[This is a sermon that ended up never being preached. I’d tweak quite a bit if preaching this now – the focus of this passage is less on Rome, though I think the gist still applies to the opening chapters of Mark in general.]
I want you to imagine what it was like to be a leper in Jesus’ day. Imagine that you wake up one morning, and as you put on your clothes and get ready for work, you notice a few ashy spots on your skin. You’re afraid, but you tell yourself it’s nothing and that they’ll go away. A week passes and there are a few more spots. You’ve been trying to hide as many as you can, but they’re becoming harder and harder to conceal. People are starting to give you dirty looks as they pass you on the street. You try to keep it together and just keep moving, hoping it’ll run its course and the worry will be over.
Another week passes, and the priest comes to visit you. He says, “I’m sorry. I’ve tried to overlook it, but it’s obvious to everyone and people are concerned. You have leprosy; you are unclean.” The priest then tells you what you already know – that you have to move outside of town, that you can no longer take part in the community festivals or the religious gatherings, and that you must shout out “unclean” whenever you do go about public places.
Years go by. Maybe decades. Even though you become used to the new routine, the pain of being “unclean,” of being ostracized, never goes away. Long before the disease takes your life, leprosy causes a social death – the shame and loneliness of being an outcast. You long not for your health as much as all the old relationships that you once enjoyed and took for granted.
This – or something very much like it – was the experience of the unnamed leper who approaches Jesus in today’s gospel reading. He has lived in a state of social death, ostracized, an outcast. But – he has heard rumors spreading through the many villages of Galilee like wildfire. Rumors of a prophet roaming the countryside, proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is near,” within earshot of Roman officials and their Jewish collaborators. Rumors of miraculous healings.
The leper, all but dead in the eyes of his community, sees a chance. This prophet Jesus is surely focused on bigger things – the kingdom of God – but maybe he’d be willing to spare a moment even for an unclean leper of no apparent consequence. He approaches Jesus and says, in v. 40, “If you will, you can make me clean.” The leper approaches with humility, kneeling to the ground, and confidence as well – his question is not if Jesus can heal him but if Jesus would help even a lowly, good-for-nothing leper. He’s heard the rumors of healings and he believes them.
Notice also that he doesn’t say, “you can heal me” or “you can take away this disease.” His concern is not with the disease so much as with being unclean, the social death. He died to the community when he was pronounced “unclean,” and he wants to be restored, to find new social life.
Jesus, in response to the man’s approach and request, is in v. 41 “moved by pity.” Some translations say here that Jesus is “angry,” which may be a little confusing. There is some debate among scholars as to which word the author of this gospel, Mark, wrote, with some translations favoring “pity” and others “angry,” but in my opinion, there is wider and earlier evidence for “moved by pity.” Jesus’ compassion is stirred by the toll this disease has taken on this man’s life.
Of course, Jesus is willing, and so Jesus heals the man by reaching out and touching him. Jesus often heals people through some sort of touch, but other times He heals at a distance, sometimes from miles away. Jesus did not have to touch this man in order to heal him, and Mark didn’t have to include this detail. Yet Mark not only includes this but emphasizes it – Jesus “stretched out His hand and touched him.” Sometimes you will hear people say that Jesus was breaking the law by touching an unclean man, but this is inaccurate: touching a leper would make him unclean, but being unclean isn’t necessarily breaking the law. And rather than Jesus becoming unclean by touching the leper, the leper becomes clean at Jesus’ holy touch.
This unnamed leper, who lives outside of town so that his disease won’t spread, who must shout “unclean” as he goes about in order to avoid even accidentally bumping into anyone else, finds healing in Jesus’ touch. This unnamed leper, who probably hasn’t been touched by anyone in months if not years, finds healing through physical contact. Can you think of a more meaningful way to reintroduce someone to society who has been told they cannot be touched?
It is, no doubt, a small gesture, and as meaningful as it may have been for the man, we could easily think: this is one leper and Jesus is, after all, preaching the kingdom of God. We may wonder if He shouldn’t be focusing on bigger things. He should be conscripting troops, hobnobbing with people of wealth and power, maneuvering for the revolution that He was promising by preaching another kingdom than Caesar’s kingdom. Why is Jesus stopping to heal a lowly, good-for-nothing leper when there are more pressing matters at hand? What kind of leader, what kind of Messiah, builds His kingdom with small but meaningful gestures? We can imagine the oppressed, over-taxed villagers around Jesus saying, “Drive those Roman imperial pigs into the sea, then heal all the lepers you want!”
But Jesus, as always, is horrible at managing the PR and logistics of a revolution, at least by our standards. One might at least expect Jesus to capitalize on this miraculous power, to send the healed and the witnesses out, proclaiming His miracles and the kingdom of God. Instead, in v. 43 Jesus sternly silences the man whom He cleansed and sends him away. He instructs the man to show himself to the priests and make the sacrificial offerings which the Law, the Torah, commands.
Jesus wants the healing, at least for now, to be kept a secret. But why? Doesn’t this go against what we’ve been taught as good, Bible-believing evangelicals? Why doesn’t Jesus seem to care more about “sharing Jesus?”
Jesus wants it kept a secret because He knows the people will misunderstand who He is and what He is about. The “Jesus” label can be stuck on anything; it is the real Jesus who is important. What good is “sharing Jesus” when the wrong “Jesus” is being shared?
Let me explain. The Jews at Jesus’ time longed for freedom – to throw off the chains of the Roman kingdom that ruled over them. They longed for freedom with an especial zeal because God had promised to establish His kingdom for them through a future leader, the Messiah. And God promised that the Messiah’s kingdom would encompass the whole world, and that it would usher in a time of peace among nations, healing of all diseases, and even the final defeat of death itself. The kingdom of God meant both freedom and blessing to an extent hardly imaginable; the kingdom of God would eliminate evil, the curses of sin; in short, the kingdom of God would bring life.
