The stories of lepers in the gospels always bring to my mind images from the 1959 movie Ben-Hur. If memory serves me correctly, there was a time, when Ben Hur played every year on network TV. For those of you who don’t know it, it was one of those movies Hollywood did so well in the 50s. Lavish productions, casts of thousands, lots of drama, and occasional camp. Ben-Hur is most famous for the chariot race that served as its climax, but what has stuck in my mind all of these years are scenes set in leper colonies. The movie showed in graphic detail everything Hollywood thought about the disease—people living in horrible circumstances, segregated from society, ravaged by the disease, having lost limbs to it.
Hollywood got it wrong. What the movie makers were depicting was Hansen’s disease and it was a horrible disease, made more horrible by society’s treatment of lepers. But when leprosy is mentioned in the bible, it’s not Hansen’s disease that’s being described. What the Bible refers to is a whole range of skin diseases, and the restrictions about it are not primarily intended to prevent the leper’s infection of other people, but rather to preserve the purity of the community. To make this point clear, in the chapters of Leviticus that detail what leprosy is and how it is to be handled, there is one very interesting instruction. If you have white blotches on your body, the priest is to confirm that you have leprosy, but if the skin disease is such that you are entirely covered with white, from head to toe, then, you are free of contamination. Moreover, it wasn’t just human beings that could have leprosy—cloth, or even houses could be certified by the priests as contaminated with leprosy.
So the leper who came to Jesus for healing in this week’s gospel was suffering from one of these skin diseases. What mattered more than the malady itself was the elaborate code of instructions that detailed the leper’s complete exclusion from the community. People certified as lepers by the priest were completely ostracized from society. They were to tear their clothes, keep their hair unkempt, shout “Unclean, unclean” whenever they encountered other people, and live outside the community.
Most important of all, is that biblical leprosy was something for the priests, not the doctors, to deal with. It had to do with the ritual life of the community and as such, the priest’s certification of leprosy or of freedom from leprosy impacted whether or not an individual could live in community or participate in the community’s ritual and religious life. One way to think about a leper in biblical culture was to think of him as “a dead man walking.”
Jesus has spent some time in Capernaum, healing the sick, and has told his disciples that he intends to take his show on the road, to go about the villages of Galilee, preaching the good news. But as he goes this leper gets in his way. The leper doesn’t simply ask Jesus to heal him. Rather he says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” That’s odd enough—I’m sure we all would be thinking, why would Jesus not choose to help this man?
What’s even odder is Mark’s next comment. Our translation reads, “moved with pity” but in fact the Greek reads implies that Jesus’ guts were turned over. And there’s another possibility—some Greek manuscripts read “moved with anger.” So this is not about compassion or feeling sorry—Jesus is deeply affected by this encounter. There are two ways of reading Jesus’ response. Either way, he is overwhelmed with emotion. One option is to interpret his response to the leper as compassion or pity at his plight, being forced to live alone, isolated from human contact and from access to the divine, forced to scratch out a living by begging and humiliation.
The other option is to read Jesus’ response to the leper as anger at the leper. We have been emphasizing the urgency of Mark’s gospel. Just before this encounter, Jesus has told his disciples that part of his task was to preach in all of the towns—the encounter with the leper slows him down, but also potentially prevents that mission trip. By touching the leper, Jesus has himself been made unclean, and should probably remove himself from society as well.
He responds to the leper with a demonstration of his power and authority, by declaring that he is clean. And he does it in dramatic fashion, by touching him. By declaring him clean, Jesus is usurping the authority of the priests who had that power, and by touching him, Jesus was challenging the rules of clean and unclean that were the focus of the restrictions against leprosy, and the focus of so much attention by his contemporary Jewish compatriots.
Jesus tells the man to go to the priests, to get certified that he’s clean, but the man doesn’t. He also doesn’t heed the other instruction Jesus gives him—to say nothing to any body. Now what’s odd about this is precisely the certification—in order to be reintegrated into the community, in order rejoin his family and friends, in order for him to have a role in the ritual life of Judaism, this man would have to receive the certification. The priests labeled him a leper; now it is up to them to label him clean.
The story ends on the oddest note of all. Because the cleansed leper did not obey Jesus’ request that he remain silent—how could he have? Jesus’ reputation spread far and wide and he was no longer able to go about openly. He couldn’t enter the towns of Galilee where he wanted to preach and heal. So he was stuck out in the countryside.
As I’ve been thinking about this story, I keep coming back to those things in it that perplex me. One is Jesus’ response to the leper’s request. Was he angry? If so, why? Was he moved with pity? One of the things that Christians have tended to do over the centuries is to turn Jesus into a savior that responds to our requests and needs with joy and sympathy. That tendency is present even in the gospels where often the very emotional language that Mark uses to describe Jesus is toned down in Matthew, Luke, and John. We have a hard time imagining a Jesus who might get angry when confronted by a leper, or even, might be so moved by his plight that his stomach turned.
Jesus was on the road, doing important business when this leper confronted him, and he had to stop for him. It was an encounter that changed both of them. The leper was healed, but Jesus had to change his plans. He had to call off that mission trip. He could no longer enter the towns he had planned to visit. In a way, he and the leper changed places. The healed leper could now go wherever he wanted, he could proclaim the good news, but Jesus had to let people come to him.
Lots to think about this week.