The first chapter of Mark’s gospel gives us an account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It started off with a bang. The people in the synagogue at Capernaum were impressed by the powerful and unique approach of his teaching. He broke from the teaching style used by the religious lawyers, the scribes, and spoke from his heart. He also drove out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue. As the spirit left the man he called out to Jesus, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” Word of what he had done, and what had happened that day, spread quickly.
Leaving the synagogue, Jesus went to stay at the home of Simon and Andrew. They found that Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a debilitating fever. Jesus’ simply touched her and she was cured. She got up and waited on them. After sunset, when the Sabbath was over, a crowd gathered at the house seeking healing. Early in the morning, before sunrise, Jesus went to a deserted place to pray. Simon found him and told him that everyone was looking for him. Jesus gathered the disciples and began a preaching tour of the neighboring villages.
Mark ends this first chapter of his Gospel with a dramatic cure. “A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’” We have to understand the man who is pleading with Jesus to understand how powerful this scene is.
The first reading for this Sunday is taken from the book of Leviticus. It gives medical guidelines for diagnosing leprosy. Should a blotch or sore appear on the skin and remain, or begin to erupt on other parts of the body, the person was to be brought to one of the The Pastor’s Reflections priests who would determine if the skin condition was leprosy. In the ancient world leprosy was the most feared disease. The disease itself was frightening with the eruption of sores, the gradual disfigurement of the body, the loss of feeling, and sometimes, the loss of fingers and toes. But the most horrific aspect of a diagnosis of leprosy was the social isolation that came with it. “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as 2 the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”
Later interpretations of this law exaggerated this isolation. A leper was forbidden to stand closer than a hundred feet from a healthy person if the wind was blowing in the direction of that person. The leper could never again return to family or friends, and was banished from contact with society.
These regulations may seem primitive and cruel, but we only have to look at the American leper colony at Moloka’i established in the late nineteenth century to see that the attitude toward the disease continued. Being sent there was a death sentence. The government was lax in providing proper medical care, food and shelter. It wasn’t until Father Damian of Moloka’i volunteered to minister to the people in the leper colony that some respect, compassion and care was introduced to them.
To understand the power of the account of Jesus’ cure of the leper we must understand how shocking his actions were to the people who witnessed it. First of all, the leper who approached Jesus acted in a bold and aggressive way. The people with Jesus were certainly screaming at the man to keep his distance. Lepers were forbidden to approach healthy people. This man was ritually unclean. Any physical contact with him would render a person unclean. He would not be able to touch others, eat with them from the common dish, or pray with them until he had undergone rites of purification. In the account, the leper came right up to Jesus. He may have heard about Jesus’ power to heal. He may have seen in him a compassion that broke down his fear to approach him. This man, suffering from a horrific and incurable disease, had tremendous faith in Jesus.
“If you wish, you can make me clean.” He had no doubt that Jesus could cure him. He only hoped that Jesus would “wish” to cure him.
Secondly, Jesus not only wished to cure him – he touched the man. This was absolutely unheard of. Jesus dismissed any concern of ritual impurity – or physical contamination. Without hesitation, “he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’”
Thirdly, even though Jesus admonished him not to tell anyone about his cure except the priest who would have to certify his cure, the man began to “publicize the whole matter.” How could anyone keep this healing a secret?! This man was not only cured of the most horrible of diseases, but he was given a new life. He could return to his family. He could re -enter society. This cure made Jesus so well known that “it was impossible for him to enter a town openly.” He remained in outlying and deserted places, but the people found him.
What can this account teach us? First and foremost, that we need to overcome our fear of approaching Jesus. We must approach him in faith. We don’t have to be perfect to approach him. He loves us exactly as we are.
Secondly, that we must believe that Jesus will not hesitate “to touch” us. He will never find us repulsive. No matter how we judge ourselves, or how others see us, Jesus always recognizes our beauty and our Godgiven dignity. No matter how many mistakes we’ve made, Jesus will freely open his heart to us. He will envelop us with his love.
Lastly, we must have faith that Jesus’’ touch can bring us back to health – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Jesus’ touch will bring us a new and restored life. We only need to approach him. We only need to trust.