A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
What does hearing this story bring up for you? What images, feelings, words, songs, other stories come to mind?
This is an interesting story, because we see a couple of things happening that are very unusual. First, we see someone with a disease that forces him to be an outcast coming into the midst of people. A leper (which would be anyone with a skin disease–could be as mild as acne or as serious as Hansen’s disease, which we often call leprosy) is not allowed to come into contact with people because he is ritually unclean and would make others so. The only way to be admitted back into society is to be declared clean by a priest. For someone in a position of authority (say, a rabbi) to speak to, let alone touch, someone like this is unthinkable. And yet the leper comes, and Jesus makes a choice.
If you choose, you can make me clean. Not “will you help me?” Not “can you heal my disease?” Not “can you save me/make me whole/restore me to community?” Not a question, a statement–if you choose. Some scholars think that this implies that the man was already well but that the priests had refused to declare him clean–whether for monetary reasons or some kind of personal or social gain. However, the words here–“make me clean”–are more than just the declaration. There’s something actually happening here, and this man knows that Jesus has the power to change it, if he chooses.
Then we have the second interesting and unusual thing. Our translation says that Jesus was “moved with pity.” Others say he was “filled with compassion.” Still others say that Jesus was “moved to anger.” Passion is definitely implied in the word here–this is not a tame emotion, or simple pathos. This is a full-bodied, all-in, visceral involvement in the life of another being. Jesus may be angry at the way things are, at the system that has brought this man to this point. He may be angry at the rules so carefully followed even to the detriment of human beings. He may be passionate about restoring people to wholeness, body mind and soul as well as community. He may be filled with the kind of compassion that does not allow us to be silent or motionless. Whatever it is, it’s a consuming fire moving him. He’s not separate from us, he’s close by, down to earth, right here, involved in everyday actions and feeling and lives, to his very core.
As a consequence of this passion becoming visible, the man foregoes another trip to the unhelpful priests, and instead goes about the towns and countryside proclaiming the greatness of his benefactor…and so many people hear about it (the man must be literally shouting Jesus’ praises from the rooftops!) that Jesus can’t even get into town anymore because of the crowds. Instead the people have to come to him. What do you think about that, after the discussion we just had about Jesus’ visceral and whole-self involvement in the life of people?
How does this background help you understand the story? What questions do you still have? What ideas does this bring up? How does this story affect your relationship with God?