Healing the Leper

Week of Sunday February 15
Lectionary Reading: Mark 1:40-45

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.' Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!' Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.' But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

A little healing story full of pathos and significance. Leprosy was not the common cold, as when Peter's mother in law had a fever. Leprosy meant you were in constant exile; unclean, on the edges of starvation, and feared. Jesus brings this man back into his community. He rescues the most marginalised. He touches him! This was to make himself ritually unclean, at best, and to expose himself to the risk of the disease.

There is a sad, resigned humility here, almost as though the man expects rejection. "If you choose, you can make me clean." Jesus attitude very clear; "I do choose." He is deliberate; "Be made clean."

In the surrounding verses of Mark we see Jesus re-orienting the balance of law and compassion (mercy.) Law is given its place, even in this event. The man was to go and show himself to the priest, as the law required. (Did the man do this, or simply spread the word?) But look at the wider story.

The healings begin with the healing of the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue. Then there is Peter's mother in law, and the leper. Moving through chapter two, the paralytic is healed, Levi is healed in his fellowship with Jesus. Jesus says, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.' He goes on to challenge the interpretation of the law in the pericopes about fasting, and how one should act on the Sabbath.

Finally, at the beginning of chapter three, there is a man in the synagogue who has a withered hand.

They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.' Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?' But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

The course is set for the rest of the gospel. The Pharisees consulting with the Herodians is like Labor and Liberal, or Democrat and Republican combining against a common threat. Jesus has turned the balance of Law and Mercy on its head, and the establishment has reacted in fear and anger.

‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?' He has shown a God who is compassionate. I describe this to people by saying that as Christians we should ask first of all, what heals the person, and only then, what does law, or custom, or manners require? And in another article on this site,

Joy, compassion, love and respect are not side issues. They are THE issues. We are not to be a business woman who is compassionate. We are to be a compassionate person who is a business woman. We are to be a joyful person who is a business woman. If we put the business first it will always mar our joy.... Compassion means to feel the feeling of others. It is first of all to understand as them- to stand under their experience and see why and how and who they are. The biblical word for compassion is mercy. It derives from womb and has the taste about it of the care and understanding of the womb mother for her child.

Jesus put mercy before law. God desires mercy, not the sacrifice of the law, he said.

This was totally at odds with the society around Jesus, and still, often, our own. In Australia, in the midst of the Victorian fires, with 180 people confirmed dead as I write, and 5,000 people homeless, one Christian "minister" is widely reported to have forgotten compassion. He says that the fires are punishment for abortion laws. He had a dream and "a flash from the Spirit of God: that His conditional protection has been removed from the nation of Australia, in particular Victoria, for approving the slaughter of innocent children in the womb."

This is a spirit which is utterly opposed to the Christ. It has a view of God, and interpretation, which has not been touched by the first chapters of Mark. No doubt the man preaches "grace", but this statement about abortion is all "law." His interpretation turns God into a monster who will not heal the sick or let the hungry be fed, because it is the Sabbath. It talks of a God who will not go near the uncleanliness of a sick woman for the sake of propriety, and avoids lepers out of fear. Such a God has no qualms at killing the innocent because of the sins of others of the same nation.

There is no doubt that people once understood God in this way. Jesus does not. The beginning of Mark 3 tells us this is why they killed him.

The Jesus in Mark is puts Compassion and Love first. Pastor Nalliah's comments are pre-Jesus at best. They do not follow him.

One comment about the Nalliah news article said,  "The pastor's Old Testament God of vengeance and punishment seems to be at odds with Christ's vision of a loving, forgiving God. If God exists, then he exists in the generosity of a huge number of Australians responding to the bushfire crisis." Many other comments expressed disgust, but some were inclined to agree with Nalliah! His comments are echoed in many somewhat less obvious situations where we blame people's misfortunes on God's judgment.

Jesus compassion is still needed, and if Nalliah and others are any indication, is still as offensive to some as it always was.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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