“What’s up with your face?” I was asked recently.
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“You look like you scratched yourself; did you scratch yourself? Do you own a cat?” I self-consciously touched my cheek and realized that this person was rather inelegantly commenting on the bit of eczema that I have been unsuccessful in getting rid of from my face. Until that moment I had not really thought to be self-conscious about it, because no one had commented on it before. It has been a little odd for a forty-something to develop eczema and truth be told I was more annoyed at the notion that I would own a cat. I am not good at treating the eczema with the steroid cream I have been given because I have this hang-up about grease on my hands.
Of course, the minor irritation of someone noticing a facial blemish and thinking I scratched myself is incomparable to what those people in Biblical times went through if they had “leprosy”. I use quotations because we are fairly certain that the modern illness known as leprosy was not likely to have been in the Ancient Near East at the time of Jesus. Leprosy in the Bible is much more likely to be a catchall phrase for the gamut of skin conditions (i.e. rash, eczema, psoriasis) that can befall a person.
Regardless of which condition the leper had they were excluded from the community until declared clean by a priest. They often were not allowed in worship spaces. They were asked to announce themselves as “unclean” in crowds lest people touch them and become unclean themselves. To our modern ears this seems silly, but just watch a commercial advertising Stelara and you will realize that even today people feel excluded from lots of activities because of skin conditions. This shunning is the sort of life that the leper at the end of Mark Chapter 1 was experiencing when approaching Jesus for the chance to be made whole.
Before we discuss that though, we need to make note of something that seems terribly out of character for Jesus. We are told by Mark that Jesus has made quite a name for himself in Capernaum. His teaching in the synagogue has impressed. His exorcisms have been hugely successful.
He even healed Peter’s mother-in-law, bedridden with fever. The news about Jesus had spread from his teachings and the whole demon expulsion stuff, but apparently it is the garden variety healing that begins to draw the crowd. It makes sense given that this is a time where there is very little medicine to speak of and no Walgreens on the corner to dispense remedies.
Mark says the whole city gathered at his door. I can believe it. No one likes being sick. I live in the Texas Hill Country and believe me if a person appeared who could wave their hand and cure people of sinus infections and cedar allergies there would be the largest traffic jam in the history of the world on the street where they lived.
Before the next morning Jesus skips out and goes off alone to pray. The disciples hunted for him. When they find him they point out that there is a tremendous crowd looking for him. Jesus’ response is “let’s go somewhere else then.”
Jesus is the great physician right? He heals people. I do not remember being taught about a Jesus who turns away people wishing to be healed. To make it even more strange, in just a few short verses, Mark relates a healing of this one leper who approaches Jesus. What does this leper have that the sick people in Capernaum, some of whom no doubt have skin conditions, haven’t got.
The answer apparently is a belief in who Jesus is or more to the point an acknowledgement that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one of God. Let’s read between the lines, because I think that is what Mark wants us to do. Jesus suggest that he needs to move on in order that he may preach. Perhaps the crowds that now form are no longer gathering to hear the message of “repent for the kingdom of God has begun” but are gathering instead to get their needs met – and only their needs met. The former expects something of them, the latter expects something only of Jesus.
- What does this mean for those tens of thousands of Christians today who seem to think that being Christian is about getting the blessings of this life?or a promise of second life?
- What does this mean for those tens of thousands of Christians whose prayer time consists of praying for healing miracles and nothing else?
- What does this mean for those Christians that pray for their own needs (wants?) and never find time to pray for others or to pray for a deeper dependence on God?
- What does it mean for those Christian groups who promote meeting the needs of the poor, the hungry, the needy but never include a message of the gospel?
The leper, John the Baptizer, and the demon exorcised in the Capernaum synagogue all have something in common. Each it their own way identified in Christ that God was at work. The demon knows because he says as much that Christ is the “Holy One of God.” John the Baptist demonstrates through his humble preaching that he was awaiting the arrival of one that he was unfit to even bow down to untie the sandal straps of his feet. The leper doesn’t say these things but rather indicates an awareness that something unique of God is happening in Jesus. “if YOU will it I will be clean.”
