‘Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae. The disease affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract and the eyes.’ (www.WHO.int/healthtopics/leprosy)
In a part of the world where we take medical advances for granted, leprosy, especially if caught early, is curable. In 1st Century Palestine, it was not. The biblical word lepros could have referred to a number of conditions, but we can draw two key conclusions. Firstly, the man was visibly sick. Untreated, this sickness would have been debilitating with visible deterioration of the man’s skin and flesh. Secondly, because of his sickness, he was excluded from the city, banished to live either alone or in what we might think of as a rough encampment of other sufferers of skin diseases. Such people were, in effect, the living dead – abandoned by society to their slow, miserable, lonely and painful death. They were a class apart. Reduced to begging on the open road, from travellers who would avoid contact with them at all costs.
The actions of this man tell that after the extraordinary events in Capernaum, the fame of Jesus as a man of healing had spread beyond the town. The leper knows who Jesus is. He is absolutely confident in the ability of Jesus to heal. Jesus is moved by compassion, and the extraordinary faith of this man.
I can feel the disciples tensing as this man approaches. Jesus reaches out his hand and actually touches the man. I wonder whether you remember the disciples trying to come between Jesus and small children who were coming to sit with him and perhaps to distract him. This man is unclean, wrought with incurable disease, and rushing to get close to Jesus. Against every cultural norm, Jesus allows him to approach and fall to his knees. We struggle to grasp how this would have looked to the first followers of Jesus. The minds of the horrified disciples are divided, perhaps, between creating a physical barrier between Jesus and the leper, or keeping their own distance from this desperately sick man.
In that instant, at the word of Jesus, the man is healed. His condition is not simply improved. As with Peter’s mother in law, the healing of this man is immediate and absolute. The visible marks of his sickness are gone. They are no longer there. No wonder that, in spite of Jesus’ appeal, he ran off down the road declaring his healing to anyone who would listen. A moment before he was facing a ghastly premature death. Jesus has given him new life. His joy must have been utterly overwhelming. What the disciples think at this point we can only imagine.
The Jewish Law requires that having received healing, the man present himself to the priest who has the power to declare him clean. Jesus direction to go to the priest demonstrates respect for the Law of Moses. But why is this extraordinary healing to be kept quiet. As simple, perhaps, as the fact that Jesus has told us that his purpose in going to the villages is to preach. He needs to be seen as the one who has the words of life, rather than being pursued as some kind of celebrity healer. He has left Capernaum to escape the crowds who want to receive or at least witness healings, and the profound testimony of this man means that his attraction as a healer will only continue to grow.
We are privileged to live in a time and place where leprosy is rarely diagnosed, and can be healed. Our distance from the impact of this dreadful disease means that we might miss the grace of Jesus highlighted by Mark. Here is a lesson for the us, and for those first disciples.
Here is Jesus, ready to very deliberately cross one of the most clearly defined social barriers. Moved by compassion, he not only gives time to the leper. He reaches out and touches the untouchable. He lays his hand on that which is unclean, and with his power and authority, in the words ‘Be clean.’ makes it completely, wholly, and absolutely clean.