If You Choose, You Can Make Me Clean

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.  Mark 1:40-45.

At some point in our lives, most of us have experienced the pain, shame and loneliness of being an outsider.  In today’s Gospel reading, we find a man who knew that isolation intimately.  At that time, leprosy and most skin diseases were treated as a kind of plague.  Because of his illness, the community shunned him, and the Mosaic law justified and condoned their fears.  He had no right to approach Jesus, and Jesus had no business having anything to do with him, let alone touching him.

This man lived the life of walking ghost, or perhaps more accurately, a walking corpse. As a leper, this “unclean” man could not enter the Temple; he could not even enter any community other a community of other lepers.  Jesus enters into this ostracism by touching him and sharing in his uncleanness.

This man’s statement (“If you choose, you can make me clean”) carries a number of messages within it.  First, we can hear the pain in the voice of a man who simply doesn’t have the power to help himself.  We also hear a remarkable affirmation of faith in Jesus’ healing power.  And perhaps we also hear just a hint of a challenge to Jesus’ willingness to reach out to this man.

Jesus then tells the man something that God’s been trying to convey throughout the Old Testament:  I choose to heal you.  The text thus illustrates an important idea of divine freedom, reaching out to restore God’s creation.  As He did with Sarah and Abraham, as He did in the Exodus, and as he did on the Cross, God instinctively exercises His freedom to redeem our broken lives.  I think Jesus is telling us:  “This is what the kingdom looks like.”

Mark describes Jesus as “moved with pity”.  The phrase suggests a very deep emotional response, the sort of reaction that you feel deep within your gut.  It has also sometimes been translated as “moved with anger”.  I suspect that Jesus felt a certain anger at all those things which separate men from God, and perhaps at the lack of depth or vision in the priestly interpretation of the holiness code.  Perhaps Jesus was angry  with the very notion, embedded into this man by a life as a lonely outcast, that God would choose anything other than to heal him.

Regardless of whether Jesus was moved with pity or anger, we shouldn’t miss the important point:  His immediate response to this emotion was to reach out, to redeem and to restore.

Jesus then gives this man a strict warning not to tell anyone, but to simply present himself at the temple.  This instruction falls into what theologians call the “Messianic secret.”  In this passage and many others, Jesus often instructs those He heals (and even the demons he casts out) to keep quiet about what they’ve seen.  We get the impression that until the Resurrection (which would clearly reveal the meaning of Christ’s life) Jesus tried to avoid an incomplete understanding of his ministry.

Despite Jesus’ warning, the man begins to proclaim the news about Jesus.  This leads to a curious and ironic reversal.  While the man was originally kept from society, Jesus now finds himself an outsider because of his fame and the press of the crowds.  Cleansed of his disease, the man can now rejoin his town and family.  Having restored this man to his health and freedom,  Jesus could no longer travel freely and had to remain “out in the country” .  Jesus therefore becomes an outsider himself, no longer able to go to the towns and villages.  Even Jesus finds himself marginalized, and thus those who follow him should not be surprised when it happens to us, too.

In one sense, this passage is about risk.  Jesus took a tremendous risk in healing this man, risking contamination.  Jesus also took a risk in asking for this man’s assurance of secrecy, risking his own isolation.  By subjecting Himself to human history and sin, Jesus risked our judgment and condemnation.  In fact, the Gospels point to the final risk of the Incarnation, the Cross.

I think today’s Gospel reading teaches us another important lesson.  Mark illustrates one of the core tenets of the Christian faith:  ours is religion for the last kids picked for dodge ball, the kids no one wants to dance with, and those who always get their hearts broken.  We shouldn’t read this as a story about something that happened once, a long time ago; Jesus still choses to make us clean, to restore us and heal us.  Following Jesus is all about second chances.  It was for this man in today’s Gospel.  And it is for you and me, too.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis

© 2012 James R. Dennis

21 responses to “If You Choose, You Can Make Me Clean

  1. Jesus tried to keep people silent because He wanted to be able to travel freely and preach the gospel. He knew He had a short time to finish His mission. (Luke 4:43)

    I love your dramatic final paragraph, after a beautiful lesson, especially these words flying like an arrow to the heart: “ours is religion for the last kids picked for dodge ball, the kids no one wants to dance with, and those who always get their hearts broken.”

    Your teaching and writing are beautiful. You are quite gifted.

    • Thank you so much Olive. You’re very kind.

      I think Christianity is at its best and most authentic when it remembers that it is a religion that speaks to the brokenhearted.

      Have a wonderful Sabbath,

      Br. James

  2. My favorite translation of the interaction between Jesus and the leper is the old Jerusalem Bible from the 1960s. Jesus says to the leper, “Of course, I want to [heal you].” Of course, I do. The first time I read this, at 18, I gained and inkling of God’s desire for my happiness.

    • Charles,

      I think that’s right, this notion of God wanting our happiness, wanting our return. Thanks for you thoughts.

      Pax et bonum,

      Br. James

  3. A beautiful message for all of us who find ourselves on the outside, only to meet Jesus, there with us now and always, come to heal and to kindle the fire of hope in the gloom of isolation.

    Bless you for a truly gracious message!

    • My dear brother,

      I think “on the outside” is the only place we’ll ever meet him. As always, thank you for your support, your friendship, and your patience with me.

      God’s great peace on you and your house,

      Br. James

  4. There are a number of things that I probably would like to add, but probably the more significant that I find in this account Jesus makes himself ritually unclean (by touching the leper) in order to provide healing and wholeness to another. How often do I, as follower of Jesus, place myself in the position of being ‘unclean’ in the eyes of my community or my church, in order for another to be healed and restored? I find that bit a real challenge!

    • Rachel,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts. Yes, placing ourselves in the position of being “unclean” is sharing in the risk of the Cross with Jesus. You’re exactly right: it’s a real challenge.

      Pax Christi,

      Br. James

  5. Can the wisdom of your writing and understanding of God’s love get any further than this? Thank you for this truthful commentary. Who are the real lepers in our communities? I would say it is not the outsiders or the outcasts.

    • My dear Constantina,

      I think there are plenty of “lepers” who still need that healing touch. Perhaps the mentally ill, perhaps those suffering from addiction, the homeless, or simply those whose hearts have been broken. Our commitment to Christ will never exceed our commitment to them.

      God’s peace,

      Br. James

  6. Reblogged this on apocalypseicons.

  7. This is true my friend and commitment is the key word here. At the very least we can always consider and think about them – this is from one of the psalms. But what I meant in my earlier post was following on from your astute observation that those who are left on the outside can and often have a real experience of Christ – so in this respect, they are the fortunate ones. Maybe, then, we should feel some compassion for those who seem to have it all in a worldly sense but do not yet know or understand how brokenness leads us to the reality of God’s truth and love. So I guess I am turning the concept of leper on its head and saying the real lepers are those who are like the Pharisees etc. who felt they knew and understood God’s Laws and precepts because of their learning and position in society.

    • I think that’s true, Constantina, and it’s a very real (and too often) of Christ’s regular assurance that the first will be last and the last will be first. It’s a thread that runs throughout the Beatitudes. Jesus seems to teach that there is a wisdom available to the disenfrangized that’s not available to those within the circle of wealth and power.

      God watch over thee and me,

      Br. James

  8. I saw a parallel in the OT reading of Naaman. Even when GOd wishes to make us clean/whole/well it is still his prerogative as to the means and methods. I think the leper’s prayer also included a willingness to be subject. When we ask, we seem more like Naaman not wanting to go through God’s way of bringing it about. Like him, we sometimes need the encouragement of community to follow through.

    • Father,

      Yes, I think the parallel/contrast is clearly there with the reading from 2 Kings 5. The story of Naaman is so very rich, and offers us a good deal of insight into our reluctance to allow for the unexpected work of the Lord.

      Pax et bonum,

      Br. James

  9. After being the last one chosen so many times is a scarring experience and I think it makes it very difficult for many of us to really believe that God would actually choose use. Perhaps that is why this theme appears in so many stories surrounding Jesus. It is truly a leap of faith, in many ways, to believe that out of all those who are somehow ‘more’, He would actually choose me.

    Like many others, I make that leap better on some days than on others.


    • Grace,

      As one of the kids who was chosen last, I share some of those scars. Maybe those scars are our “leprosy”, and the source of our healing remains the same. And yes, some days, we leap better than others.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts,

      Br. James

  10. Br. James,
    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

    I thought I would share a beautiful synchronicity of the Spirit with you that occurred for me this past Sunday. Just as I getting ready to speak on this passage, our choir sang a version of “Yes, Jesus loves me.” When they got to the words “the Bible tells me so”, it dawned on me that both Namaan and the unnamed Leper found their heart’s desire through accidentally being a part of storied communities; Namaan by virtue of his soldier capturing an Israelite woman, the unnamed leper by hearing the rumours of what Jesus was doing. I saw in this three wonderful things: the importance of being connected to a storied community, the blessing that we can bring by sharing our stories (the unnamed servant girl, the stories of Jesus that preceded his arrival) and the awesome grace of God that reaches out to connect to us in surprising ways in order to bring about what we need most even when are not connected or disconnected.


    • Norm,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts. I think you’re exactly right about the importance of story (narrative) in our spiritual lives. Through our stories (Holy Scripture), song, sacrament and tradition we find the intersection with the Holy, with a God who is always reaching out to heal the broken places in His world. Again, I much appreciate your insight.

      Br. James

  11. Funny, I just wrote a post on the OT story of Jacob, which I ended on a very similar note…except in my case it involved kids getting picked last for kickball (i.e. me in the 5th grade). What strikes me is how God being the God of the marginalized is a cross-cutting theme, uniting Old and New Testaments.

    • Ben,

      I think you’re precisely right about the notion of the uniting theme of god reaching to those on the edges. He sees more than we do. Thank you for your thoughts.

      Pax, Br. James

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