“And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion , he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.”
Mark chapter 1: Jesus has the power to heal a man of his leprosy, but He doesn’t have the power to keep him quiet!
That’s the story of this reading today, isn’t it? Leprosy was the great scourge of those ancient communities, in a similar way to which AIDS has been a scourge in our own time, and Jesus touches the man and heals him instantly!
It is an extraordinary scene, particularly as this is one of the first healing miracles of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ touch is all powerful, and yet His words here are ineffective! We are told Jesus charged the man ‘sternly’ and told him to say nothing to anyone. But the healed man disregards Jesus’ instructions and talks openly to everybody.
So did Jesus give him his leprosy back? No, He didn’t, but that would have been an effective way of shutting him up. “Look, I’m clean!” … “Ahhggghh! No you’re not mate!”
Of course, maybe you think that Jesus wasn’t being serious when he asked the formerly-leprous man to keep quiet about his healing.
Yes, if it was me who had done the healing, I could see myself saying (half seriously), “Oh, there’s no need to thank me. No. Please, there’s no need to go and tell everybody about what I did for you. What … put on a party for me? Oh, that’s so unnecessary …”
The difference, in Jesus’ case, is that Jesus really did want the guy to keep quiet!
Now you might think that Jesus made the situation impossible for the man as He insisted that he go and show himself to the priest. How is the guy supposed to go looking for the priest and not be noticed by anybody on the way? Surely at the very least, people are going to ask him why he is looking for the priest? What is he supposed to say when they ask him why he wants the priest? “I can’t tell you?”
It would seem odd in our context, but in the New Testament context, keep in mind that the priest is not waiting in the local church at the centre of the village. The priest is on duty at the temple, which is in Jerusalem. This guy is in Galilee. Maybe he has a donkey, but as a leper, most likely he is on foot, and the estimate I read said that a round trip to the temple and back would be around 386 kilometres (240 miles)!
At the temple, Jesus further tells this guy that he should carry out the ritual proofs that Moses commanded, to show that he was clean. This was an elaborate set of rituals (outlined in Leviticus 14) that would involve you in making a sacrifice of a couple of birds and then shaving all the hair off your body, after which you have a great bath!
Now I’m not suggesting that Jesus was simply trying to get rid of the guy, but if the man had followed Jesus’ instructions, there’s no way they would have seen him again for at least a week, and probably longer!
Jesus was making a serious effort to keep this whole incident quiet. He ‘charged the man sternly’,“Say nothing to anyone”. But the man apparently completely disregarded Jesus’ stern words and told everybody!
Why does the man show so little respect for Jesus command? That’s a good question. But there’s another even more perplexing question here: ‘Why was Jesus so concerned to keep the man quiet?’
Was it that Jesus did not want to be misunderstood?
Was it that Jesus didn’t want people to see Him as a simple miracle worker, so he preferred to keep this side of his work out of the papers? We do see Jesus frustrated at other points because people just keep coming along for the show. ‘You people are only here because you want to see another miracle’ (eg. John 6:26).
We sense in the Gospel of Mark from the beginning that Jesus seems to want to give priority to his preaching ministry – announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God – and we can appreciate that it must be hard to get people to take you seriously when you’ve attained celebrity status as a magician! Is that what it was?
Was it something more subtle than that? Was the problem rather that Jesus knew that once he started doing miracles publicly that this would be the beginning of the end?
That seems to have been the problem with the first miracle we’re told about, at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother pushed him to help out with the wine shortage, you may remember, and Jesus is harsh with her: “woman, what have you to do with me. My time has not yet come” (John 2:4).
Jesus seems to sense there that by launching out on His career as a miracle-worker, He is going to focus opposition upon Himself – opposition that will ultimately lead to his own violent and bloody death! Is that the problem here?
Alternatively, could it just have been the practical problem of how you’re supposed to get any work done when people are buzzing around you, looking for another miracle?
This is the problem suggested by the passage itself. We’re told that the result of the formerly leprous man’s feverish speaking activity was that “Jesus could no longer openly enter a town”, and so was forced instead to meet with people out in the desolate places.
When it says that He could ‘no longer openly enter any town’, the problem of course was not that the people didn’t want him in their towns. The problem was that they did want Him.
It’s much the same problem that Michael Jackson has when he openly enters a town (except that nobody wanted to hide their children from Jesus I suppose). It’s a similar problem at any rate, in that these big stars gets mobbed by fans who, in Jesus’ case, would all be wanting to get in on the healing action!
If this is the problem, then it really takes us back to the first issue I raised – namely that Jesus did not want to be seen solely as being a miracle worker.
Evidently Jesus could have given all His time over to the healing of physically sick and mentally ill people. The villagers were clamouring for him to do this, and no doubt there were many people in those towns with serious problems that needed to be addressed, and yet, for the most part, Jesus did not address them!
Jesus gave priority to His preaching ministry – to telling people that the Kingdom of God was coming. This is true, and we must not deny the significance of this.
I remember when I was in Seminary, students and lecturers alike would see passages such as this as fundamental reminders of the fact that preaching to save souls should always take priority over helping people meet their physical needs.
This is what we were taught in Seminary – that while it might be a good thing to give a poor person a meal, it was better to give them the Word through sharing the Scriptures.
I’ve often felt tempted to apply this approach when people have come to my door asking for food.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.