This is a reflection on the gospel reading for Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.
Leprosy in Jesus’ time was a condition that had nothing to do with what we consider today to be Hansen’s disease, and typically stories about the healings of lepers in the gospel are less about the physical healing and more about the restoration of someone marginalized back into the wider community. And, as we’ll see in this passage, the healing of lepers by Jesus is also about questions of authority and the use of the power that goes along with that authority.
In verse 40, we have a leper showing a surprising amount of agency. Lepers are outcasts, socially and physically marginalized people. Their condition typically places them in a passive position, one emphasized in the requirement in Leviticus that they had to call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” anytime they were approached by another person. But Mark has this leper making the first move: He comes to Jesus, kneels before him and begs him. And even the nature of the begging is interesting. The wording isn’t a question, but rather a statement: “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
The leper’s assertion that Jesus can make him clean is problematic because it goes against the “official” process of someone being “made clean,”—a process which recognizes the special authority of the Jerusalem priesthood. They are the official arbiters of the purity codes and the repercussions—like social marginalization—that are associated with those codes. Coming to Jesus, asserting his authority to make him clean, the leper has placed Jesus, surreptitiously, in conflict with the legally recognized authorities. The fact that Jesus accepts the assertion and declares the leper clean, implicitly confirms Jesus’ own acceptance of the role and all it implies.
Jesus’ response is characterized by deep emotion, be it pity or, in other translations, anger. Is the pity (or anger) directed at the beggar? Is it directed at the system which marginalizes this man? Regardless, Jesus’ own action is to touch him. Now normally the action of touching a leper would render the one who touches him unclean too. Leprosy is a contagion that passes from the infected to the healthy through touch; not only the leprosy is transmitted but the social status is transferred too. But with Jesus the process works in reverse. Instead it is Jesus’ “clean” or “pure” status that trumps the leper’s “unclean,” “impure” status and returns him to physical health and social acceptance. Such a reversal undermines the accepted, culturally and religiously-conditioned understanding of the way things work.
Maybe there is a hint that Jesus understands the precarious position this exchange with the leper has put him in. Is it Jesus’ awareness of the possible issues this might raise that lead him to tell the leper to tell no one of it? To go and present himself to the legally mandated officials and obey the requirements of the law?
Interestingly enough, the leper ignores Jesus’ instructions and instead publicizes the whole matter broadly, even to the point that Jesus could no longer “enter a town openly.” Because Jesus’ actions have threatened the established authorities? Because the townspeople overwhelm him with their requests for healing? Which also implies their recognition of Jesus’ authority? Whatever the reason, what began as a small, private act has metamorphosed into something much larger. And potentially scandalous. All because of the audacity of one marginalized person. Not Jesus; rather, the leper. It is his actions which open and close the passage.