Unclean? Thoughts on changes Jesus makes to old rules.

Mark 1: 40-45

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying 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.’45But 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.

My Dad was raised as a Christian Scientist.

Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy taught that that sickness is only an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone.

So those folks don’t readily seek medical attention when they are sick.

They pray.

They believe that if we pray hard enough, and often enough, we will be healed of whatever ails us.

Their theology for healing is found in the Bible, right?

People ask Jesus to be healed, and he does it, right?

Maybe not.

When we see a “miraculous” healing in the Bible, it typically teaches a lesson.

And the lesson is never that the person “deserved” to be healed.

That would imply that if someone did not get healed, they did not deserve it.

That is not good theology.

That is never Jesus’ lesson.

There is always something else going on.

Some other lesson to be learned.

We see that today.

Today’s text seems like a healing story, right?

Pretty simple.

Approached by a leper who asks to be healed, Jesus heals him.

The newly healed man proclaims the miracle of his healing to everyone he knows, even though Jesus tells him not to.

He’s just too amazed and happy to keep it to himself.

Jesus has the power to heal!

Is that the lesson?

Jesus has the power to heal?

In part, maybe.

But there is far more here than meets the eye.

First a bit of background.

Jesus has been baptized, tempted in the wilderness, went into Galilee and preached that the Kingdom of God has come near.

Jesus has called his disciples.

He has cast out a demon in a synagogue and healed many at Peter’s house.

And then continued his preaching tour.

People are asking questions.

By whose authority does he do these things?

But now something even more remarkable.

Jesus starts to change the rules.

Which brings us to today’s text.

Jesus comes upon a leper.

In the middle of nowhere.

Where else would Jesus meet a leper?

That’s the only place one could find a leper.

To really know what Jesus does here, we need to hear a bit about leprosy as it was understood in Jesus day.

Leprosy was a generic term for diseases of the skin that caused scaly or inflamed lesions.

It was understood by the medical community of the day to be a therapeutic evacuation of bodily fluids that are out of balance.

Or the effect of some environmental factor like a skin infection or allergic reaction.

It might or might not be harmful to either the “leper” and might or might not be contagious.

But socially and ritually, it was devastating.

Listen to Leviticus 13: 45-46

45 The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

So, there you have it.

The mere fact a person has the condition makes that person “untouchable” and it is the “unclean” nature of the disease that folks fear.


It’s not clear.

Maybe it was believed that the disease was God’s punishment for sin.

Don’t want any sinners around, right?

Or maybe that it was just contagious.

It reminds me of the days on the wrestling team.

Our “leprosy” was impetigo.

Get that and you were banished until a doctor certified you clean.

Here is an interesting theory I read this week.

The skin lesions were basically areas of dead skin.

Dead things were considered unclean.

You know what else was considered unclean?

Things of different quality being mixed with each other.

Beware the cotton/polyester blend.

So, a living person with dead skin was unclean for both reasons.

The presence of death on their skin and the mixing of living and dead skin.

But why are lepers banished and people with … say … the flu, aren’t?

Leviticus is silent on it.

But we do know that this passage from Leviticus is part of the “Holiness Code”.

Rules set down by God that Israel was required to follow in order to remain a “holy” nation; set apart by God to reconcile the nations to God.

It’s an illustration of why some nations are not part of the “chosen”.

If a nation is unclean because of idolatry or some other “leprosy”, Israel was not to have anything to do with that nation.

The consequence of that illustration is played out in our scripture reading.

If you had a skin disease of some kind, whatever the cause, you were “ritually” unclean.

Not really unclean … ritually unclean.

You were unwelcomed in the Temple and anywhere else in the community for that matter.

To touch someone who is ritually unclean, even by accident renders the one who does the touching ritually unclean as well.

Ritually contagious, I guess.

And so, to avoid that possibility, an unclean person is banished.

Until they could prove they were no longer unclean.

That is the background.

Now to our text.

Here is our leper.

What ails him is unknown but whatever it is, he is unclean and banished from his community.

With all due respect to Mary Baker Eddy, I don’t think this fellow looks at his condition as an illusion.

He is now isolated and unwelcome.

He is “untouchable”.

Here comes Jesus.

His reputation precedes him.

He is a “healer”.

Jesus has healed many and now is approached by this man who kneels before him and says:

‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 

Which is an interesting request.

Not, “If you choose, you can heal me.”

‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 

He does not want to be healed, he wants to be clean.

So he can go home.

How does Jesus respond?

The NRSV says Jesus was “moved with pity”.

There are manuscripts of Mark with a different word for what motivated Jesus in this story.

They say, when approached by the leper, Jesus was moved or filled with anger.

That Jesus was motivated by anger is consistent with Jesus’ later “stern warning” to the leper that he is not to tell anyone that Jesus has healed him.

