Mark 1:35-39

The Cleansing of a Leper
(Mark 1:40-45)

INTRODUCTION

The misery of a Jewish leper and his faith in the healing power of Jesus touched the heart of Jesus. He instantly healed the leper and asked him not to publicize it. Jesus asked him to show himself to the priest as proof of his recovery and to do the prescribed offerings according to the Law of Moses. The priest could get a clear indication that Jesus who healed the leper was the Messiah. Though Jesus performed many miracles, healing the Jewish leper was one of the three messianic miracles that Jesus did. In spite of the warning received, the healed leper publicized what Jesus did for him. So people rushed to meet Jesus. Though Jesus went to deserted places to avoid the crowd, people came in search of him. The works of mercy on behalf of God would lead people to God.

Bible Text

(Mark 1:40) A leper came to him [and kneeling down] begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” (41) Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” (42) The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. (43) Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. (44) Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” (45) The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

 Interpretation

(Mark 1:40) A leper came to him [and kneeling down] begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”

A leper came to him
Leprosy has been known and reported since 600 BC in countries like Egypt, China and India. It is also seen in many other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is believed that Israelites inherited the disease from Egypt while they were slaves there for 400 years. Researchers found leprosy bacteria among some mummies in Egypt. The leprosy causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness and would worsen slowly. Leprosy was misunderstood and feared throughout history as incurable and contagious. Its cause was unknown.

The first successful multi-drug treatment (MDT) for leprosy was developed only in the 1970s on the island of Malta. Leprosy is now known as caused by a bacteria that is not usually contagious and can be treated by antibiotics. It is more a disease of the nervous system that affects skin, limbs, and other parts of the body by the working of leprosy bacterium. It is spread only by constant contacts with the lepers.

The Biblical understanding of leprosy is wider than what we understand today as Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy). It also included a variety of infectious skin diseases. Cancer and elephantiasis were also considered as leprosy. It was considered as a contagious and dreadful disease in the Biblical times. Besides, it was also considered as a curse or punishment from God for the sins of the affected people. According to Deuteronomy 28:27 Moses said: “The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured.”

The lepers were considered as sinners and spiritually dead. So, they were declared unclean officially by priests after inspection and were expelled as outcasts from their family and society. Leviticus chapter 13 and 14 give details on the symptoms of leprosy and the procedures associated with handling the lepers. The main symptoms of a leper according to Leviticus 13:1-3 are: a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot on the skin that becomes like a leprous sore. The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the leper and “if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore.” The priest will pronounce such a person unclean.

If leprosy was confirmed, the person was not allowed to come to the Tabernacle and he had to live outside the regular community. “The garments of one afflicted with a scaly infection shall be rent and the hair disheveled, and the mustache covered. The individual shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’” (Lev. 13:45). Contact with a leper made one unclean and unable to attend any religious service. So, the public avoided any contact with lepers and they had to keep a distance from others (Leviticus 13:45-46). The places where lepers entered were considered defiled. Though they could enter in the synagogue for worship, they had an isolated place there. They had to enter together before the congregation entered and leave only after they left. If the lepers go beyond their allowed boundary anywhere, they were punished with forty whip stripes. Hence the lepers had spiritual, emotional, social, and economic misery.  

Leprosy is first mentioned in Bible as one of the three signs God gave to Moses out of the Burning Bush to convince the people of Israel that God sent Moses as their liberator. The power of Moses to heal leprosy was a miraculous authority God gave to Moses (Exodus 4:4-8). So also, Jesus the liberator of humanity from sin could also heal the lepers using his miraculous power.


The Old Testament records two instances of healing of lepers. One was Miriam, the sister of Moses who along with her brother Aaron spoke against Moses. As a result of this sin, Miriam was affected with leprosy and was healed after seven days by the intervention of Moses to God to heal her (Numbers 12:1-15). The other instance was the cure of Naaman, a pagan and army commander of the king of Aram, by Prophet Elisha (2 Kings 1:14). The others who were affected with leprosy and mentioned by name are Joab (2 Samuel 3:29), Gehazi (2 Kings 5:20-27), and King Uzziah ( 2 Chronicles 26:16-21). They got leprosy as  punishment from God for their sins and were not cured. Thus leprosy was associated with sin during the Old Testament times.

The Gospels record Jesus healing 11 lepers. Besides Jesus healing the leper who approached him at Capernaum for curing (Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-45, Luke 5:12-15), he also healed a team of ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). Jesus might have healed more lepers that are not recorded in the gospels. Jesus had given authority to his 12 apostles also to heal the lepers. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:8). These were signs of the apostles sharing the Messianic authority of Jesus like Moses received from God at the Burning Bush.

Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) give the name of another leper who invited Jesus for dinner in his house. This leper lived in his own house in Bethany and while Jesus was dining at his house a woman anointed the feet of Jesus. This leper was living in the community because his leprosy might have been a light one or he must have already been healed and still known as Simon the Leper. There is no mention of Jesus healing him in the gospels. He might have been one of the lepers Jesus might have healed previously. Some types of leprosy would cure while an instant cure of leprosy was a miracle as Jesus did.

kneeling down
Kneeling is an expression of humility, repentance or surrender to the mercy of another. According to Psalm 95:6-7, kneeling and bowing down are forms of worship before God who shepherd us. In Isaiah 45:23, the Lord says: “To me every knee shall bend; by me every tongue shall swear.” Daniel had a “custom of going home to kneel in prayer and give thanks to his God in the upper chamber three times a day, with the windows open toward Jerusalem.” (Daniel 6:11). When Simon Peter had a miraculous catch of fish before Jesus called him, “he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’” (Luke 5:8). According to Mathew 8:2 the leper worshipped Jesus and according to Luke 5:12, he fell with his face to the ground. Thus the leper expressed his devotion to Jesus as part of making his request.

begged him and said
The leper might have felt himself unworthy to stand in front of Jesus and ask for mercy because he was not legally allowed to come out in public and traditionally he was considered as unclean. He was aware that he was in front of a Holy One. However, he believed that only Jesus could cure him because he might have watched Jesus from a distance healing other sick people and listened to his words of authority. But so far, Jesus had not cured any other leper. Healing the leprosy was considered special and distinct from curing other diseases is clear from Jesus commissioning his disciples saying: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:8a). So, the leper was taking a chance with confidence in the mercy and healing power of Jesus.

If you wish
The leper subjected himself to the will of Jesus. He followed the spirit in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy will be done.”  This was the expression of his faith that Jesus could heal him. It was also an expression of his submission to the will of God. He was not worthy to demand anything.

you can make me clean.
Since leprosy was associated with sin and uncleanliness, healing of leprosy was termed as cleaning. Jesus also used the same expression when he authorized his disciples to perform miracles: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons.”  

This leper was full of leprosy (Luke 5:12) and so his condition was dreadful. His request to Jesus pleading to make him clean also means healing his soul by forgiving his sins that only God can do. The leper was not asking Jesus to plead to God for him but was asking Jesus to make him clean. So he had faith that Jesus was God incarnate and he could do with his own power.

(41) Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.”

Moved with pity
One Christian quality that we should learn from Jesus is a service from the heart. Jesus was taken up with compassion on the people who were suffering. Jesus himself underwent suffering according to his choice from the time of his birth until his death. He had a compassionate heart. That is why he had said: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29).

he stretched out his hand, touched him
Since lepers were considered unclean, touching them would make him guilty (Lev. 5:3). This would prevent also the spread of the disease in the community because constant contact with lepers could be contagious. However, Jesus dared to break the law, because as God he was the author of the Mosaic laws and he had the healing power that could flow from him to the leper rather than the sickness flowing from the leper to Jesus. Touching by Jesus that no one ever dared to do was also a compassionate approach of Jesus showing his love and care for the leper.

and said to him I do will it. Be made clean.
Jesus responded according to the request of the leper. Jesus affirmed that the leper was unclean and the holiness of Jesus cleaned him. He also expressed that he had the will to heal him. Jesus could never deny the pleading of a sinner or a sick person for help.

(42) The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.

immediately
Though “immediately” is a favorite use of Mark, Matthew (8:3) and Luke (5:13) also report the same event using the same word. So, the healing was not a natural one, but a miracle. The leper was cured at the moment Jesus answered the request of the leper.

he was made clean.
Jesus came to clean up this world full of sin and it consequences. Sickness and death are the results of sin. During his public ministry, he helped all who sought his assistance. Jesus continues his cleaning process through the sacraments in the church.

(43-44a) Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything”

The leper might have been awestruck with the instant healing he felt. He might have started screaming with joy and started proclaiming the greatness of Jesus. Since his time had not yet arrived, Jesus wanted to keep the miracle secret. Unlike the worldly leaders who crave for publicity when helping others, Jesus wanted to keep it private. So he dismissed the leper at once warning him strictly to keep quiet of the miraculous healing.

Why Jesus gave stern warning not to tell anyone of the miracle?

1. The leper was overjoyed and was calling attention of others for himself. He was not yet approved by the priest to be accepted by the community as a person free from leprosy.

2. The leper would be bringing attention to Jesus whose main purpose was to announce and establish the Kingdom of God. Though he did miracles to help the suffering people and to manifest that the was the Messiah, he did not encourage people to come to him only for miracles. So, the intention of Jesus was to attract the people to the Kingdom of God.

3. Healing the leper was one of the many messianic miracles. If the news of that miracle would reach the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, that would speed up the termination of Jesus’ life in this world. He had to continue preaching and train his disciples before his self-sacrifice.

