completely confident in Jesus’ ability to heal. He is less confident, however, in Jesus’ willingness to do so. It is as if he has been shunned so many times that he expects Jesus to do the same. Here we see a desperate man out on a limb who half expects to be turned down.
But Jesus proves different from the rest. Rather than shrinking from this unclean leper or driving him away, Jesus speaks those simple words that change everything: “I am willing. Be clean.” The man’s plea has not fallen on deaf ears. Where he expected rejection, he finds compassion. He finds healing. And notice how Jesus chooses to heal. Though he is fully able to utter a simple word of command, Jesus chooses instead to bring healing with a touch. And at his touch, the leprosy fades. The man is healed! But I imagine the healing went deeper than this. Jesus does more than heal a disease. In touching this man who has been avoided because of his disease, Jesus treats him with the dignity that had been so lacking from everyone else. Here we see Jesus touch the untouchable and bring healing to both body and soul. He is a marvelous Savior, indeed!
As I look at this story, two different readings come to mind. First, we can identify with the leper. Have you ever felt unclean and untouchable? If so, I want you to know that Jesus still touches untouchables today. This is the heart of the gospel, “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Our confession as Christians is that we were unworthy of love and compassion but have received them in Christ. We were all untouchables who have experienced the healing touch of the Savior! This Jesus still shows compassion and embodies a love that will not be stopped by our impurities.
Second, we can hear a challenge from Jesus to go and do likewise. After all, if Jesus touched untouchables, can we as his disciples do any less? Who are the untouchables in our own lives? Who are the people that we avoid like the plague? Who do we deem to be beneath our notice? I wonder if Jesus would agree. Or would we find him treating with dignity those we ignore and avoid? In light of this story, I suspect the latter.
May we, then, remember with thanksgiving the Savior who touched us when we were untouchable. And may we experience his love anew in our moments of untouchableness even today. And may we also hear the call of our Lord to go and do the same. May we touch untouchables on his behalf, treating them with dignity and thereby showing them that bold love of God that we ourselves have received in Christ.