Mark 1: 40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” 41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. 43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: 44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” 45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
Note: At this week’s Tuesday morning sermon roundtable breakfast, someone suggested that a midrash on this passage would be interesting and illuminating. “Midrash” is a Hebrew word for the Jewish practice of illuminating Bible passages and stories with other parables and stories that get at some of the meanings and implications of these passages. This is my attempt at a Jewish-style midrash, taking the perspective of one of the disciples who would have witnessed the events you just heard.
Up to that day I had already seen thousands of such poor, desperate souls, walking alone or in groups of anywhere from two to ten, limping along on crutches, or hobbling along on their weak and deformed feet, crying, “Unclean! Unclean!” so that we might not contaminate ourselves by contact, or sitting, begging by the roadside, crying, “Have mercy on a poor leper! In the name of God, toss me a coin, or a piece of bread.”
Though it was painful to see leprosy, we might share food or a few coins with its victims—my rabbi in childhood told me there was merit before God and man in such righteous generosity—but never in such a way as to actually touch them. It may seem cruel to simply fling a coin or a piece of bread to a man who is sick, starving and hopeless. Yet surely you can understand how little we wish to contract the disease, or even just the ritual pollution that comes with contact, not to mention all the time, the washings, the sacrifices and the ceremonies our cleansing would require. Just because one person had to be excluded from the social and religious life of Israel does not mean that everyone should.
If you wish to lay the charge of cruelty at anyone’s feet, take it to the estate owners, the loan sharks and usurers, the tax collectors, even to Caesar and the high priest at the top of the mountain that is crushing the poor people with taxes for the temple, taxes for the empire, taxes for an army of occupation that we never requested. The leper who came up to Jesus that day and said, “If you are willing, you can make me whole (or was it clean? Or healthy? Or healed? It all comes to the same thing),” looked to me like the garden variety landless laborer who had lived too long in dirty, crowded, squalid hovels with too many other dirty, sick and squalid people, living hand-to-mouth on not enough food, or not enough good food, getting only occasional work on land that had even once been his, until the friends of Caesar, or Pilate, acquired it through debt, graft and greed. No wonder the poor man got sick inside and out. His leprosy is, at heart, one of many symptoms of our poverty and oppression.
When he came up to Jesus, I was immediately reminded of another leper who came to a prophet for healing: Naaman, the Syrian general. Elisha told him to go wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. That way, Elisha didn’t have to touch the leper and make himself unclean. That way, it was clear that God did the healing, and not the prophet. I was expecting much of the same from Jesus. And then we could say that a prophet on the scale of Elisha was here among us. Then we could say that the kingdom of heaven is indeed at hand.
But what Jesus did next took my breath away, and, frankly, made me confused to the point of feeling sick, sick to my stomach. Jesus said, “Yes, I am willing.” And then he reached forth his hand and touched the man. Jesus actually touched the unclean, impure leper.
Technically, that would mean that now there are two unclean, impure people who must go to the priest for ritual cleansing. But in the blink of an eye, everything changed; I saw what I thought was only one unclean person, his hand still outstretched. And yet all of a sudden no one had any bloody red blotches or ugly white scabs on their skin. Nowhere to be seen on the leper—the former leper, I should say—were any deformed features, or gaping, weeping wounds. He looked as though he had suddenly shed twenty years from his state of near death. He stood before us looking as clean and fresh as an infant just out of its bath.
Up to that moment, never before had I been so powerfully torn between such deeply conflicting emotions: great joy over the healing, deep disgust over the way it happened, by personal touch. But on the face of the man just healed was pure, unadulterated joy, like that of a condemned man who has just been pardoned and set free. In effect, that is what he was.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Jesus said, as though that had ever worked before. “Yes, don’t tell anyone,” I thought, “or else we’ll be mobbed by hundreds of leprous people like you,
even thousands.” As soon we were. “Don’t tell anyone,” I thought, “because we know what Herod and his crew will think about this.” Thanks to him, no good deed goes unpunished; he and his kind are not going to take kindly to anyone who gives the poor people under his thumb any hope. Just look at what they did to my previous rabbi, John the Baptist.
For all I know, the man did go to the priest, though my guess is that he could only afford the poor man’s sacrifice of a dove. But he obviously went and told everyone else too. Or the few he told went and told everyone else. Because from then on, we had to stay out in the open, away from the towns where the mobs were even bigger. More people were seeking Jesus than we could handle. Not all of them were friendly or honest.
That night, as we sat huddled around a campfire, out in the fields south of Capernaum, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Jesus looked at me and asked, “Andrew, what is bothering you tonight?” It seems he always knew when something was brewing in us. Maybe it showed because I had earlier refused to eat the bread he had handled and shared with us, with, of course, the same hand that had touched the leper.
