This passage will always hold a special place in my heart, since it’s the one that I was forced to expound upon for one of my Bible courses in college. I had to dissect these verses word-by-word. I had to examine at least five different commentaries and cite them frequently. I had to do a study on the background of leprosy and what this man probably experienced in that community and during that time. I also had to cite other Bible verses (like from Leviticus) which gave commands concerning situations like this. In spite of all this, it’s still one of my favorite passages in all the Gospels. Let’s take a look.
I think it’s hard to overestimate the misery that this man had undergone for as long he had this disease. By the way, it’s likely not referring to what we think of in terms of modern leprosy: The Greek and Hebrew both used general terms which could apply to all types of contagious skin diseases. But whatever the disease was, it completely sealed this man off from everything and everyone he held dear. If he walked down a street, he had to call out “Unclean! Unclean!” in order to warn everyone to stay away. Little children would run screaming from him. He would have no contact with his family. He was completely dependent on the charity of others, since there was no way he could ever hold a job. And of course he could forget about ever entering the temple to worship with others. He undoubtedly had to live outside the town, and the only companions he would have would be other outcasts. For someone in that culture, which prized family connections so highly, this would be a living hell.
And then the man heard about Jesus. He pled with the Master to heal him. And here’s something that’s especially poignant. Mark’s Gospel is the only one that specifically mentions that Jesus was “moved with pity.” He saw this man’s plight, and was moved to do something about it. And then all the Synoptic versions of the story tell us that the Savior did something extraordinary in response: He reached out and touched him.
Why would he do this, and why would the Gospel writers point it out? Keep in mind that this man needed more than just physical healing. He'd been cut off from all human contact, possibly for years. No one had touched him. He needed emotional healing as well as physical restoration. And Jesus, moved by compassion, reached out and touched him.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting, at least to me. If you had to do so, you could sum up the entire Old Testament Law with one word: separation. The people of Israel were to be separate from the Gentiles around them. You had clean and unclean food, houses, animals, and clothing. Yes, you couldn’t mix different fabrics in your clothes. You couldn’t mix different crops in your garden. You had holy vs. common days of the year. You had holy vs. common people (priests vs. laity). And worst of all, you had clean and unclean people. Most people would be unclean at some time in their lives, if only for a short period. Women were unclean a few days out of the month, and a man could be unclean if he visited a grave site. Most of the time, you washed yourself, avoided human contact, and couldn’t enter the temple for a day or so. If you touched someone or something, then your uncleanness was spread like a disease. And if you were leprous, you were probably going to be unclean for the rest of your life.
And then Jesus arrives, and the whole process is reversed. He reached out and touched the man, and the uncleanness of the leper didn’t infect him. Instead, the Savior's “cleanness” spread to the man. For the first time in recorded history, the horrible process of spreading uncleanness was not just quarantined off but reversed.
And it didn’t stop there. Jesus had a heart for those whose uncleanness was on the inside instead of out. The prostitute, the tax collector, and the swearing fisherman all experienced this. And when he died, the curtain separating the holy presence of God from the rest of us was torn in two. Not from bottom to top (as if a human could accomplish it) but from top to bottom.
And this Great Reversal is supposed to be reflected in our lives as believers as well. All too often, believers take an O.T. approach to "unclean" people: We quarantine them off from us, lest they spread their infection. I understand the concern: We can't let ourselves be dragged into other peoples' sin. I get that. But the coming of Jesus brings a new era, a whole new paradigm of how to deal with this, Our ultimate goal is not to seal ourselves off from unclean people but to be agents of the cleanness of our Savior to people who need him. After all, salt does no good still in the shaker, and a candle can't light up a room if it's under a bowl. Light is meant to invade darkness, and salt is meant to be mixed in with food, right?
Am I following that principle? Not nearly as much as I should. All too often I find myself slipping into the O.T. method--quarantine--rather than participating in the Great Reversal. And I'm making the effort to do that.
And the first sign of it that we see in Mark’s Gospel is a poor leper begging for relief.
Thank you, Lord Jesus. I was once was as filthy as I could be, but you cleansed me with one touch. Let me just meditate on that for a moment. And then, please let me be your agent of spreading your cleansing power everywhere I go.