REFLECTION: Mark 1:40-45, the audacity of the marginalized

jzheadshotby Johnny Zokovitch
Director of Communications, Pax Christi USA

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.

christ_healing_the_leperIn 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.

One response to “REFLECTION: Mark 1:40-45, the audacity of the marginalized

  1. Janice Flahiff

    We had a visiting priest last Sunday. His homily included a lot of misinformation about leprosy (aka Hanson’s disease). I decided not to say anything to him after Mass, for various reasons.
    For anyone interested, the CDC has a short overview at http://www.cdc.gov/leprosy/index.html.
    some factoids from the site
    –Since Hansen’s disease affects the nerves, loss of feeling or sensation can occur.When loss of sensation occurs, injuries (such as burns or fractures) may go unnoticed.
    –Most adults around the world, however, might face no risk at all. That’s because evidence shows that 95% of all adults are naturally unable to get the disease, even if they’re exposed to the bacteria that causes it.
    –More resources/sources of information at http://www.cdc.gov/leprosy/resources/index.html

    Realize there is some controversy if the leper in the reading had leprosy or some other skin disease. But the New Testament is not even partly a medical textbook! This reading is a spiritual lesson on social acceptance.

    On another note, there was (and still is!) a leper colony 10 miles up the road from my Peace Corps site in Liberia, West Africa. Many of them made carvings for a living. The colony was managed by an American women religious, and the colony was part of a Methodist mission. Did not get the impression these folks were outcasts, tho’. Came back with quite a few carvings, a few were “commissioned”, I described what I wanted. Prices very reasonable, so I did not bargain/haggle.