At first glance today’s story is another healing miracle. Jesus demonstrates his love, compassion and power and shows that he is the Son of God through his healing. But more, so much more is going on here.
First we have the location of the miracle. Jesus’ first recorded healing in St Mark was in the synagogue in Capernaum. We looked at this a couple of weeks ago when Jesus healed the man with an unclean spirit. Then the Gospel story moves on to another healing – this time in the home of Peter’s mother-in-law who was healed before ministering to Jesus and his friends. Now we’re out in the open, in the public space – possibly beyond the walls and gates of the town, where all could see. We’ve gone from the religious, to the private to the public. The Gospel is seeping out, pushing at the edges and expanding at breakneck speed in Mark’s Gospel. However, for this miracle, it needs to be in the public because something else is going on.
The leper who comes to Jesus is living in a terrible conundrum. He has been bought up as a Jew, he knows he has to pray each day, to attend Synagogue, to offer sacrifice at the Temple yet he can’t do any of these things as his illness makes him ritually, and socially, unclean.
The Bible uses the word Leprosy but means something different to what we normally mean by this. What we call Leprosy is correctly called Hansen’s Disease which is a chronic disease effecting peripheral nerves – people loose fingers, toes, the lining of their nose. The Biblical writers had something else in mind – what we’d now call ‘surface afflictions’ like psoriasis, eczema and fungal infections. Leviticus 13 lists conditions that made their sufferer ritually unclean. Leviticus 14 describes rituals and sacrifices that purified a person after recovery and there were offerings for restoration to the community. These were elaborate, and it is probably they were costly. More the Law in Leviticus also proscribed how people should behave who suffered from the disease. In Leviticus 13:45 we read that lepers had to wear torn clothes, let their hair hang lose and cry out ‘Unclean, unclean!’ if anyone approached them. They were to live ‘outside the camp’ ie away from their communities. One presumes this was about more than ritual uncleanliness but also about fear of infection. Touching a diseased person violated purity rules and, in today’s Gospel, would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. In our story this morning the man approached Jesus which is clearly against the spirit of the Old Testament laws which demand that people with the disease keep away from those without it.
The terrible predicament that this man found himself in meant he couldn’t see his family, and had to live away from his friends relying, presumably, on charity for food as he couldn’t work. Bought up to pray alone and with others he could do neither due to his uncleanliness and in the age before modern medicine there was virtually no hope of a cure.
Mark uses an interesting Greek word which is difficult to translate into English when he describes Jesus’ response to this man. The word, splanchnizomai. Sometimes it is rendered “moved with compassion” or “moved with pity” or “feeling sorry for him” yet the Greek means more than these things. The word has connotations of being compelled. Jesus was moved, in his body and heart with compassion and compelled to do something. It’s as if he had no choice but to act, move beyond the Law and do something – in this case touch and heal. By doing so Jesus broke the social conventions and taboos – he may even have broken the Law by this touch.
And then there is the odd ending of the passage where Jesus – sternly – tells the man not to tell others of his healing but to present himself to the priest and make the ritual offerings. Doing this, of course, would mean that the man was accepted back into the community. But the man is moved with uncontainable joy – much as Jesus was moved with uncontainable compassion – to tell others of what God had done for him. The healed man couldn’t accept the Law and its restrictions (at least not right away) and becomes a preacher telling others of what God had done for him.
Throughout Mark’s Gospel Jesus is often telling people to keep quiet to what he had done for them. I wonder if he wanted people to respond to his message not his miracles or if he was stepping back, a bit, from the inevitable confrontation with the authorities that would follow. Either way this man can’t contain his joy.
In our Western culture we seem very embarrassed to talk about religion which is very different to Africa and Asia where it’s perfectly fine to chat about this topic. My African, Pakistani and Iranian friends find it very odd that we don’t talk about faith here and I often find I have more in-depth conversations about God with them than I do with Western friends – Christian and non-Christian. Jesus’ context was more like that of my Asian and African friends but there is a challenge for us to get faith back into the public sphere. We’re fine talking about it in church – and Jesus’ first miracle was in the religious space of the synagogue – we’re fine talking about it in the home – and Jesus’ second miracle was in the home of Peter’s mother-in-law – but talking about it in public? Well that makes us uneasy. We don’t want to be seen as religious fanatics. We probably don’t want to stand on Barrhead Mainstreet giving out religious tracts but there are other ways to bring faith into the public sphere. Simply saying what gives us strength when we’re having problems does that. Simply saying to someone having a hard time that we have been or will pray for them. Showing love and concern to another in need, and letting them see how faith is worked out is another way.
The second lesson from this week’s text is, I think, something to do with the impure. In Jesus’ time it was easier to see who was impure, who was cast out, it’s harder now. One of the saddest places I have been to is on the isle of Hoy in Orkney where, under the majestic hills of that island is the lonely site of Betty Corrigall’s grave. At the age of 27, Betty’s life was left in ruins when the man she had fallen pregnant to, deserted her and ran away to sea. The castigation of the locals and the trauma and shame of the situation were too much for the poor girl. She was driven to take her own life. An attempt to drown herself in the sea was foiled when she was rescued and taken back to shore. But her respite was brief. Days later she hanged herself. Her suicide meant that she could not be given a Christian burial. Denied a place in the kirkyard, the Lairds of Melsetter and Hoy also refused to have her body on their ground. So Betty Corrigall had to be interred in un-consecrated ground. Her final resting place was an unmarked, isolated grave on the boundary of the parishes of Hoy and North Walls. There she lay forgotten until the 1930s when her grave was discovered and properly marked. Every age has its outcasts. Maybe today it’s the poor sanctioned by an ever more hostile benefit regime. Maybe it’s the asylum seeker denied the opportunity to work, dumped in appalling housing and facing a system built on disbelief and prejudice. Maybe it’s the migrant desperately searching for a better life. Maybe it’s the addict who can’t face life without the bottle or the next fix. Maybe it’s the person with mental health problems never finding effective treatment. Alan reminded me last week that the sign says all are welcome – I wonder who we’d find hard to welcome.
The healed man had joy which was uncontainable. His healing restored him to the community, stopped him being an outcast and his amazement and gratitude compelled him to tell others just as Jesus’ love compelled him to cross social, religious and legal boundaries in order to heal him. We need to find the bravery to be so moved with compassion that we reach out to those who others, and themselves, see as untouchable and to be so filled with joy at what the Lord has done for us that we can’t help but tell others.