Jesus Crosses Purity Boundaries

 The Touch of Jesus Cleanses a Leper. Leprosy was a skin ailment, one of the most feared afflictions in the ancient world and particularly dreaded in Israel.
Contracting leprosy meant inevitable death preceded by isolation from one’s family, home and society for however many miserable years remained in one’s life. Most ominous for the leper was his or her exclusion from the religious institutions and practices of Israel.
In Israel, a man or woman who became infected with leprosy became “unclean,” ritually impure, and remained permanently so unless miraculously healed by God, an extremely rare occurrence in the Old Testament (Numbers 12:10, 2 Kings 5:1-2).
One old rabbinic adage claimed the healing of leprosy was as difficult as raising the dead. Some rabbis referred to lepers as the “living dead.” They were as “unclean” and distant from the Lord as the dead. Leprosy was both a disease and a “sentence” of banishment to a slow, painful and lonely death. A leper was, effectively, an exile from Israel, the covenant community of Yahweh.
(Mark 1:40-45) - “And a leper comes to him beseeching him, kneeling and saying to him, ‘If you are willing, you are able to cleanse me.’ And, having been moved with pity, having stretched out his hand, he grabbed him and says to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed!’ And straightway the leprosy departed from him and he was cleansed. And, having strictly charged him, straightway he sent him off and said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer concerning your cleansing what things Moses ordered, for witness to them.’ Yet he, having departed, began to proclaim freely and to spread abroad the story, so that Jesus no longer was able to openly enter into a town, but was outside in desert places; and they were coming to him from all directions.”
Lepers lived out their miserable existence as outcasts from society. Their unclean status prohibited them from entering Jerusalem, let alone the Temple. They were excluded from the social and religious life of the covenant community, effectively cut off from the presence of God.
The Law of Moses required a leper to maintain a repugnant appearance, bare his or her head and loudly announce his or her presence to others. The rule in Second Temple Judaism was that a leper must remain at least fifty paces from others (see Luke 17:12). As proscribed in Leviticus 13:45-46:
The leper in whom is the plague, his clothes shall be rent, and his head shall be bare, and his beard shall he cover, and, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ shall he cry. All the days that the plague is in him shall he continue unclean; unclean he is; alone shall he remain, outside the camp shall be his dwelling.”
In Mark 1:40, a leper approached Jesus. Precisely how close is not stated but it was near enough for Jesus to easily reach out and touch him; certainly, less than the fifty paces required by rabbinic regulations. Jesus was moved with compassion at the leper’s plea.
Mark’s language in verse 41 is more vivid than in many English translations. The Greek reads that Jesus “stretched out his hand and grabbed” the leper. That he “stretched out his hand” indicates a willing act done without hesitation.
The Greek word for “grab” (haptomai) means not simply to “touch,” but more accurately to “take hold of, grab, cling to.” Most of his Jewish contemporaries would have feared to be even in the general vicinity of this leper, yet Jesus unhesitatingly took hold of the leprous Israelite.
To touch a leper rendered an uninfected Israelite ritually impure, “unclean,” which would necessitate undergoing rituals required in the Law of Moses to remedy such a defiled state. Apparently, this did not concern Jesus one bit. This does not necessarily mean Jesus completely disregarded the Law, but it demonstrates his willingness when confronted with a genuine human need to relativize certain of its requirements.
When a leper was cured it was not said that he was “healed,” but rather than he was “cleansed” as in Mark 1:40-45. When this leper approached Jesus, he asked not to be “healed,” but “cleansed.” By default, being delivered of leprosy meant healing but much more is implied in the term “cleansed.” To be restored to the status of “clean” meant the “cleansed” individual could reenter Jewish society and once again participate in the religious life of the community.
Jesus immediately ordered the cleansed leper to show himself to a priest for examination. Only a priest was authorized to examine lepers and declare them “clean” (see Leviticus Chapter 13). Following such a declaration, the leper was required to make designated offerings for his cleansing.
A leper was not officially “cleansed” and acceptable for reintegration into Jewish society until this process was complete. To order the leper to do this was an act of compassion by Jesus. The sooner this was done the sooner the cleansed leper could be fully restored as a member of Israel.
Rather than go to a priest as ordered, the leper went through the area broadcasting what Jesus had done. This resulted in Jesus being “unable to openly enter into a town but was instead outside in desert places.”
There is irony in Mark’s story. Rather than render Jesus “unclean” per the Law and Jewish custom, his touch rendered the ritually “unclean” leper Jesus “clean.



The Living Word

The Suffering Servant