(44b) … but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”

Jesus and the leper were sure of the healing. However, the leper had to get approval by the priest according to the prescriptions of the law of Moses so that he could be accepted into the community of Israelites because he was already pronounced as a leper. So, Jesus asked him to go to the priest for the purification rituals along with the offerings for cleansing. The formalities of purification after healing from leprosy is described in detail in Leviticus 14:1-32. Here, Jesus was respecting the Mosaic law.

There was another reason for Jesus sending the healed leper to the priests. Healing a leper was considered as one of the messianic miracles. So when the priest verified the miracle, he could get a sign that the messiah had arrived.

(45) The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

Though Jesus had warned the leper sternly not to publicize the matter, he could not keep quiet. Since he had leprosy all over his body, he had lost all his hope. When Jesus healed him he could not control his joy and gratitude. So he publicized the miracle everywhere and even abroad. He also wanted to convince everyone he met him that he was completely cured. He could not do that unless he revealed that it was by the miracle Jesus performed. So, the leper became an evangelist of Jesus even to distant areas.

Though Jesus performed many miracles at the house of Simon Peter, his miraculous healing of the leper caused more fame for him than any other miracles he performed so far. The instant healing of a person full of leprosy was considered as one of the messianic miracles. The ancient rabbis who lived before the birth of Christ used to classify miracles as two categories. There were miracles that anyone could perform provided if the person was empowered by the Holy Spirit. Then there were miracles that only the messiah could do known as messianic miracles. Jesus performed both general and three messianic miracles that made the chief priests of the time concerned about Jesus.

The messianic miracles were taken from Isaiah 35:5-6.  “Then the eyes of the blind shall see and the ears of the deaf be opened; Then the lame shall leap like a stag, and the mute tongue sing for joy.” One of the messianic miracles that Jesus performed was healing of the Jewish leper fulfilling the prophesy that the lame shall leap like a stag. Though there were instructions on inspecting a healed leper, the priests never got a chance to inspect them because no Jewish leper was healed since the Torah was completed. So, Jesus healing the leper was an indication that the messiah had arrived. That was why many people rushed to see Jesus to observe his actions and his teachings. That was the first step to find out if the person was the Messiah or not. However, the approval of the Messiah had to come from the Sanhedrin after a stage of observation and a second stage of interrogation. Jesus had undergone both. However, Sanhedrin did not approve him as their messiah.

The second messianic miracle of Jesus was the exorcism of a mute demon (Matthew 12:22-32). That was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy that “the mute tongue sing for joy.” Though some of the Jewish leaders also could do exorcism, they could not do it for mute demons because the exorcist could not communicate with the mute as part of the procedure for exorcism. However, Jesus could exorcise even the mute demon with his command. That was why, “All the crowd was astounded, and said, ‘Could this perhaps be the Son of David?’” (Mark 12:23). They had realized that the miracle was not of a general nature but a messianic one.

The third messianic miracle of Jesus was the healing of a man born blind (John 9:1-38). This was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy that “the eyes of the blind shall see” (Isaiah 35:5). Healing a person born blind was different from healing a person who became blind later in life.

The first messianic miracle led to the investigation of the messiahship of Jesus, the second messianic miracle led to the conclusion of the Jewish leaders that he was not the Messiah but was demon possessed. And the third one led to the decision that anyone believed in Jesus would be excommunicated.

Jesus had to withdraw from Capernaum to deserted places to avoid the rush of the crowd because people were seeking Jesus to see him and to get healing from him for themselves or for their dear ones. No one in Israel could do such miracles for them. Along with that the Jewish leaders also began to investigate on the Messiahship of Jesus with a negative attitude.

Message

1. Leprosy was Biblically believed to be a consequence of sin. It starts in a small scale and spreads all over the body and damages many organs. Similarly, the sin that starts in a small scale, if not prevented in time, will spread wide and would get out of control. We need to approach Jesus at the earliest for total healing. Otherwise our sins would lead us to eternal destruction.

2. The leper approached Jesus kneeling as an expression of his humility and total submission to the will of Jesus. Our approach to Jesus also shall be in the same manner.

3. We need to respect the will of God in our request of favors. That is what Jesus taught us in the “Lord’s prayer” and in his prayer at Gethsemane. The prayer of Jesus before his crucifixion was not granted. However, God sent him angels to empower him to endure his sufferings. We shall not be discouraged by the prayers that are not answered but submit to the will of God and gain strength to endure what we are supposed to bear in life.

4. The leper glorified Jesus by spreading the grace that he had received from him. Let us give witness to Jesus for all the favors we have received in our lives so that others also approach Jesus for their salvation.

5. Jesus was compassionate to all the suffering people who approached him. His service was from his heart. Like Jesus, let us also serve all from our heart.

6. The approach of Jesus in helping the leper without seeking any publicity for him must be a lesson for us. We should also extend the love and mercy of God to others in our lives without craving for recognition in this world.

7. Even though Jesus questioned some of the Rabbinic traditions and irrelevant rituals they promoted, he respected the Mosaic law and asked the leper to follow all the rituals for purification. Let us also respect the laws that Jesus has taught us and through his church.