SYNOPSIS – The touch of the Son of Man cleanses a leper – The forbidden contact does not render Jesus “unclean” – Mark 1:40-45.
The touch of Jesus cleansed a leper from ritual impurity and restored him physically AND religiously, so to speak. What sets this story apart is the fact that the “Son of Man” touched the leprous man BEFORE he was cleansed of his ritual impurity and certified so by a member of the Levitical priesthood. Any concern over contracting uncleanness did not stop him from touching a son of Israel to make him whole.
Leprosy was a skin ailment, one of the most feared afflictions in the ancient world and dreaded in Israel. Contracting leprosy meant inevitable death preceded by extended periods of isolation from family, home, and society for however many miserable years remained in the life of the illness’ victim. Most ominous for a leper was his or her exclusion from the religious institutions and rituals of Israel.
In Israel, a man or woman who contracted leprosy became “unclean” – Ritually impure. He or she would remain so unless healed miraculously by God, an extremely rare occurrence in the Old Testament, then certified “clean” by a priest – (Numbers 12:10, 2 Kings 5:1-2).
An old rabbinic adage claimed the healing of leprosy was as difficult as the raising of the dead. Some rabbis called lepers the “living dead.” They were as “unclean” and distant from the Lord as were the dead. Leprosy was a disease and a “sentence” of banishment to a slow, painful, and lonely death. A leper was an exile from the people and the religion of Israel.
(Mark 1:40-45) – “And there cometh unto him a leper beseeching him and kneeling — saying unto him — If thou be willing, thou canst cleanse me; and, moved with compassion, he stretched forth the hand and touched him, and saith unto him — I am willing, Be cleansed! and, straightway, the leprosy departed from him and he was cleansed; and, strictly charging him, straightway, he urged him forth; and saith unto him — Mind! unto no one say aught — but withdraw thyself, show unto the priest and offer for thy cleansing what things Moses enjoined for a witness unto them. But he, going forth, began to be proclaiming many things and blazing abroad the story, so that no longer was it possible for him, openly, into a city to enter — but, outside, in desert places was he, and they were coming unto him from every quarter” – (The Emphasized Bible – Parallel passages: Matthew 8:1-4, Luke 5:12-14).
Lepers lived out their miserable existence as outcasts, their “unclean” status prohibited entrance to Jerusalem and the Temple where atonement for sins was made. Thus, they were excluded from the rituals and the spiritual life of the covenant community, cut off from the presence and forgiveness of God.
The Torah required a leper to maintain a repugnant appearance, to bare his head, and to announce his approach and presence to others. The rule in Second Temple Judaism was for a leper to remain at least fifty paces from others, as proscribed in the book of Leviticus:
“Now, as for 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.” – (Leviticus 13:45-46).
In our story, a leper approached Jesus. Precisely how close is not stated but it was near enough for Jesus to touch him; certainly, less than the fifty paces required by the rabbinic traditions. Unlike the rabbis, Jesus was moved with compassion at the leper’s plea.
The sense of the Greek clause is more vivid than what is found in many English translations. The Greek reads – He “stretched out his hand and grabbed” the leper. This suggests a willing act done without hesitation. The Greek word rendered “grab” means not simply to “touch” but more accurately, to “take hold, grab, cling to” – (haptomai – Strong’s – #G680).
Most of his Jewish contemporaries would have feared even to be in the general vicinity of a leper; however, unhesitatingly, Jesus took hold of the leprous son of Israel and “cleansed” him.
To touch a leper rendered any uninfected Israelite ritually impure – “Unclean” – which would necessitate undergoing the rituals required by the Torah to remedy the person’s defiled state. Apparently, this did not concern Jesus. This does not mean he disregarded the Law, but it does demonstrate his willingness to relativize its requirements when confronted with human needs.
When a leper was cured, it was not said that he was “healed” but, rather, “cleansed.” When this leper approached Jesus, he asked to be “cleansed,” not healed. By default, being delivered of leprosy meant physical healing, however, much more is implied by “cleansed.” To be ritually “clean” enabled an individual to participate in Jewish society and in the religious life of the community.
Jesus ordered the cleansed leper to show himself to a priest for examination. Only a priest was authorized to examine a leper and declare him “clean” (see Leviticus Chapter 13). A leper was not officially “cleansed” and acceptable for reintegration into Jewish society until the process was complete. To order the leper to follow the required regulations was an act of compassion – The sooner this was done, the sooner the man could be restored as a member of the covenant community.
Instead of going to a priest as ordered, the leper went through the area broadcasting what Jesus did for him. This meant he was “unable to enter openly into a town but was, instead, outside in desert places.”
The story is ironic. Rather than render the “Son of Man unclean,” as defined by the Law and Jewish customs, the touch of Jesus rendered a ritually “unclean” leper “clean.”