The Jews at Jesus’ time thought, understandably, that you cannot have the kingdom of God without the military defeat of this world’s kingdoms, specifically the Roman Empire. So when rumors that “the kingdom of God is near” spread around the villages, the images which floated along with them were of power, intrigue, and revolt – blood and iron. The people naturally hoped that this prophet may himself be the Messiah, the king and military leader who would lead the revolution and make all this happen.
Through Jesus, however, the life of the kingdom of God was breaking into the world without the military defeat of this world’s kingdoms. It was a revolution of a completely different sort; a revolution that did not seek to fight Rome with Rome’s weapons. In fact, it wasn’t a revolution against Rome at all; it was a revolution against a deeper enemy.
Since Jesus knew that He was preaching a different sort of revolution than what the people longed for, He wanted to keep some of His activity secret for now. He knew that if what He was preaching was true, conflict with the powers-that-be would be inevitable. The time would come for conflict – and, ultimately, death – but not yet. He wanted time to teach and live out what the kingdom of God was truly like, to teach and live out what it meant to live into the kingdom of God when the kingdoms of this world still seemed to be going strong.
But, as you can imagine, it’s hard to keep the kind of miracle that Jesus performed a secret, and the secret leaks out. The man who was cleansed disobeys and, v. 45, speaks openly, spreading the news to all and sundry. And all and sundry flock to Jesus, some hoping for healing, some hoping for a prophetic word, and some hoping for liberation and revolution.
Throughout the gospel of Mark, all of the people, including even Jesus’ disciples, misunderstood Jesus because what God was accomplishing through Jesus was so different than what they expected. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom which is established through blood and iron, at least not the blood of soldiers and enemies. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the peace, wholeness, and life of the eternal kingdom of God enters into this world even as the old kingdoms – Rome, Israel, America – go about their business as normal. Jesus has already won the victory, so there’s no point in the blood and iron of ordinary revolutions.
The fight is over, the victory is won; we’re just slow on the uptake.
To see what the kingdom of God is like, we cannot think of how kingdoms and nations normally operate. Instead we have to listen to Jesus and look at what He did. We get a good picture of what the kingdom of God is like by looking at the healing of this unnamed leper.
The kingdom of God is not “above” this leper in the sense of being some airy, fluffy, “spiritual” kingdom. After all, the kingdom of God shows itself in the healing of this leper’s physical body. Nor is the kingdom of God “above” this lowly, good-for-nothing leper, in the realm of wealth and power, big business and big politics. We completely miss the point if we only talk about how nice Jesus was to take a break from His kingdom work to heal this leper. This is not a break; this is the kingdom of God breaking into the world.
The kingdom of God comes through the raising up of the poor and lowly, through the reaching out to the outcast, through the healing of the sick, through the forgiving and reconciling of enemies, through even small but meaningful gestures like touching a leper to bring healing.
In short, the healing of the leper shows us that the kingdom of God is breaking into the world, in part, through Jesus’ small, meaningful gesture of touching a leper to heal him.
Jesus heals the leper with a touch, an act of intimate care. The gesture of touching this leper is meaningful for the man because, as a leper, physical contact with the clean and healthy was forbidden. Jesus’ touch was a symbol of the life being miraculously restored to this previously diseased, untouchable man. As such, the act was also a symbol of the redeeming, restoring life miraculously breaking into the whole world. Into the whole world, but starting small. Like a small seed that grows and spreads out into a big tree, like a little yeast which gets kneaded into a lump of dough.
The church witnesses to Jesus and His kingdom by proclaiming who Jesus is and what He has accomplished, and also by living like Jesus did. Sometimes this may be dramatic miracles and wonders, or loud protests of injustice, but for most of us, most of the time, our witness will be through small, meaningful gestures, gestures which symbolically point to the new life breaking into the world through Jesus and His church.
Two of my spiritual heroes are Chris and Phileena Hueurtz, the founders of Word Made Flesh, a missions organization. On the one hand, the work of Chris and Phileena and others at WMF is a pretty large gesture, moving from America and other wealthy countries to some of the poorest slums and most desperate red-light districts in the world, but don’t let that distract you. Their purpose is not to end global poverty or injustice, or any other impossibly big ideas, though they do speak out against these evils. Their purpose is, first of all, to be present in these slums, because being present opens up opportunities to be moved by pity and to make small, meaningful gestures like touching the untouchable to heal.
I’ll share one story. There is a WMF team in Bangkok’s red-light district. Although they cannot end human trafficking or child prostitution, the team members try to do what they can, first by being present and forming friendships. Sometimes they are able to help men, women, and children to get out. Most of the time, they cannot; they can only be a voice of love and concern and value.
One night, a team member saw a friend, a young boy, forced to work at a club in the red-light district. The boy was forced to dance outside the door in women’s clothing to attract customers inside. After the dance was over, humiliated and trapped, the boy began crying in a corner. The team member went over, put an arm around the boy, and cried too.
One could easily point out that this act has done nothing to solve the problem of the exploitation of children. One could argue that it hasn’t really accomplished anything at all – and there is some truth to it: the boy is still trapped. For those with eyes to see, however, the act reflects, in however small a way, the kingdom of God breaking into the world. To a boy told that his only worth is what he can earn this club, the act communicates that this is not right, that he is not alone in his suffering, and that his life has value beyond its market price.
God may be calling you across the world, across town, across the street, or to stay right where you are – I don’t presume to know. Wherever you are, wherever you may end up, opportunities to witness to the new life of God’s kingdom will appear. Don’t miss them because their small. Remember that the kingdom of God can break into this world even through small acts of mercy, even through small gestures of care and concern.
Go now and proclaim what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor.