Closing out this first chapter of Mark’s gospel is another healing story. The leper approached Jesus and made it clear that he knew Jesus could make him clean if he wanted to. We are told that Jesus replied that he did want to, and he touched the leper and made him clean. Certainly, there is a lot here that might help our faith in the power of Jesus to heal our ills. But there is a much deeper message here that helps in our grasping of the teaching of Jesus concerning the concept of the reign of God.
This is not a pretty story of Jesus being moved by compassion to heal this ill and rejected person. It is not placed in the Gospel to strengthen our faith or encourage our good works. This act of Jesus was a challenge to the religious prescriptions regarding ritual cleansing, an oppressive system which bound the people in spiritual bondage, especially the most vulnerable. Economically the system benefited the Temple and the priests of the Temple, because of offerings that were required in order to be reestablished among the “clean.” Wherever a group gains economically from a system there will be great opposition to anyone who challenges the system. When an oppressive system is shrouded in religious garb, the opposition is even stronger and the courage to challenge it more demanding.
This story is not about healing but about cleansing. The leper asked to be made clean. Jesus granted this wish and sent him to make the ritual offering, to prove to the Temple priest that he was indeed cleansed. Jesus’ thrust was for a greater cleansing than this. It was for the cleansing of faith which had been corrupted by the oppressive rules and rituals of religion. It was to show the people that they had been cleansed by God’s love, a totally free gift, for which they had no need to make ritual offering.
Up to this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been doing that. He had driven out unclean spirits, he had laid his hands on the sick and restored them to health, he had touched the woman with the fever. By this stage in the narrative, Jesus was pretty contaminated. Then, unto his horizon came the highly contaminated outcast, the epitome of uncleanliness, offering a challenge. Would Jesus dare to make him clean? The leper had already broken the law by coming so close to other people. But, he had nothing to lose. What could the pure and holy ones do to him without contaminating themselves? When it came to breaking oppressive laws, Jesus had nothing to lose either. Their observance was not his driving force, but God’s universal love and care for all was. We can imagine the ripple through the crowd as Jesus did the unthinkable – reached out and touched the man with the leprosy. This was the one who had taught with authority and now acted with authority too, breaking the burdens and loosening the yokes that held people in bondage to the demands of a false deity.
God’s reign was dawning and God’s liberation was free of charge. This was a dangerous gift to offer in a system where Temple laws and rituals had a solid economic base. The truth of Jesus’ preaching and actions was truly good news to the poor and those whose power had been stripped away. He had been raised in such a milieu, his family low on the social ladder. He was familiar with the burdens of rules and ritual cleansings, but he was also familiar with the true ways of God and driven to announce that truth by his every word and deed.
What a challenge he has commissioned us with!
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP