The gentle touch - Mark 1:40-45

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 19th April 2015.

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There is the story of an English Vicar who was preaching by interpretation in India. His first sentence went something like this: ‘The beatific familiarity of this chapter, traditionally appointed for Quinquagesima, must not cause us to neglect its profundity.’ This was translated as follows: ‘So far the speaker has not said anything worth remembering. When he does, I’ll let you know.’


Well, that criticism can’t be laid at the door of Mark in writing his Gospel. Every event recorded, every word spoken, every emotion described is worth remembering, because they are all deeply significant. And that is certainly the case as we come to this remarkable incident of the healing of the leper.


When Mark says, ‘A leper came to Jesus’, he understates one of the most provocative and offensive encounters ever recorded in the Gospels.


We see this first of all in the desperation and the doubt, v40, ‘A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”’


The desperation is seen in the description of the man’s condition and the man’s cry.


He is described as having ‘leprosy’. Now this is a term which covers  a wide range of skin diseases and not necessarily what today we call ‘leprosy’, which is Hansen’s disease whereby the outer extremities of the body become numb and fingers and toes can drop off. But that it wasn’t this particular expression shouldn’t blind us to the dreadful nature of what it was.


In Leviticus 13-14, there the definition of leprosy included, boils, burns, itches, ringworm and scalp conditions. The Scribes at around the time of Jesus counted as many as 72 different afflictions that were defined as leprosy. And what was to happen to these folk? This is what Leviticus 13 says should happen, ‘The Person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.’ You see, this is not just a description, it is a sentence. While the purpose of the directive was to protect the rest of the community from contagion, the effect on the afflicted went way beyond the effect of the disease itself, because the sentence imposed robbed them of their name, their occupation, their habits, their family, their fellowship and their worship. Can you imagine that happening to you? The physical manifestations were bad enough, leading one writer to translate what the ancient writers described of leprosy as ‘a repulsive, scaly skin disease.’[1] But the social and spiritual ramifications were devastating. You know it was so bad that it prompted various rabbis to describe lepers as ‘the living dead’, not least because that is what they often looked like- walking corpses, with white skin hanging off their faces and arms- zombies. Some rabbis went so far as to say that to cure a leper was as difficult as raising the dead.


You see, all the effects of leprosy in terms of estrangement- being cut off from relationships: relationships with other people and a relationship with God, is what physical death signifies. That was the curse with which Adam was threatened do you remember? ‘The day you eat of the fruit of the tree you shall surely die’ (Gn. 2:17). And here we have those still walking and breathing but who, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, might as well be dead, because all that is dear to life and which gives meaning to life- loving relationships- are missing. And so within the wider sweep of Scripture leprosy takes on a spiritual significance in that it is a physical condition which represents a deeper spiritual condition- the disease of sin leading to severed relationships, loneliness, isolation and precious little hope. Other diseases Jesus healed, but leprosy had to be cleansed. Did you notice that there are four references to cleansing in just six verses? Leprosy disfigures the body just as sin disfigures the soul.


Now of course this means that from one point of view, the condition in which we are all born into this world is that of a leper, by nature we are turned away from our Maker, preferring to go our own way without him, and as we do so we end up disfiguring ourselves and scarring others. We are defiled. And this is no respecter of persons. Think, for example, of the international comic actor Peter Sellers, star of the lucrative and side-splitting ‘Pink Panther’ movies. He lived a glamorous and yet tormented, selfish life. His friend and fellow ‘Goon’, Spike Milligan, said this of Sellers, ‘To try to know him was like going to a desert island. He’s that lonely. He’s desperate to be happy, successful, wanted, happily married. He’s desperate not to destroy his past. It’s all desperation. He is desperation.’


Well, the man in our story was desperate too and in his desperation he throws all caution to the wind and comes to Jesus begging, begging mind you- for Jesus to cleanse him. You can almost hear the desperation in his voice; ‘If you are willing you can make me clean.’ But as well as desperation in what he says, there is also doubt. Not doubt concerning Jesus’ ability to cleanse, but his willingness.


Now here we have the first two offensive and provocative things in the story. That the leper came near to Jesus and the crowd at all was staggeringly offensive. Lepers were required to stand at a distance of 50 paces and here he is, bold as brass, kneeling right in front of Jesus, right at his feet. The contagious nature of this disease- spiritually and socially speaking- was such that if a leper dared enter a house, that house remained out of bounds until it was cleansed; or even if a leper stood under a tree, anyone else who passed under it was considered polluted and ritually unclean. So then, what do you think this man is doing to Jesus, kneeling in front of him? He is polluting him, rendering Jesus a spiritual outcast. When Jesus saw this man running to him, he should have started running in the other direction. That’s what people would have expected. But he didn’t. That in itself tells us that Jesus is someone very special indeed.


The second provocation which Jesus will respond to in a moment is what the man said, ‘If you are willing’. In the previous few verses we have been told that Jesus had been travelling around the Judean countryside preaching the Gospel, healing and casting out demons. And the news of that would have spread like wildfire. And so having heard of these stories, this man takes the biggest risk of his life and makes his way to Jesus, being fully aware that the usual practice of any rabbi on seeing a leper was to pick up stones-large stones mind you- to throw at him. So understandably- (we might think) he has every reason to believe Jesus has the ability to cleanse- after all, everyone is talking about it, - but we might also sympathise with his doubt- ‘will Jesus be willing?’


Let’s just pause there for a moment. Now it may well be that you are here this morning and the one big question in your mind is this: will God accept me? You already feel battered and bruised from life’s rejections-parents who have failed you, a spouse who has left you, children who verbally abuse you, an employer who does not appreciate you. What’s more, you are only too aware of the moral failures in your own life, of that sin which seems to hold you in its grip and makes your life a misery. And so, understandably you wonder:  is there anyone to whom you can turn, who will understand, who will listen, who will help? Well, yes there is, and his name is Jesus.


And so we come to the deliverance and the directive, v41ff, ‘Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. 43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: 44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” 45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.’


This is where we come to the third provocative item- Jesus emotional response to the man. The Old NIV, the ESV, RSV, translate 41, as ‘Jesus moved with pity’- touched him. This is because pretty well all the later manuscripts have a word which means ‘pity’ or ‘compassion’ that appears as a footnote in your Bible. But there are a few earlier manuscripts which have the word, translated in our more recent NIV, as ‘indignant’.  In fact that might be too weak, it could be rendered ‘angry’. Which is correct? Well, you can understand a scribe translating Mark’s gospel in order to make copies, reading the word ‘Jesus was angry’ and thinking to himself, ‘This doesn’t sound like Jesus to me’, and swops the word ‘anger’ for the word ‘compassion’. After all it seems to make sense- compassion usually leads to healing, not anger. But, why should someone have written down ‘anger’ in the first place, if it were such a problem? The answer is because that is what Mark originally wrote. However, difficult it might be for us to get our heads around, this is what the apostle Peter, who stood behind Mark’s writing, saw in Jesus’ facial expression and heard in the tone of his voice- he really was angry. You can’t mistake something like that. So, the new NIV is right, Jesus was indignant or angry. But the question is: angry about what? Well, with what the man had just said, ‘If you are willing’. Questioning Jesus willingness was far more upsetting than if the man had questioned his ability. Elsewhere we read of Jesus correcting people for their lack of faith in his powers, but that is not what is going on here; it is lack of faith in his person that is the issue- and that is too much to take.


Imagine the situation. A father has a sick son who is very sick. He loves him desperately, and he knows that the cure he needs can’t be had in this country- it can only be gained in Geneva and it is going to cost a lot of money- a lot of money- all his life’s saving, a second mortgage on the house- the lot. Now the father may look into the eyes of his desperate child when he tells him of the cure and understand if his son were to say to him, ‘Yes Dad, but can you really afford it?’ That is: have you the ability? But if the boy were to say to him, ‘Yes Dad, but do you really want to?’ Have you the motivation? How is the Dad going to take that? Hurt? Well, yes. But would there not be just some room for annoyance- even righteous anger, when especially the father has done nothing else but show that would give up everything for his boy. Who does the son think he is to question him like this? Well, here throughout the Gospel, Jesus by his works and words has been showing that as God’s appointed ruler he is completely out and out for the well being of others. There isn’t a selfish bone in his body. So how can this man doubt his willingness? He is so willing to cleanse that the contrary suggestion provokes his righteous anger.


More than that, Jesus is the Divine ruler, and so to throw his kindness back into his face by casting doubts on his goodness is an affront to God. To question the incarnate Christ’s willingness to cleanse as if he were just like any other run of the mill rabbi who throws stones at helpless beggars, itself beggars belief. That is not what he is like! And yet, how common it is to question God’s goodness- even as Christians. You do it. I do it, if only for a moment. Now we have just celebrated Good Friday and Easter, and that should leave no room in our minds for questioning God’s goodness. Dr J I Packer, in his classic ‘Knowing God’ puts the thought like this: ‘We cannot know what Calvary cost the Father, any more than we can know what Jesus felt as he tasted the penalty due to our sins….Yet, we can say this: that if the measure of love is what it gives, then there never was such love as God showed to sinners at Calvary, nor will any subsequent love-gift to us cost God so much.’[2] Do you believe that?


