Download or listen to the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: “Lord of Lepers” (Mark 1:40-45)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes things appear to be very simple on the surface, but as they unfold, the turn out to be much more complicated than they first appeared. Many good novels and movies take this approach. They open with a simple scene: a family gathered around the table for dinner, a mother driving home, two friends meeting for a cup of coffee. But as the book or movie unfolds, just as in our lives, we find that what appears simple on the surface is hiding much more complicated lives. So it is in Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing the leper. On the surface, it appears to be another healing story, and the outline is simple: a leper (and that means anyone with a sort of infectious skin disease) asks Jesus to heal him; Jesus does, and then tells him not to say anything, but to show himself to the priest; and the man does exactly the opposite.
But it doesn’t take too much close reading, too much digging, to see that this account is much more complicated than it appears. It raises a lot of questions that do not have clear answers, much the way God’s work in our lives does. For example, does the man ask in true faith? He says, “If you wish, you, you are able to cleanse me.” Does he mean that Jesus is able, but maybe not willing? And what, really, is Jesus’ response? Some copies of Mark do not have “He had compassion,” but “He was angry.” And is Jesus angry? Where the English has “He sternly charged him and sent him away at once,” the Greek seems much closer to “He yelled at him and drove him out,” same word as when Jesus “drives out” demons. But if Jesus is angry, why does He heal him at all? Is He angry at the leper for his wavering in faith, or at the leprosy and uncleanness of sin in His creation? If Jesus knows that the man is just going to go tell people, why does Jesus command him not to in the first place? Is that why He’s angry? The problem is, these questions are hard to answer, and maybe even unanswerable. But if the Gospel does not give us answers to the questions we’d like to ask, maybe it gives us answers to the questions it would like us to answer. Because, whatever the answers to those questions, there are some things that come through clearly. First, Jesus heals this man. That is clear. Jesus touches the man, and says, “I am willing; be cleansed!” And the leprosy leaves him; it goes away. Whatever Jesus thinks about the guy, whatever the state of his belief in Jesus, Jesus heals him. Second, Jesus gives a clear command: “See that you say nothing to no one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the offering for your cleansing that Moses prescribed, as a testimony against them.” The command is clear, what Moses prescribed is clear, and the purpose is clear: as a testimony against the priests that they have not recognized that the Lord of the Law, the Lord of the sacrifice, the fulfillment of the sacrifices, has come near on the earth. All of that is clear, and it is clear what the man actually does: the opposite. Instead of telling no one and offering the sacrifice, he does not offer the sacrifice, and he tells everyone. It’s irrelevant that he tells people about Jesus and what He’s done. It’s irrelevant that he appears to get Jesus more hearers—more likely, he gets him more gawkers and rubberneckers. His motives are irrelevant. None of it matters; what matters is that he disobeys a clear command of Christ. The end doesn’t justify the means; the only thing that matters is obedience.
Another thing that’s clear is the consequences of the man’s disobedience. Because he does the opposite of what Jesus says, Jesus takes his place: instead of the leper forced to be outside the city, in the desert places by himself, now Jesus cannot enter into a city openly, and He stays out in the desert places. Because of the man’s disobedience, Jesus takes his place outside the city. What’s more, under the law, the man is not fully cleansed, not fully restored. Until the leper offers the prescribed sacrifices, he’s still unclean and outside the community. In Leviticus 14, Moses prescribed that any leper whose skin disease was cleared up had to offer two male lambs and a ewe lamb a year old without blemish, plus some oil and grain. After that sacrifice, the person was cleansed and could come back among the people of God. But there was a qualification: if the leper could not afford the three lambs, then one lamb, a year old, without blemish was enough. If you could not afford the sacrifice for your guilt and sin, for your cleansing and for your atonement before God, then one lamb was enough.
Even if this man could buy a lamb, he could not afford the sacrifice for his cleansing, for his guilt and sin, for his atonement before God. And neither can you. God has given clear commands, summed up in “Love God with everything you are, and everything you have, and everything you think, and everything you do,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” A simple command. But we make it complicated by our refusal to do it. We complicate these simple commands by our disobedience. Our reasons and excuses for not serving the needs of the person right in front of us are irrelevant. Motivations and ends do not matter, as long as we disobey the simple command of Jesus. It is precisely our disobedience that drives Jesus to take our place outside the city. We cannot afford the sacrifice for our sin and guilt, to cleanse ourselves and atone before God. But there is a Lamb for the sacrifice, and this one Lamb is enough for you and me and all people. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! He goes outside the city, outside the Presence of God, so that you do not. He offers the sacrifice that you cannot. He takes all your uncleanness, all your sin, on Himself, so that you do not have to bear it anymore. He dies so that you will not. And He makes no exceptions among the unclean. His death does not mean that no one is unclean; but it does mean that there is no one who is unclean whom Jesus cannot and will not cleanse. He is willing! Be cleansed for My sake, He says. He touches your lips with His Body and Blood and He cleanses you from all your sin, because He has already taken it on Himself.
It seems so simple: to say, Jesus died for my sins. Simple enough that a child can confess it. But as your life unfolds from the cross in baptism, life can complicate things. You cannot predict where this cleansing will take you; you cannot predict whose lives you will enter and who will enter yours. But while life is complicated, Jesus’ Gospel is simple in its purity: the Lord of lepers, the Lord of prostitutes, the Lord of those with AIDS, the Lord of all sinners, whom the Law calls unclean, even you and me, this Lord stands among you today, to speak and cleanse and heal and atone.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/11/12