On this final Sunday before Lent begins on February 19, we come to the end of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, which has occupied our attention since Advent, and over the last three Sundays. (And yes, we return to it on the first Sunday of Lent, going back to Jesus in the desert.) Mark introduces Jesus to us by deeds, not words, by showing us what he does, how he meets people, how he prays, helps and heals those in need.
The closing scene today is simple and poignant: Jesus heals a leper — and more than that, he touches a leper, that untouchable of the ancient world, Even today, the leper is a stand-in for the person who is kept out of sight, away from our homes and dinner tables, that we might protect ourselves from the perceived uncleanness of their bodies, their lives and lifestyles. Think of the hard walls of racism and sexism and every kind of bias that dehumanizes and degrades our sister and brother, making lepers of God’s children. During this pandemic, indeed, we have all had to deal with the distancing, isolating, and loneliness that come about when people become afraid even to be near one another. Suppose it was your whole life?
The background is given in Leviticus 13-14, which reads like the medical guidebook that it is, listing all kinds of blemishes and sores and infections. As with so many illnesses, though, the medical condition turns into a social and moral disaster for the afflicted one:
"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.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13.45-46)
So Mark is choosing to end his first chapter in an extreme situation, Jesus suddenly faced by a desperate man whose life had been ruined by his disease:
"A man with leprosy came to Jesus. Falling down before Jesus, he begged him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1.40)
If you will. My guess is that the man is used to being ignored, not even noticed by those passing by, not even allowed to be seen anywhere near you and me. He is probably used to being subtly or crudely rejected when asking for help — like men and women on our streets who beg “money for food,” as I walk by, going about my business, and give nothing. Perhaps he expected to be ignored once more. But quite the opposite happens:
"Jesus was deeply moved.
Jesus’ heart is broken for the poorest of the poor, the least of God’s children, the man afflicted in body and soul.
Note: some commentators say that there was originally a harsher Greek word here, which would mean, “Jesus was deeply angered.” Why? Because he could not imagine not helping this miserable leper who had been shunned by everyone else, and was disturbed that the man said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” How could you imagine, Jesus is thinking, that I would not help you? Was it not for you, to encounter you today, that I came into the world? And so Jesus cries out,
"I am willing! Be clean!
But he does even more — he crosses the abyss of customs and taboos, breaks through the circles of exclusion in order to do what no one else will do:
"Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. (1.41)
We can imagine the scene. Jesus bends down, perhaps kneels down, to no longer be above this poor child of God. He touches the man who had been in the dust at his feet. In fact, I would add, he does not simply touch him with one finger — he embraces him.
But why bother? Jesus, whose word is so powerful, surely could have made him clean just by a word, as he did with the unclean spirit only the day before, “Be gone, leave him!” He will cure many people from a distance. But it is an extra gift, is it not, that he embraces a man no one else would touch at all? It is one thing to have leprosy. It is another, and worse, to be shunned and despised, doomed to a life of loneliness, never cared for, never touched, never embraced, never kissed.
Jesus knows the importance of touch. Earlier, he had taken Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and helped her get up. Later, and surely many times more, he touches a person in need:
"They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd. He put his fingers into his ears; he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha, be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. (7.31-35)
Once you are touched by God, even once, there is no stopping the flow of power. You can stand up again, and see, and hear and speak: you are restored in society. Perhaps this is a deeper purpose of the Incarnation, that God and humans might finally meet on the road, all five senses now fully alive.
In Mark 1, the former leper is now clean, but he is still a desperate man. Now he cannot stop talking. He immediately returns to the towns and villages from which he had been excluded for so long, no longer ashamed and beaten down:
"He went forth and began to talk freely, spreading the news.
And so the crowds grow greater and greater, every person possessed by an unclean spirit, every sick housewife, every leper, every person lost in body and soul, all running after Jesus:
"As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly — he stayed outside in the lonely places. Yet still, people came to him from everywhere. (1.45)
See Jesus, how he acts, whom he makes clean and heals and touches. Make yourself part of his story, be touched by him, be healed and then you too, speak in his name, good news for souls but also bodies and hearts too.
And thus ends the Gospel on the Sunday before Lent begins. But really, this year, here might be the key to the whole of Lent: simply to read and re-read Mark 1 (perhaps in as many translations as you can find), and see it all: John coming out of the desert; Jesus coming from Nazareth; the Baptism and the desert; the call of the disciples; amazing preaching in the synagogue and the driving out of the unclean spirit; dinner at the house of Peter, whose mother-in-law Jesus made well; meeting and touching this leper; and, as last week, taking time to pray, that is, to let God flow quietly as Spirit through us, that we be emptied out but always filled again and again by the Word of God in the flesh, the God who kneels in the dirt next to you and me and touches us when no one else will.
Certaintly, one recipe for a better Lent is just to re-read Mark 1 every day, an original and old story that is now our story.