How many people had desired the leper to be clean. His mother? most assuredly. His wife? His children? His best friend? His well meaning rabbi? Depending on his age, there is no telling how many people wanted him to be clean. He may even have owed someone money who wished for him to be clean so that he could work again and pay back his debts. None of their desires were sufficient for his wholeness, but he is certain that if Jesus simply wills it it will come to pass-such faith!
And Jesus, who left Capernaum rather than heal the city gathered at his door, not only wills it but actually touches the leper and declares him cleansed. Cleansing a leper, this is something that only God can do according to the rabbis in Jesus day and before.
Please do not read these words and think that I am suggesting that the difference between those who are healed and those who are not is the depths of their faith. That is not at all what I am saying although there are a great many misguided Christians who say that very thing to people all the time. There are also a great many Christians who heap tons of guilt upon their own spirit because they have prayed and prayed to no avail. They question their faith. The Christians who suggest that someone should just believe harder are hypocrites because there own faith is insufficient in some area of their life. The ones who have made themselves feel guilty would not have done so if so many other Christians had not hypocritically told them their faith was weak.
What I am suggesting is that Mark wants us to see the difference between the needy crowds that are being avoided and the faith-filled leper who is cleansed. The leper recognizes the authority of Christ and functions out of that belief that the Divine Will is at work in Jesus. The leper has the expectation that this Jesus can do the things that only God can do.
Jesus sends the cleansed leper away with instructions to be quiet about the healing and to present himself to the priest and offer his sacrifices according to the law. Presumably when the leper speaks with the priest he is to tell the story because Jesus comments that he is to follow the law of Moses as a testimony to them.
In those instructions there is an important point regarding the law that we can infer. The law of Moses, whether you mean the 10 commandments or all of the Levitical code, is a tool but not a cure. The law can be used to discern (i.e. a leper is either clean or unclean); the law cannot heal.
I sell cars. In all of the 2017 Chevrolets that I sell there is a warning message that comes on when you turn the car off. In the information center or the touch screen display, words reminding you to check the back seat appear. The message is there for the purpose of helping prevent people from leaving pets and children in the car. In most places it the USA doing either is illegal because of the danger that the heat of a parked car can cause for a baby or a puppy. As much as we would hope that this would never happen it does. Some parents are so harried and busy that they forget. If the pet is asleep an owner could easily forget that the animal is in the car. People are not perfect. The law exists to remind us that the behavior is deadly. But the existence of the law does not end the occurrence of the crime. No law can end crime simply through its existence.
The law cannot prevent nor can it heal. The law is a tool of discernment. I am either speeding or I’m not. That is the law. Likewise, the law of God deems us sinners with respect to a commandment or not a sinner. In our culture only the judge or an appropriate authority can deem me innocent or not guilty regardless of my crime be it a local judge or a governor’s pardon. In these roles they represent the lawgiver. Christ represents the lawgiver. Only God can declare us righteous.
Our mistake as Christians is made when think that we can follow our way to wholeness. When we think that obeying the law will make us righteous before God. If the whole law can be summed up in the command to love God with the whole self and the neighbor as we love ourselves then we are all sinners before the law. Only God can heal us and make us whole. Only God can grant us pardon and give us life.
As Christians we should endeavor to follow the commandments of God but we must be mindful that the following no matter how perfect does not do the healing or the saving. The only following that works is staying close to Christ: trusting and believing in him.
- How are you doing in this sort of trust? Do you only trust God when things are going well or do you trust God in all circumstances?
- Have you ever judged someone else as not redeemed / saved because they were a sinner in your eyes?
- The Christian is freed from the law because of the saving work of Christ. Have you questioned God’s ability to pardon you because of your own failures to keep the law of God correctly?
- What would the church look like if we trusted God to heal/ save the sinners in our community?
Feel free to use this Bible Study for your own groups or discussion. It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is freely given and written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.