And notice what Jesus does next- he doesn’t talk with the man to defend wounded emotions, he touches the man to demonstrate divine love – which is the next provocative thing. Doesn’t Jesus realise what he has just done? Sure, he may come from Hicksville up in Galilee, but surely even those northerners know you don’t touch lepers, not only because of the risk of infection yourself, but because of the guarantee of spiritual and social alienation. To touch a leper means you will be treated like a leper. Is that what Jesus wants- to lose all his friends and fellowship? No. What Jesus wants is for this man to get well. And he will do whatever it takes to ensure it. And the result is instantaneous, ‘Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.’ All the cause of his loneliness and estrangement- his defilement was gone, but the process of his reintegration into society had yet to be started, hence the directive, ‘Jesus sent him away (more or less ‘pushed’ him away- a strong word is used) at once with a strong warning (a paraphrase would be ‘still holding in his emotion’): 44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Here the testimony or ‘proof’ is not for the priest, but the certificate given by the priest to be shown to other people.[3]


So there are strong feelings being stirred in Jesus by this man, there is no doubt about that. When God confronts us in our sin and need and is met with doubt- he is not blasé -he is bothered, because love does bother-thankfully so. When we meet the living God in Christ, we are not to think he won’t change us-he will, and the whole of his being is committed to that change. And he wants to make sure that it is thorough, hence, this command literally to get a clean bill of health from the priest.


You see, this man would have had a reputation as a leper, his condition more or less defined him- this is who he was. And so in order for his status to change, for him to be fully reintegrated into normal life, he had to have official proof. For him to have gone around with some ‘cock and bull’ story about a rabbi from Galilee cleansing him with a touch would have been as believable as John Prescott claiming to have won the most articulate man of the year award. He needed more than his own say-so before he was going to be let anywhere near a market stall- he needed documentary proof and only the priest was authorised to provide that.


Now please note that Jesus didn’t say to the man that he must never tell anybody, but rather, that so pressing is the need to get this certificate of cleansing that he mustn’t even stop for a moment to tell people about what’s happened-that is the order and sense of the command. Now do you see how much Jesus is concerned about the man? Sure, he is well, and so he can take a bath again in the stream; he can hold his own little daughter he has not seen in years, he can hug his wife- but all of those things are put into jeopardy if he doesn’t get the documentary proof that he is fit to be back in the land of the living. Jesus knows best and will do whatever he has to do for our greater good- and he is passionate about it! The question is: Do you believe it? So the next time Jesus calls you to do something you might be tempted to question; the next time he gives from the Bible a clear position to take which might not be PC and which might cause you some measure of unpopularity- remember this story and do something about it.


But the man is so taken by what happens that he neglects Jesus’ directive and goes out proclaiming to anyone and everyone- and who can blame him? The problem is not with the proclamation as such, but that it was premature. And when we fail to heed what Jesus says, someone picks up the tab as we see here, with the result is that Jesus’ ministry is hampered - ‘he could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside the lonely places.’ Nonetheless, ‘People still came to him from everywhere’ and so the ministry goes on. The Word of the Gospel going out cannot be stopped, even by our foolishness.


Now here’s the thing: If leprosy in the Gospels in some way pictures the effects of sin, giving rise to a ‘living death’, then what we see here is also a picture of the way Jesus deals with sin in order to restore life.


Just think about it.


First, there is the transfer of purity. Remember that lepers were kept at arms length because they brought contamination and defilement to a community- cutting them off from the worship and rituals which brought them close to God. But here we see the reverse. When Jesus touches the leper, Jesus isn’t polluted, rather, the man is made pure. There is a transfer of Christ’s goodness to the man, so that the flesh hanging from his body becomes transformed so that it is like smooth silk to the touch. The one who was in effect dead, is brought to life. All because of contact with Jesus. And so it is with us. The only way the contagion of sin which mars our life, cuts us off from God and ruins relationships can be dealt with effectively is by being connected to Jesus, or ‘united with Christ’ as the apostle Paul puts it. Now you may have scabs on your soul which run deep; you may have done things which you would not want your nearest and dearest ever to know because of the shame and hurt it would cause. In short- deep down, you feel a spiritual leper. But don’t you see, you don’t have to remain like that- not if you come to Christ, admit your need, trust that he is not only able but willing, very willing to meet with you and embrace you. If you have not done that already, why not do so this morning before you leave this place?


But, secondly there is a trading of places. Did you spot it? The story begins with Jesus being on the inside and the leper on the outside. The story ends with Jesus ‘outside in the lonely places’ and the leper back on the inside of society. Isn’t that a picture of what our sin ultimately cost Jesus? He is cast outside the city walls onto the local rubbish tip called Golgotha; but more than that he is cast out into outer darkness, as bearing away our sin on the cross he cries ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ He trades our place you see. And as we come to him, we take his place, as clothed in his purity, we become children of the King- all because of that ‘gentle touch.’
















[1] Hulse, ‘Nature’, 100

[2] p 300

[3] Gk  Autois is a dative of indirect object. Coupled with alla (but) as a contrast between the two commands, this indicated that Jesus wishes the man to have official confirmation of his cleansing before he starts talking.

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