Leprosy is a horrible skin disease that had no cure in biblical times, and, in fact, a cure for it was only developed around the 1940’s and 50’s. It wasn’t until 1981 that the World Health Organization was actually able to recommend a series of drugs to cure the disease and it still takes 6 months to a year to be cured. For 1000’s of years and in some places still today, leprosy is a destructive disease, causing disfigurement. Lepers were often placed in colonies, or settlements together, and their disease was often viewed as punishment for their sin or the sin of an ancestor. A leprous person was thought to be cursed, unclean, and frankly, under the judgment of God. In many places people who are leprous are quarantined and not allowed to come into contact with other people. You can even read about this treatment of people with this type of disease in the book of Leviticus in the Bible. The reason this person was considered unclean is that leprosy is infectious, so isolating a person with leprosy kept it from spreading. A person coming in contact with leprosy may not exhibit symptoms for months or even years, but it was able to be spread.
This man who Jesus encounters on this particular day is living out in the country, by himself. Often people like him would sit beside busy roads and beg because they were unable to do any type of work to earn a living. Mark 1:28 says Jesus’ ”fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee,” and this is the reason why this leprous man who sat by the road begging recognizes Jesus. Even out in the country and even to a leper who had little to no human contact, Jesus’ reputation had come. He sees Jesus coming down the road and he approaches him on his knees begging. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture this sad sight of a disease infested lonely man begging for Jesus to heal him. The law required him to wear clothes that were torn and baggy and have his hair disheveled. But, instead of calling out “unclean, unclean” like the law requires, he comes to Jesus begging to be made clean. Verse 41 says that Jesus was moved with pity, or compassion. Then Jesus does the one thing you must never do when you see a leper, he touches him. To touch a leper was to make one unclean for 7 days and you had to go through a cleansing ritual with the priest. But something happens, instead of Jesus becoming unclean, this leprous man becomes clean. This is not a case of something unclean defiling what was clean. This is the case of something clean making something unclean clean. This didn’t happen. There’s no law for how to deal with this in Leviticus because it never happened. But when Jesus touches this man, he is made clean.
According to Leviticus, the priest doesn’t actually make a leprous person clean, he would only confirm that he had been cleansed so he could come back into the town and there wouldn’t be concern about anyone getting infected. But Jesus is greater than the priest, he can actually heal and cleanse. This is the first instance in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus interacting with a legal issue. There isn’t a law for this kind of thing because Jesus is supplanting the Law. The Law didn’t make people clean, it only verified that they were clean or unclean. They would be declared clean if they were clean. But Jesus cleanses this man of this illness that had made him unclean. Jesus didn’t just make this man ceremonially clean, he actually cleansed him.
After doing this, verses 43-44 say he sternly charged him and sent him away at once and told him to say nothing to anyone. Jesus tells this man to be quiet. The wording here is displaying an attitude in Jesus that is very serious to the point of anger. The words “Sternly Charged” have the connotation of yelling or scolding. It even can be used to describe “animal fury”. Jesus isn’t just giving this guy some advice. It’s like he heals this guy and then grabs him by his shirt and says, “now, let me tell you something, don’t tell anyone about this, and go see the priest and offer your sacrifices”. You see, if people realized that there was a man out there who could actually make people clean, this would do away with the whole sacrificial system. This would put a lot of priests out of a job. Again the priest could only verify that you were clean and then administrate the appropriate sacrifices. This didn’t help someone who had leprosy or other diseases for which there were no cure because they had to be healed before they could be clean. But this man doesn’t see Jesus as someone who just declared him unclean because of his disease that he couldn’t control like the priest. This man sees Jesus as someone who can remove his shame, who can heal him, and can set him right before God and before humanity. He sees Jesus as much greater than a priest, so Jesus tells him to shut up about it and to observe what the Law required anyway.
He references Moses in verse 44. Moses commanded an elaborate cleansing process involving sacrifices and shaving one’s head and it took 8 days to perform. You can read about it in Leviticus 14 if you are feel particularly inquisitive today. An interesting thing about the Levitical requirements though. It required sacrificing two male lambs and one ewe lamb. But if a person was poor, he could sacrifice two doves or two pigeons instead. There was even mercy in what we often perceive was a harsh system. The system wasn’t harsh, it just couldn’t cleanse someone from leprosy. This guy wasn’t to shirk the Law, but to follow it and in the process of doing it, not say how it came about that he was healed from this incurable disease. But unlike the demons that Jesus commands, verse 45 says he talked freely and “spread the news” or spread the word about his healing.
God sends his Son to us to accomplish something that we could not do ourselves, nor could the Law accomplish it. We stand before God as people who have messed up. We’ve offended other people at one point or another, and certainly we have offended God. But what can we do about it? What can be done about our sin? We have no way to get rid of it, to make ourselves clean, or to atone for it. But Jesus comes; he stretches out his hands to us, and touches us. When he does this, our sin is taken away.
God doesn’t step into history to confirm our sinfulness, we can figure that out on our own, we have guilt and conscience that make us keenly away of our inadequacy and our sin. God steps into history and humanity in Jesus the Messiah so that he can touch a sinful and unclean people and make us pure as snow. When he does this, we no longer have to live outside of the camp, out in the country all alone, but we are welcomed into his presence. Because of Jesus, he eradicates our sin and the death that awaited us and gives us eternal and abundant life forever with him. This eternal-kind-of-life begins the moment you cry out to Jesus, heal me, forgive me, like this leper does. He is willing, don’t hold back any part of your life, but ask him to come and cleanse you, to come and make you whole.