This story is God’s word to you this Lord’s Day morning and I want to help you take it to heart and think of how you can work it out in your hands.
But first I need to talk a bit about what it doesn’t mean.
There is no reason to think that the sickness of this “leper” is Hansen’s disease. There is a rather horrible disease that is known as Leprosy. A Norwegian physician named Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen identified the bacterial cause of it in 1873. It is a serious condition in some places with inadequate medical treatments. It is not nearly as serious if it is treated. But it unhappy that this word has become mixed up in our Bible translations.
In Leviticus 13, “leprosy” is something that can happen to human skin, or to human clothing, or to a house. In the case of human skin, the issue is not that it is contagious or that it is especially unhealthy. Rather, the point is that it means exclusion. Exclusion first from the sanctuary of God in Israel and then also from all the towns or gathering places in Israel.
Remember, God placed his special presence in Israel. He gave Moses instructions for building a royal tent, the Tabernacle. And when that Tabernacle was completed and sacrifices were prepared, the fiery presence of God, that had appeared on Mount Sinai, moved into it. God was with his people. Generations later it was continued in Solomon’s Temple, a more glorious replacement of the Tabernacle.
But that gift of God’s presence was not only a blessing but a liability. It was something like having a nuclear power plant in your home town. The abundant power would be great, but there would be risks to having all that power so close. Much of the instructions dealing with the Tabernacle had to do with maintaining barriers. People needed to not come too close. They had to stay on the far side of the boundaries. And like humans need hazard suits for certain environments, the priests called to do service within the walls of the Tabernacle had to wear special garments and take other steps to make sure they could safely enter God’s presence.
This concept goes back to the Garden of Eden. Eden was the original sanctuary and Adam and Eve could be their naked and unashamed. But after they sinned they were ashamed of their nakedness and had to be excluded from the Garden. God even clothed them in dead animal skins.
The problem of “leprosy” as it is called in our English Bibles is about access to the presence of God. Just as one needed special covering to get close to God, if one’s normal covering was compromised, if one had some kind of sore or blemish that went deeper than the skin, then one had to move away from God’s presence. One could no longer offer sacrifices at the altar in the Temple forecourt. You were banned from Passover and the other sacramental festivals in Israel where God invited his people to eat and drink with him. The idea was that sin must be covered and sin is found in our inward being. The laws of “leprosy” or skin problems were a symbolic embodiment of the barrier of sin and how God cannot permit it in his presence.
When this man comes to Jesus, the main problem is not that he is seriously ill or contagious. The main problem is that he is banned from God’s presence. He is not permitted access to God’s sanctuary.
And he is also therefore banned from the places where God’s people congregate. There is a sense in which all cities and town in Israel are also places where God is present and therefore the person with this skin problem must go out into the countryside away from them. The law also demands that he cover himself and call himself unclean to any passerby.
Unclean means banned from God’s presence. How is Jesus going to restore this man to God?
What Mark shows us is a picture of an exchange. Jesus could have healed this man with just a word so that he would be given back Temple access. In Luke’s Gospel he tells us about ten lepers Jesus healed in this way. He could have also not told us of the leper’s disobedience and how it affected Jesus. But instead Jesus actually touches the man with the skin problem and then Jesus ends up suffering as if he had the skin blemish himself, as if he were unclean and unable to enter God’s presence.
Notice first, the action Jesus takes. The man comes to Jesus knowing he needs help and that Jesus has the power to help him. He kneels and begs and ascribes the power to Jesus. Jesus’ first response is to touch him. “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I will; be clean.’”
Now, given how much hype has been placed on leprosy in the Bible stories, this may seem like an amazingly risky move. But there is surprisingly little in the Bible about coming into contact with someone who has been ruled to be unclean in this way. Leviticus 22.5 indicates that touching a person with this condition made one unclean until evening, but that probably wouldn’t be too inconvenient for most people other than priests serving at the Temple. There’s nothing in the Bible about the risk of a contagious disease.
Nevertheless we can be pretty sure that, to Jesus’ contemporaries, what Jesus did was shocking. Even though they were far away from the Temple, the teachers of the law would have thought that touching a leper was scandalous. It will be awhile before we learn this in Mark’s gospel explicitly, but it is clear in all the Gospels that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day saw it as a mark of piety to “intensify” everything the Bible said about holiness and cleansing. The Bible nowhere says that going into a Gentile house will make an Israelite unclean, but the religious leaders refuse to enter Pilate’s house according to John 19 because they don’t want to become unclean for Passover. And in Mark 7 we find that the Pharisees expect all devout believers to wash their hands of uncleanness even though there is no such law in the Bible. Jesus there direct challenges the practice of adding to the law.
So the fact that Jesus did more than just speak healing, but actually first reached out and touched this man would have been noticed. It might even have been offensive to some onlookers.
Jesus accomplishes two things by touching this man. First, he publicly violates the fake “holiness” expectations of the religious leaders of his day. Secondly, he shows he has new life that he can afford to share through personal contact. Jesus later explains that what is outside a person cannot make them unclean and we have to apply that to these laws. The only reason humans could become unclean by contact was because they themselves, as sinners, had interior uncleanness that was “drawn out,” if you will, by the uncleanness they contacted. As a person without sin, Jesus could not really become unclean but no one would be able to see that. If Jesus had touched the leper and nothing else happened, then it would be a matter of doubt.
But there is more going on. In the Old Covenant, uncleanness spread. You could become unclean by contact, even if only until evening, but no unclean person ever became clean simply by touching a clean person. Until now!
Now Jesus touches a leper and, rather than becoming unclean until evening, the leper is cleansed. He is healed of his skin blemish. Life spreads and death recedes. Jesus is shown to not only be impervious to uncleanness, but to be the conqueror of it. “I am willing; be clean.” Jesus gives us health and life.
But the way the story is told, we see that Jesus suffers more than a normal person who touched someone who had this skin problem. If a priest, for example, touched a leper, it would only mean he could not serve as a priest until the evening sacrifice had been performed. But by God’s providence and Mark’s recounting of the story, Jesus is affected far more.
Jesus told the man to only bear witness when he got to Jerusalem by following the law for the restoration of people who were unclean in this way. Verse 44: “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But the cleansed ex-“leper” doesn’t obey. He tells everyone he sees. I’m not sure how severely we should judge this man for his disobedience. Later, Jesus will command people to tell everyone but they will remain silent. At least this man wasn’t ashamed or afraid, even though he should have obeyed Jesus.
Still, the results are astounding: Verse 45: “Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places.” Compare that to Leviticus 13.46 describing the person who has this skin problem: “He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Jesus cleanses a man with a skin condition that makes him unclean and, in exchange, Jesus himself becomes someone who is treated just like he would be if he had a skin condition that could make him unclean.
These miracles are signs of how God brings salvation to Israel and to the world. What Mark shows us in how he describes these events teaches us what Paul wrote in Second Corinthians 5.21: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” For our sake God made him to be unclean who knew no uncleanness, so that in him we might have access to God.
Or consider Second Corinthians 8.9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Mark is telling us of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was clean, yet for your sake he became as one who was unclean, so that you by his suffering as one alienated become clean—might have access to God.
Now this obviously has a vertical dimension. We should hear this story and learn yet again that Christ is a sufficient and available deliverer from all that would keep us from God. Because in all that we read in the Gospels about Jesus being born, and growing, and serving in Israel, and dying, and rising again, and sending the Spirit—in all those things Jesus did and submitted to he was doing one thing: He was reaching out and touching you, joining you, declaring his solidarity with you, sharing all he had with you to give it all to you and, in turn, taking all your guilt and sin and curse and frustration on to himself. God loves you. He has given you his son. God is overjoyed to share Jesus with you and put every one of your burdens on him both now and forever. And Jesus agrees with His Father. To each one of us he says always, “I am willing, be clean.”
But I want to also tell you that when Jesus did what he did, he was communicating to God’s people who they themselves should behave. There is a horizontal dimension to this great exchange. We see it in several ways. For example, consider Paul’s words to Philemon when he wants Philemon to forgive and accept Onesimus who has sinned against Philemon.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.
Do you see the double move there? Paul wants Philemon to receive Onesimus just as if he were Paul, to regard him as Paul himself. And then any debt that Onesimus owes Philemon he wants Philemon to charge to Paul’s account.
Every Christian you know, including the many you don’t like comes to you the same way. God is sending them to you asking you to regard them as a representative of Jesus and to ascribe all their offense against you to God’s account. He will repay us—to say nothing of our owing him our own selves.
Or think how Paul describes his Apostolic ministry in preaching the Gospel and establishing churches: Second Corinthians 4.11, 12: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”
What Jesus did is unique. Only he could exchange his life for ours in a way that got rid of our sin and gave us his kingdom. But as those who belong to Christ, we are called to share in his ministry by following his example. In our own derivative way, we can and are called to give our lives for others through personal contact.
Two obstructions need to be dealt with to allow us to fully implement the great exchange in the way we live. First, we must deal with the temptation of false pride and then we must resist the unbelief and stinginess that masquerades as humility.
Dealing with the first obstacle, it is the one Jesus will address over and over again in his ministry. Here he touches a “leper.” Later he eats and drinks with tax-collectors. In Luke’s Gospel he later allows a sinful woman to touch him. His disciples, we discover, do not use the proper hand cleansing ritual. All the Gospels give us one consistent picture of Jesus as a man who hates the way these unnecessary barriers have been used to rationalize withholding grace and fellowship from other people. Even parents were neglected by their children according to some of these rulers and that neglect was rationalized as piety.
Jesus lived a different way. He taught his followers that the true god was kind and generous to all and that they had to imitate him if they believed in the true god. He touched the untouchable and ate and drank with people who were not considered table-worthy.
But the second obstacle is the conviction that we don’t have enough to offer ourselves to others. After all, we’re not Jesus so we can’t provide what he can provide.
It is true that we are not Jesus and can’t provide what he can provide. But Jesus has provided for us and has provided us for one another. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter about the church as the body of Christ, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (12.21). Then likewise, the hand cannot say to the eye, “I have nothing to offer you.” Nor again the feet to the head, “I am useless to you.”
You don’t know what you have! You don’t know what you’re capable of! The terrible truth isn’t that you have weaknesses that prevent you from helping others. The terrible truth is that you are missing the opportunity to witness how God will turn your weaknesses into special advantages you have because you are too intimidated or demoralized to reach out and touch the lives of others.
You may think you have nothing to give, but Jesus has given you himself so you have more than enough to give. Paul’s motto for his ministry can be imitated by all Christians in their various walks in life: “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Corinthians 3.4, 5).
You may be frustrated that nothing you can think to do is really going to help the person whom you are concerned about. After all, God doesn’t heal people when you touch them. But you don’t know how God wants to use you and you can’t find out until you take the initiative and reach out. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12.15 that we should “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” So if someone is going through hard times and you can’t make them magically better, your calling from God is to simply identify with what they are going through. Sympathize with them. Empathize with them. If that is all you can do then do that. Don’t allow frustration that you can’t do more prevent you from doing less.
God has reached out to us through Jesus. In his son he is touching us now. “I am willing; be clean” He gives us access. And he sends us out to be used by him to do the same for one another and for others.