“Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.”
In reading the story of Jesus healing the leper in Mark 1, I find myself falling in love with Jesus all over again. More than a simple story of Jesus healing someone with a disease, Jesus identified with the man with leprosy and himself became ‘unclean’ and risked taking on the stigma associated with the man. In risking his own reputation to extend compassion and heal the man, dignity was reestablished and the man was able to enter back into community.
Throughout scripture, aside from physical sickness we find that the lives of those suffering from leprosy were plagued by exclusion, shame and loneliness. In Leviticus 13, we are told:
“The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.
Considering that there were not any herbal remedies or therapeutic measures that could be prescribed like today, leprosy was a life sentence that severed connection between individuals and their communities and prevented them from being touched in the future. The purpose of exclusion was to remove what was deemed as unclean from possible contact with what was meant to be a holy community.
It did not stop with social exclusion though as leprosy also meant exclusion from God in Old Testament times. Worship of God (or YHVH) took place in the temple through a sacrificial system to atone for sins, and the priests acted as the mediators only for those who came to the temple. God’s presence was set apart in the Holy of Holies, only, only accessible by the High Priest once a year on the Day of Atonement on behalf of the people. To be outcast from the temple worship would be devastating.
Coming back to the interaction in Mark 1, we see Jesus reaching out his hand to touch the man with leprosy to heal him. I wonder if in Jesus’ humanity, if only for a second, Jesus hesitated in fear for his own health before he reached out. Jesus could have kept his distance and spoke healing for the man, but instead he reached out to a man that had been deprived of touch and engaged him in a way that was restricted and seen as unclean by the religious leaders of the day. According to Mosaic law, touching someone with leprosy brought defilement. But he realized that the leper didn’t need niceness or just a simple word of healing.
That is where it goes beyond a simple story about healing. In touching the man, Jesus not only risked infection but he became religiously ‘unclean’ so that the man might become clean. He came alongside the man in solidarity and identified with him in his pain, stigma and exclusion by interacting in a way that brought with it the cultural baggage of being ‘unclean’. He took on his label rather than performing an act of disconnected compassion in a manner that was seen as spiritually clean. The context suggests that the reason Jesus had to stay outside was not merely due to his overwhelming popularity with the people; but also due to the masses hearing that Jesus had touched the leper and risked becoming unclean himself. Yet still, people came to him.
In a radio interview, I heard Derek Webb comment on Jesus’ engagement with those on the margins where he said:
When you see people who are marginalized or under the judgment of the religious structures in a culture, the model that Jesus gives us is to stand with those people and if necessary, even absorb the judgment with them. That’s what he did, ultimately absorbing all the judgment for them but at the very least he was willing to have his reputation ruined in order to stand on the sides of his friends and those on the margins.
I find myself falling in love with this Jesus that is willing to suffer with and take risks to stand in solidarity with those living on the margins that have been deemed as ‘unclean’ even at the risk of his reputation and personal safety. He shows me that sometimes righteousness includes a willingness to forsake our reputation as ‘morally upstanding’ or ‘clean’ when we see individuals being oppressed or trying to be convinced that they are somehow excluded from God’s presence and grace. He makes me question if faithfulness and solidarity with those that are seen as ‘unclean’ may even go beyond being seen as ‘unclean’ to encountering the feeling in my own soul as a result.
It starts to make sense when we read about this man who was “despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 58:3)”. This man who “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted (Isaiah 58:4)”.