So I asked him, “When are you going to show yourself to a priest, for your cleansing? Or at least do the ritual washings?”
“So, it bothers you that I touched the leper, today?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied. “I thought you were not just an observant Jew, not just a rabbi, but a holy man as well.”
He smiled, rather ironically, and said, “A man was healed today, a leper, nonetheless, in a way that was even more direct and immediate than when Naaman the Syrian was healed, and all you can think of is that I touched him?”
Ouch, I should have known better than to ask a rabbi a question. He’ll only answer your question with an even more pointed question. Like the man who once asked the rabbi, “Why do you always answer my questions with more questions?” To which the rabbi replied, “So, what have you got against questions?”
Sill, I couldn’t help seeing how silly my sulking had been.
Then came more questions.
“Andrew, when you light a candle in the darkness, does the darkness darken the light?”
“In the same way, Andrew, when healing breaks into sickness, does the sickness diminish it?”
I could see where this was going, so I did what the Prophet Ezekiel did whenever God put questions to him. I said, “You know, Master.”
“I’m not letting you off the hook that easily, Andrew. Answer me: when the holiness of God breaks into the world of sin, does that diminish God’s holiness?”
“Of course not, “ I replied, getting all the more irritated for getting backed into a corner.
“So when purity and cleanness invade the world of impurity and uncleanness, what happens?”
I looked into the fire, sighed a moment and said, “Purity and cleanness win.”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus said. “But you don’t sound very excited about it. Not like the man whom I healed was. Why is that, do you think?”
Oh, bother. Another pointed, personal question.
“Well, what then is the Law of Moses for, and all the rules about purity and cleansing?” I asked. “Don’t they keep us from contamination by the world? Or has the renewal of all things that the Prophets foresaw now and suddenly come completely to pass so that we don’t need to worry about sin and uncleanness? And if it has, why has no one told me?”
“What do you think I mean,” Jesus asked, “every time I say that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near?” He went on to say, “Andrew, Andrew, true and beloved son of Moses that you are, I share your concern for the law, purity and cleansing at least as much as you, even more, you would know, if you knew all that was in my heart. But if you wish to hunt down and scrub away all the impurity in the world—and there’s more than you know– don’t start by looking outside yourself anymore, at others. Look inside from now on, to what’s in the heart, beginning with your own. Like hardness of heart, for example?”
I confess, I understood him better than I let on. And I didn’t like what he was saying. But I struggled with it until later, when some Pharisees took him to task for not ritually washing his hands before eating, and he said, “Its not what goes into someone’s mouth that makes them unclean, but what comes out of the mouth,” by way of greed, hatred and falsehood. Then I could say a hearty, “Amen.”
But that night, after he healed the leper, I was considering leaving Jesus, until I looked at his hands, especially his right hand, the hand that had touched the leper, the same hand which had also blessed, broken and shared bread around the fire that night. When Naaman dunked himself seven times in the Jordan River and came out cleansed from leprosy, we could still say that “the hand of God cured him.” The divine hand just worked indirectly, through his trips in and out of the water. But here before me was a hand that did in one fleeting touch what took Naaman seven dunkings to accomplish. What’s the link between his hand and the hand of God, and how short is that link? I wondered. The thought of it sent a corkscrew sensation up my spine, of both fear and joy. Surely, one greater than Elisha and all the prophets is here among us.
Upon further observation, I also saw that his were rough hands, strong, firm carpenter hands, calloused, creased and scarred by years of hard, honest labor with heavy tools and rough wood. Yet for all their strength and hardness, they were also gentle hands, expressive and compassionate hands.
That hand, it occurred to me, is and does what we so often fail to be and to do: to be firm and strong, while also being gentle, tender and compassionate. How could this man be so hard on sin and yet so soft on sinners, so hard against true impurity and still so compassionate to the impure? Or better yet, how can we manage that same balancing act? I was so hard on that leper, I saw, and it grieved me. And so hard on Jesus too. How often have I done that, I wondered, being hard against those who most need our help and compassion, while being soft on those who could use some firmness? Like myself?
Since then, I have continued to see the hand of God doing the same thing through our ministry among the Gentiles. The Spirit of Jesus is still tearing down the barriers of cleanness and uncleanness, purity and impurity between people. But he is also moving those barriers and boundaries into the depths of our hearts, to illuminate and discriminate among our own pure and impure motives and desires.
So that night I resolved not to get up and walk into the night, back home to Capernaum, but to stay with this shocking and fearless Jesus. For I had one more pressing, urgent question to ask of him:
“Is there any more of that bread left?”