A better way to translate Jesus’ “stern warning” is to say that Jesus “snorted” at him, sending him away to the priests for his “certificate of cleanliness” and ordering him not tell anyone what had happened.

So, if we accept all this, it is safe to say that throughout this short story, Jesus is … well … irritated.

Why would Jesus be angry?

Maybe this.

Leviticus was written somewhere between 330 and 700 years before Jesus was born.

That’s a long time.

The understanding of “leprosy” had changed.

It was just an illness.

But it remained stigmatized by this ancient text.

But if the purpose of the text was to teach Israel how to keep itself “holy” and to stay separate from the world , how does the treatment of this man do that?.

This poor soul had been barred from his community not because he was sick, but because Leviticus required it.

It was this stigma that many believe made Jesus angry.

Hadn’t Jesus had come to replace and fulfill the purpose of Israel?

You bet.

So this man was suffering because of an obsolete religious tenet, made obsolete by Jesus himself.

Then there was this.

The diagnosis of the “leprosy” was made by a priest.

It was not a medical diagnosis, but a religious diagnosis.

A ritual diagnosis.

The person was unclean and was to be isolated until the person was declared “clean”.

The certification of cleanliness was also made by a priest.

Which means that until a healed “leper” can find a priest, he or she will remain ceremonially impure and unwelcome in the community.

So even if Jesus heals him of his leprosy, the man remains unclean until a priest certifies him as clean.

Maybe that’s why the man asked only to be made clean.

He wanted Jesus to certify his cleanliness!

Maybe that is also why Jesus snorts about the need to go and see the priest.

Jesus was being a bit sarcastic.

Jesus cured him, but the priests were in charge of “ritual cleanliness”, not Jesus.

I suspect the man understood what was happening because he does not go to the priests, but goes and tells everyone that Jesus has made him clean by TOUCHING HIM!


Now everyone who heard the former (but not yet certified clean) leper, knew Jesus had touched him.

So now Jesus is unclean and no longer allowed in the towns.

OK, so this is a lot of background.

What does this healing story mean to us?

It means this:

Jesus changes things.

God so loved the world that God was willing to reach out, touch us all and make us clean.

Not ritually.


No longer are people to be unwelcome or untouchable or rejected just because an old, obsolete religious tenet says so.

Jesus welcomes everyone.

Now we must do the same.

Even if it means we have to touch them.

Even when some of them make us uncomfortable.

Even when we would rather not have them around.

How do I know that is why Mark tells this story?

Jesus knew Leviticus.

He knew this man was untouchable.

He knew that the only way the man would be welcome back into his community was to go to a priest.

Jesus knew that if he touched this man he, Jesus, would become unclean and so would not be able to go into the towns and cities.

Yet Jesus touches this man and makes him clean and so reunites this man with his kin and community.

In order to do so, Jesus takes on the man’s uncleanliness.

Does this sound familiar?

The consequence here is that Jesus becomes ceremonially unclean, and cannot go into any town openly.

Because everyone knew he touched a leper.

So the people come to Jesus.

Maybe because they heard Jesus was unconcerned with ritual and more concerned with community.

To teach the Good News that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to wipe away all the uncleanliness, and welcome everyone into the presence of God.

Ritual was no longer the way.

It was a barrier.

Jesus was the way.

And he broke down barriers.

Things had changed indeed.

As Pastor Gary Charles puts it:

In a perilous act of solidarity, instead of confirming the man’s exclusion by shunning him, Jesus reaches out and symbolically draws him in. He shatters the traditional boundaries of purity and in the process, rewrites the book on the nature of God’s beloved community.

That is what Jesus did for all of us.

Jesus came to reach out to us and draw us into his community – despite our uncleanliness.

To take our uncleanliness on himself.

To heal us.

To make us clean.

This text is not about healing.

It is about breaking down barriers.

More from Gary Charles.

“Disciples of Jesus are called to break down all barriers – religious, social, economic, political – between human need and God’s liberating mercy.”

The barrier Jesus broke down was between this man’s need to be reunited with his community and the religious tenet that he was not welcome.

What are the barriers we might be called to break down?

What human needs are being blocked from God’s liberating mercy?

Who can say?

There are many and they are complex.

But one way we break down the barriers is generic.

We reach out to all people who are in need.

The hungry.

The thirsty.

The naked.

The homeless.

The strangers.

The sick.

The persecuted.

The unclean.

We reach out and touch them.

And bring them into God’s community.

That is the lesson in the healing of this leper.

He deserved Jesus’ healing touch no more or no less that anyone else.

But Jesus met his human need for reconciliation with his family by breaking down an old ritual that no longer had meaning.

We must do the same.

If you know someone who can use a bit of healing, cleansing or community, reach out, touch them and draw them here.

Be the healed one.

Be the cleansed one.

Break down a barrier.

And bring them to Jesus.

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