40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 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.” 45 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.New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
What to do with this educator’s commentary
This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’
This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.
Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.
In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.
Structure of the commentary:
Text & textual features
Characters & setting
Ideas / phrases / concepts
Questions for the teacher
Questions for the teacher
Meaning for today / challenges
Church interpretations & usage
The World Behind the Text
See general introduction to Mark.
The world of the text
Text & textual features
This passage is a miracle story; narrative in structure with a clear beginning, middle and end. The problem is the need for healing of the leper. This, however, is not the sum total of this passage. The passage goes on to issue a strange instruction to keep silent about the healing process instead to simply attend the Temple as required by the Law. The notion of secrecy attached to Jesus’ mission is typical of Mark, who seems to highlight the divine action by asking that it be kept quiet…and then showing that the opposite occurs: the now healed leper proclaims what has happened and word of Jesus spreads.
The cure of the leper contains stories on at least three levels:
- The story itself – Jesus heals; a life is changed
- Jesus is the instigator of the reign of God and the triumph of God’s purpose over the “powers of the world”; he restores humanity to its intended wholeness and happiness (salvation)
- Jesus’ mission of healing and restoration is passed to his disciples (the community of the Church) in the ongoing work of revealing the reign of God.
Within the Gospel, the passage comes at the beginning of the Galilean ministry, so serves to establish the credentials of our main character: Jesus.
By the time the reader reaches this pericope Jesus has been announced as “the Beloved Son”, tested in the desert, emerged as the proclaimer of Good News, caller of disciples, authoritative teacher of Torah and healer of the demon-possessed and the sick. He is also shown to be someone “at home” with people in the realities of their lives; responsive to their needs; never imposing but always responsive to the calls for help.
It is after spending time alone and in prayer (1.35) that the scene with the leper opens.
Mark’s rather ‘to the point’ description is heavy with multi-layered meanings that are often overlooked, but which are critical for plumbing the depths of the gospel.
Mark has already established a world in the grip of the power of evil manifested as Satan, unclean spirits, diseases and demons (see 1.12; 1.23; 1.28; 1.31; 1.33). In this healing story Jesus brings the Good News into the life of a leper; someone feared, isolated and marginalised, whose life has had little, if any, good news. Jesus’ willingness to heal shows that the reign of evil – that which ostracises and limits – is crumbling; not yet fallen, but falling.
To close the story, Jesus commands the healed leper to go to the priest and make the offering set out by Moses in the Torah. On his way to do this, the healed man becomes an evangelist – a proclaimer of Good News- and his healing the most sure sign of the reign of God. In God’s era the restoration and liberation of human beings from dis-ease of mind, body and spirit to the wholeness intended by God in the creation narrative of Genesis 1.27 and 2.24 is made real.
Matthew (8:2-4) and Luke (5:12-16) have, with some minor contextual differences, the same healing miracle expressed in an identical format to Mark. This suggests this was an early story associated with Jesus preserved from the first generation of Christians.
Characters & Setting
The passage is set in the region of Galilee. Jesus has left Capernaum and is headed towards “neighbouring villages”
Much has been written on the nature of skin diseases and how they were understood in the ancient world. The Greek word “lepros” simply means “scaly” or “rough” skin and could most likely cover a range of skin problems. Hansen’s disease (leprosy) was most likely unknown in the ancient Mediterranean, so it is important to avoid slipping into modern medical discussions. Most importantly, “leper” means one who is outcast, outside, despised, victimised, persecuted and avoided. The Purity Codes in Leviticus set out strict guidelines for anyone designated a leper (Leviticus 14.1-32 for skin diseases). They were to live away from the community and have no contact until their ailment was healed and had been confirmed by a priest.
In our story the outcast breaks the commandment to stay away and approaches Jesus on his knees asking for healing – “if you choose to”. All this is done in the midst of Jesus and his disciples, most of whom would have been pressing backwards from the leper lest they become sick. It is a powerful image. Jesus stretches out his hand and speaks “I do choose” and heals the leper.
The absent Crowd:
Healing stories often occur in the open in the presence of crowds. This is an important element in the theological reflection on the significance of the healing. No matter how many people around him, Jesus is always present to those who call out to him; those who need him. The “crowd” seems to denote those drawn by curiosity about the “miracle worker”; they want to “see” a performance. They are not drawn to conversion or repentance, but as with all the preaching and teaching of Jesus and his disciples, the invitation is always offered. This healing story therefore presents a stark contrast to the norm: Jesus and the leper are alone, together.
The role of the priest is important. Jesus’ command to go and “show yourself to the priest” demonstrates he is a faithful and observant Jew. Priests were only found in the Jerusalem Temple, quite a distance from the area around Capernaum. Regardless of what Mark knew about the geography of the region, the instruction of Jesus is significant. In order for the leper to fully restored to the community his healing must be verified by a priest and the appropriate sacrifice made (Leviticus 14.2ff). The leper’s journey or way to Jerusalem to be declared clean and offer sacrifice at the Temple prefigures Jesus’ “way” later in the Gospel. The journey or way is not geographical but theological; it is the way of discipleship. And the “way” leads to Jerusalem, the Temple and sacrifice.
The Greek suggests a more powerful image of the leper throwing himself at Jesus’ feet in an act of total submission. The leper already knows, unlike the crowd, that Jesus is the bringer of good news, the one who will restore humanity to wholeness, the one who will want to heal him/her. 🙂
This is a very weak translation of the Greek – σπλαγχνισθεὶς – (splagcnistheis). The word literally means to feel to the depths of one’s internal organs and bowels, which the ancients believed to be the location of feelings of compassion. Jesus’ feels an overwhelming physical churning within himself that compels him to heal the leper. To converts from the various religions of the Greco-Roman world, the idea that God or Jesus the Son of God would be so engaged with humanity as to actually feel compassion for a human being, let alone a sick and diseased person, was revolutionary. The ancient gods kept well away from most of the messiness of human life, in fact, their chief attribute in relation to humans was “apatheia” – apathy – emotional non-engagement. There was nothing apathetic about the God of Israel or Jesus.
Jesus’ act of physical touch is at one and the same time intimate and personal, but also profoundly evocative of the breaking-in of the reign of God into the world. Jesus enters into the total human experience of those who call out to him. It also points to the radical nature of the Good News – it is Good News for all humanity, not just for the healthy, observant and so on. The healing of the leper is a demonstration that Jesus is bringing a new reality into the world, a reality that is not dependent on the sacrifice of animals but a radical openness to the power of God received through faith and encounter with Jesus. His disciples are called to do the same. The Christian “way” is a messy one!
It is easy to understate the power of the spoken word here. Jesus speaks the action – “be healed”. It is personal and fully engaged with the leper. This is an intimate action and an intimate word. It is God fully engaged with humanity in the suffering and isolation of the leper.
Obey Moses and Torah:
Jesus commands the healed person to be faithful to the Tradition given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and to leave this crowded scene focussed on the encounter with the healing mercy of God; hence the command to say nothing to anyone. It does not matter that the crowd have “seen”; they have not understood. The healed leper has “seen” and understood and is told to go to the priests to have the healing acknowledged. That the healed leper effectively tells everyone is both a shared proclamation of good news and a temptation to focus only on the wonder of the healing rather than the encounter with God.
Questions for the teacher:
The world in front of the text
Questions for the teacher:
Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.
Meaning for today/challenges
This passage lends itself to prayer and reflection on several current issues. “Leprosy” and “leper ” can be ways into thinking about those who are “outside the crowd” – those, who for whatever reason are excluded over things they cannot control. This could include issues related to gender, LGBTQ people, racism, sexism, ageism and all forms of discrimination be it political, economic, social or religious. Part of the power of this passage is Jesus’ unconditional willingness to heal. “I do choose – be made clean” can be very hard to hear if I am locked into a fantasy world view where I determine the limits of God’s mercy and power.
The passage also compels us to think about the implications for discipleship. This can be very challenging, but as Pope Francis constantly reminds us, it is precisely at the margins, in the mess of human life, that Jesus is and wants us to be.
Questions to pose in Lectio, the classroom or with colleagues could include:
- How do I feel about the use of religious law to validate exclusion?
- Am I willing to stretch out my hand and heal those who are excluded?
- Can I move from the crowd of onlookers who come to see a miracle and see and hear Jesus speak to me?
- Have I been a “leper”? And did I experience Jesus stretching out his hand and offering healing or have I been too afraid to ask?
- Can I accept the outrageous and extravagant mercy of God who offers healing with no conditions?
- How does this healing story challenge my Christian discipleship?
6th Sunday Ordinary Time Year B (Mark 1.40-45)
As with all Scripture, this passage lends itself to prayerful and meditative reflection through Lectio. Depending on the group the leader may take a focus on ideas such as inclusion / exclusion; the radical mercy of the God who wants to and is moved to the depths of the Divine Being to heal. Taking out the word “leper” invite the group to put their own name and read and pray the passage again. And, again, as with all Scripture, it is more important to listen to the Word than talking about the Word.