Be made clean: the man

jesus-healing-leper40 A leper came to him (and kneeling down) begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” 42 The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.

Leprosy and the Man. The identification of the man who came to Jesus as “a leper” is not as precise as at first glance it may seem. Medical researchers who have examined the biblical data in Lev. 13–14 feel certain that the biblical term “leprosy” is a collective noun designating a wide variety of chronic skin diseases, one of which may have been interpreted in the modern sense of the word.

Nevertheless, anyone who was identified as a leper was reduced to a most pitiful state of existence. In addition to the physical ravages of the disease, his cultic impurity was graphically described in the Levitical provision: “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean’. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation without the camp” (Lev. 13:45 ff). Rabbinic refinement of the biblical legislation imposed many practical difficulties upon the leper, for even a chance encounter between the leper and the non-leper could render the latter unclean. Lepers were allowed to live unhampered wherever they chose, except in Jerusalem and cities which had been walled from antiquity. They could even attend the synagogue services if a screen was provided to isolate them from the rest of the congregation. In spite of these two provisions, however, leprosy brought deep physical and mental anguish for both the afflicted individual and the community in which or near which he lived. It is against this background that the significance of the cleansing of a leper by Jesus can be appreciated, whether the man in Mark’s account had true leprosy or some other frightful skin disease [William Lane, Gospel of Mark, 85-86].

The leper, who had either seen Jesus’ mighty works or had heard about them, came beseeching Jesus to remove from him the ravages and stigma of this dreadful disease. In the firm conviction, “If you will you can make me clean,” he is asking for healing, not for the pronouncement that he is clean ritually, which only a priest could declare. It may be assumed that the man had shown himself to a priest once or several times already. His appeal was for Jesus to do what was believed impossible by human means, to cure him of his disease. It is impossible to tell whether he regarded Jesus as an itinerant miracle-worker, or perceived more deeply that he was one through whom the power of God was directed.

Jesus’ Reaction. The encounter between Jesus and the leper contains several verbs that describe Jesus’ emotional state. How they are translated plays an important role in the tone of the passage. The textual tradition indicates that uncertainty over the emotional tone of the passage also existed in antiquity. Most manuscripts describe Jesus’ initial reaction to the leper’s appeal (v. 41), rendered “filled with compassion” or “moved with pity” (splagchnistheis), the verb used in other miracle accounts (Mark 6:34; 9:22).

There is a minority text that chooses to translate Jesus’ reaction as , “moved with indignation (or anger),” because a different verb appears there: orgistheis (also used in Mark 9:19, 23) – but in these texts the subject of the phrase is not clear. There are two choices: Jesus or the leper.

Arguing for the leper as subject, the thought is that he has become so overwhelmed with his virtually hopeless plight that in blind rage he touched Jesus – something that is grammatically possible. The admonition in v. 43 (43 Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once) would then have specific reference to this act coming after the leper had been made whole and was in a frame of mind to receive such a rebuke. The problem is the minor attestation in manuscripts, the strain for an explanation, and it is inconsistent with Jesus’ reaction elsewhere. It would stand as an example apart.

However, assuming that Jesus is the subject, the anger can be understood as an expression of righteous indignation at the ravages of sin, disease and death which take their toll even upon the living, a toll particularly evident in a leper. As such, Jesus’ encounter with the leper brings him once more into the sphere of the demonic. At least this idea is consistent with our outline: Jesus’ Authority Over Demons and Illness (1:21-45)

Notes

Mark 1:40 leper: A disease in humans (also known as Hansen’s disease) caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae. This term “leprosy” is commonly used (more for convenience than medical accuracy) as a translation of Hebrew ṣāraʿat in the OT and Gk lepra in the NT. Scholars now generally agree that OT sāraʿat is not leprosy nor does it include it and that NT lepra, if it refers at all to leprosy, does so only as one among many skin conditions. [AYBD 277]

begged: In the Greek, parakalōn, which carries the meaning “request, urge; comfort” [EDNT 3:23]. Interestingly, the root is related to the work Paraclete, the expression used by St. John to mean the Holy Spirit. While its secular use is wide-ranging, within the NT its use is numerous, but its meaning is virtually limited to the matters of faith and salvation. On the lips of the leper the word hints at more than simple physical healing.

If you wish: Since the healing of leprosy was thought to require define intervention, there is thought that the wording implies a realization of Jesus’ messiahship, embodying the power and will of God.

Mark 1:41 moved with pity: splanchnizomai – have pity [EDNT 3:265]. A few MSS, of which D and some Old Latin renderings are the most important, read “moved with anger.” Some argue that this is the harder reading, because it is more difficult to explain a copyist’s move from compassion to anger. If it were original, then Jesus’ anger would be set against the man’s condition, not his request (Luke 13:16). But compassion is slightly more likely to be the original sense, given the overwhelming external spread of the MSS. Mark loved to note Jesus’ emotions; here, Jesus acted graciously out of compassion for the man’s plight. The healing would be extended with a symbolic touch, since Jesus’ power to cleanse was greater than leprosy’s power to stain (contrast 2 Kgs 5:1–14; Num 12:9–15). The significance of this is more clear in other Gospel texts (Matt 11:5; Luke 7:22).

Mark 1:42 immediately: the cure is instantaneous at the word of Jesus

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