I was studying Mark 1:40-45 when it struck me: this is a weird story. I was having a really hard time relating to it and the more I learned about the background the stranger it seemed.
If you haven’t read Mark 1:40-45, it is about a man with leprosy who comes to Jesus, falls at his feet and says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
There are lots of things in this story that were hard to get my head around. The first was: Why does the man want to be “clean”? Isn’t the issue that he needs to be cured of his illness?
So I read about what it was like for a Jew in the first century to have leprosy while living under Mosaic law. It wasn’t fun and there was no known cure.
Leprosy under Mosaic law wasn’t just considered a skin disease; it affected everything. If you had leprosy, you were “unclean.” Not in the sense that you needed to take a shower or use more soap when you washed their hands. Unclean in an inner sense that separated you from God and other people.
If you were unclean because of leprosy, people refused to be around you. If you even bumped into them or they touched something that had come in contact with you, they’d become unclean, too. In the inner sense. People with leprosy had to live outside the town and when they did get near someone else they had to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn the other person to stay away.
Uncleanness was catching.
It’s hard for me to imagine what this man lost on the day he was diagnosed with leprosy.
The freedom to live in his own home with his family.
The freedom to walk the streets normally and go about his business.
The ability to go to the temple to worship God.
The feeling of another human being touching him.
So then I got to thinking: If I were this man, what would I have been thinking and feeling? At first, I would probably have been mad. I would have talked about how ridiculous the whole thing was and how stupid.
Then the shock would have set in. To protect my family, I would have to leave them.
As time went by, the fact that no one wanted to come near me or touch me would probably have started to change my view of myself. There’s a reason why, even today, when we think people are avoiding us we say, “I feel like I have leprosy!”
This man really did.
The more I began to understand the situation and what his life was like the more radical what the man did began to seem to me.
He went to Jesus. Right up to him. So close that Jesus could reach out and touch him if he wanted. That’s a whole lot closer than lepers were supposed to get to people.
Why would this man take the risk? After all, most people would have run him off if he tried to come that close.
So Why did he do it?
Because he believed Jesus could do what no one else could do. He was confident that Jesus could make him clean.
That’s a lot of faith considering that the rabbis said that it was easier to bring a dead person back to life than to cure leprosy.
Jesus would end up doing both.
The man was right. Jesus could make him clean. And Jesus did. But Jesus did something else.
Jesus reached out his hand and intentionally touched the man with leprosy. While the man still had leprosy. While he was still unclean.
Why would Jesus do that? He healed other people without touching them. He healed some people without even being near them. Why does he touch this guy of all people? A person no one else would touch?
I suspect it was because Jesus knew the man needed to be healed of more than just a skin disease.
Jesus is like that. He doesn’t just heal the thing we think is broken…he heals all the things that are broken. Sometimes what we think is broken isn’t even the worst thing.
So after a little reading and a little thinking, this account began to make a lot more sense to me. I started to see the beauty of it and to learn a lot more about Jesus.
But I was left with a problem. I still couldn’t see how it related to my life. Did it have any relevance? At first glance, it didn’t appear to. I don’t have leprosy.
Or do I?
Maybe my “disease” doesn’t show up as lesions on my skin. Maybe what separates me from God and from other people manifests as selfishness, control issues, greed, hatred, and just plain wanting to do what I want to do.
It’s called sin.
Sin, at its core, is simply wanting to run our own lives. To be in charge. To be God.
Sin cuts us off from God and from others just as effectively as leprosy did in the first century…actually more so.
We all have “leprosy” in this sense, if we stop to be honest with ourselves. We are all unclean. Not because of a physical condition but because of a spiritual one.
Paul says in Romans 3:23, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”
We. All. Notice Paul included himself…and everyone else.
Given that, this account of a man with leprosy began to seem more applicable to me than I had first thought. What then could I learn from this man?
First, he didn’t wait around until he got himself cleaned up and fixed up before he approached Jesus. He was smart. He realized that wasn’t going to happen. Maybe the first week or two he had hoped that the skin lesions would just go away. But they didn’t and he knew he couldn’t make them go away. So the man honestly and objectively assessed his situation and realized he needed help. Good start.
The second thing he did was to take the information he had heard about Jesus and apply it to his situation. We aren’t told that Jesus had healed anyone with leprosy before this, but he had healed lots of other diseases. Word was spreading far and wide about him. People recognized that Jesus had a unique authority and power unlike anyone they had ever seen. The man probably listened from a distance as others talked about Jesus and he came to the conclusion that Jesus could make him clean.
Then, lastly, he acted on that belief. That’s called faith.
Faith isn’t just believing certain facts in our heads. Faith is believing things and then living our lives, deciding on our course of action, making our choices, based on those things.
The man assessed his situation honestly, considered the implications of what he had learned about Jesus and then acted on his conclusions.
He went to Jesus.
That got me thinking: How would that work in my life? First I could admit that I have a kind of “leprosy,” too. I could also recognize that I can’t fix myself. Then I could act on the information I have about Jesus and make my choices based on it.
I could go to Jesus. With my leprosy showing.
When the man with leprosy went to Jesus, Jesus did make him clean. He also touched him while he was still unclean.
The same is true for you and me. As we stand there admitting to Jesus that we’re messed up beyond our power to fix, he will touch us.
In fact, he already has.
Romans 5:8 says, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”
In a very real sense, that was the God of the universe touching you and me while we were still unclean.
Before we had our act together and were “nice” people, Jesus came to this earth and died in our place. Actually, for some of us, he had to come because we were “nice” people and thought we were doing an excellent job of running our lives on our own.
Leprosy can take many forms.
I wonder if we could think of what happened on the cross as Jesus becoming a leper so we could become clean. In The Message 1 Corinthians 5:21 reads, “God put the wrong on [Christ] who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.”
Jesus switched places with us.
At this very moment, you might feel like a leper. Unclean.
Honestly, that’s a good thing if it motivates you to go to Jesus.
But the temptation for many of us is to think, “This doesn’t apply to me.”
That’s what I thought at first. After all, I became a follower of Jesus a while back. I’ve been made clean already.
Well, yes and no.
Yes, I was made clean and forgiven when I took Jesus up on his offer to switch places with me. But I also have lingering traces of my “leprosy.” I sometimes want to run my own life. Do my own thing. Be in charge. OK, perhaps more than just “sometimes.”
1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.” Perhaps another way to say that would be that all of us, even those of us who are followers of Jesus, need to admit that we are lepers or at least have traces of leprosy in us. We need to admit that that we aren’t good enough; no matter how “nice” we are. We need to recognize that we need what only Jesus can do for us.
How do we do that? The next verse in 1 John explains: “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” (1 John 1:9)
Cleanse. There’s that word again.
So as I look back over this account of the interaction between the man and Jesus, I realize it makes a lot more sense than I thought, and has more a lot more implications than I realized.
Oh, and there’s one more thing I noticed.
When the man comes to Jesus, he falls at his feet.
That seems like a good place to start.
Download a free DIY Bible Study Guide for Mark 1:40-45 and discover more.
Photo credit: © Lisa F. Young | Dreamstime.com