We are in a section of Mark’s gospel where the key message is that we would see the authority of Jesus. We have seen the authority of Jesus over the lives of people, who drop all they are doing to follow Jesus (1:16-20). We have seen the authority of Jesus in his words, teaching as one with authority like no other. The authority of Jesus is seen in casting out the unclean spirit, simply by saying the words, “Be silent, and come out of him.” Jesus also has authority over sickness, healing Simon’s mother-in-law. Jesus is healing many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons, displaying his great authority. The next two events that are recorded to reveal the authority of Jesus show us magnificent images of who Jesus is and why he came. Read Mark 1:40-45.
The Problem of Leprosy
The account begins by telling us that a leper has come to Jesus. He is afflicted with a serious skin disease. In the community of Israel this is a very big problem. Touching a leper, like touching a corpse, resulted in being unclean. Only a priest could declare a person to be clean or unclean of this disease. Those who were determined to be unclean were required to live outside of the community of Israel, wearing torn clothing, leaving their hair messy, covering the lower part of their face, and crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45-46; Numbers 5:2-4). According to the Talmud, the closest a leper could come to someone without the disease was six feet. On windy days, the distance was extended to 150 feet. With the ostracizing experienced, the fear people had of being around you, and the specter of death hanging over you, leprosy was a dreaded disease.
The Bold Request
This is what makes verse 40 startling. The leper comes to Jesus, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” This man has great courage to come anywhere near Jesus. Perhaps he is remaining six feet away from Jesus. But people feared lepers. People wanted lepers to remain outside the common areas and outside of the community. But this leper comes to Jesus. Not only does this leper come to Jesus, but he shows even greater boldness in his request. He declares that Jesus has the authority and the power to make him clean. All that matters is if Jesus is willing to do so.
The reason this is a bold request is because cleansing lepers is not something that people were able to do. There is a great amount of faith in who Jesus is. The leper is showing a staggering awareness of who Jesus is. I would like for you to think about in the scriptures when leprosy was cleansed. You might recall that there are two occasions and both incidents are fairly renown. You may recall Naaman the leper who was cleansed by dipping in the Jordan River seven times at the instruction of Elisha (2 Kings 5:7-8). The Elijah/Elisha prophet figure was able to give instructions for cleansing leprosy. The other incident is Moses who calls on God to cleanse the leprosy of his sister, Miriam (Numbers 12:9-16). Moses and Elisha were the only ones who pray for God to cleanse leprosy. These accounts proved that there was a prophet in Israel. Moses and Elisha are God’s prophets, God’s representatives. Yet only God can cleanse. In all the scriptures only Moses and Elisha called on God for the cleansing of leprosy. Yet this leper comes to Jesus and is aware of the great authority of Jesus. Listen to those words: “If you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus is greater than Moses and Elisha because he will not have to pray to God or follow instructions for cleansing. Just by Jesus’ will, this man realizes he can be cleansed.
The Bold Cleansing
Now I want us to see what happens next. “Moved with compassion, he stretched out his hand and touched him” (1:41). Jesus reaches out and touches this leper. No one did that. No one would dare to do that. Not only would this make you ceremonially unclean but there is the fear that you catch this skin disease. You would suffer the same way as this leper is suffering. No one would touch a leper unless you were also a leper. But Jesus is not a leper. Jesus is perfect, whole, and without blemish. But Jesus touches a leper. Jesus does not have to touch a leper to cleanse him. Jesus has already shown that the authority is in his words. Jesus could simply say, “Be clean.” But Jesus with great intention, stretches out his hand, touches him, and says, “I will; be clean.” Jesus not only removes the leprosy, but cleanses this man. It is an amazing scene.
Jesus is making a point about who he is. Rather than being rendered unclean by touching this leper, Jesus radically reverses the direction of purity and gives cleansing rather than be defiled. Jesus’ cleanness is more powerful than the leper’s uncleanness. Touching a leper would make any other person unclean. But Jesus is more powerful that the leper’s uncleanness.
This is a powerful message about what Jesus has the power to do and what Jesus has come to do. Jesus has the power to cleanse. Jesus came to cleanse sinners. God has more forgiveness to give than you have sins to be forgiven. The apostle Paul taught us a great hope that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20). We are the unclean. We are the ones who should be shouting, “Unclean, unclean!” We are the ones who need to stay far away from Jesus because of our great uncleanness. But Jesus has come to cleanse. The account of the leper is a metaphor for what Jesus has done at the cross. As sinners, we were once spiritual lepers who lived in alienation from God. But God has provided a way to be made clean. Jesus radically reverses the direction of purity and brings us cleansing.
But I want us to consider the picture a little deeper. Not only is this passage showing us the ability of Jesus to cleanse, but the desire to cleanse. The leper does not doubt the ability of Jesus to cleanse. What is the leper’s question? He questions the willingness of Jesus. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” The leper represents us. We often do not doubt the ability of Jesus to cleanse. We doubt his willingness. We look at our sins and we know that he is powerful enough to cleanse us of our sins. But does God desire to cleanse us? The answer is a loud, resounding, “Yes!” If we come to Jesus for cleansing, Jesus’ answer is always yes. Our sin is not greater than God’s mercy. Our sin is not greater than God’s ability to cleanse. Our sin is not greater than God’s desire to cleanse. God will never stop cleansing us.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 ESV)
This is the picture of the kingdom of God and a picture of the authority of Jesus. Jesus has come to heal. Jesus has come to cleanse. Jesus has come to make people whole and bring them back into the community of God. Jesus does not say no. Jesus is willing. Are you willing to be cleansed? Your sin is not greater than his mercy. With compassion he looks at you and stretches out his hand to heal if you will come to him in faith like this leper.