Jesus' Ministry Begun

One of the striking things about Mark’s Gospel is that it is not the disciples, first and foremost, who serve to proclaim the Good News; in fact, the disciples are in many ways last to that particular dance-floor.

January 3, 2016

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Commentary on Mark 1:21-45

One of the striking things about Mark’s Gospel is that it is not the disciples, first and foremost, who serve to proclaim the Good News; in fact, the disciples are in many ways last to that particular dance-floor.

The disciples are often confused, or disbelieving, or slow to understand. There are others, though, whose first response is to acknowledge what Jesus has done for them (or in the case of the demons to them) by sharing — proclaiming — what Jesus has done, and so who Jesus is. Despite his admonitions to the contrary.

In Mark 1:21-45 Jesus begins his public ministry by healing several times. There are three separate stories of Jesus healing: first a man with an unclean spirit (vv. 23-28), then at Simon and Andrew’s house Simon’s mother-in-law (vv.30-31) followed by a multitude of all those sick with various diseases or possessed by demons (vv.32-34), and finally of cleansing a leper (vv.40-45).

The final story is striking in three ways.

First, presumably because word of Jesus has already (in the course of just twelve verses) spread, the man with leprosy calls out to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” The force of that statement is striking. The leprous man knows who Jesus is, and knows what Jesus can do, and he is counting on Jesus to be and do exactly what he can. His begging of Jesus demands that Jesus not hide himself, or keep a secret, but that he act.

Second, Jesus is moved by pity. This is the only time in Mark in which Jesus is so moved. On the one hand this highlights the responsiveness of Jesus, and another it highlights the responsiveness of God who, at the right time — i.e. the full, “Kairos” times — has sent Jesus to bring the kingdom of God near to just such as these.

(Interestingly this concept of being moved to pity is used as a part of Jesus’ story-telling in Matthew 18:27; Luke 10:33)

And third, Jesus instructs the leper to offer the proper sacrifice according to “Moses” (i.e. the Book of the Law) for cleansing. Leviticus 14 outlines the ritual process by which one becomes clean. Jesus is telling this now ex-leper to go through motions, even though the cleansing has already happened. This is backwards, of course, and will no doubt get the attention of the temple officials. So here is another bit of irony in Mark; if Jesus wants his healing to be kept secret, why does he instruct this ex-leper to show himself to the priest “as a testimony them”?

There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian which, in its own ironic way, offers a twist on this healing story. In the Python film, Brian is a contemporary of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, a manger or two to the left.1 He too encounters a leper, or rather an ex-leper. As Brian is walking through the streets of Jerusalem a man hops up beside him:

Ex-Leper: Spare a shekel for an old ex-leper?
Brian: Did you say “ex-leper”?
Ex-Leper: That’s right, sir, 16 years behind a veil and proud of it, sir.
Brian: Well, what happened?
Ex-Leper: Oh, cured, sir.
Brian: Cured?
Ex-Leper: Yes sir, bloody miracle, sir. Bless you!
Brian: Who cured you?
Ex-Leper: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! “You’re cured, mate.” Bloody do-gooder.

Life of Brian is by no means an attempt to share the story of Jesus. But in imagining the situation in which a begging leper no longer has his leprosy to fall back on as his means of living (sic), offers an entry point into reflecting on the miraculous-ness and the ridiculousness of the life of one to whom Jesus has come near.

What we encounter in this story is a “healed proclaimer.” As Mark tells us, Jesus heals the man and commands him to keep quiet about it (v. 44), but, “He went and began to proclaim it freely” (v. 45). This once unclean man now offers himself — body and tongue — as a witness to the Christ. His cleansed body, and his once begging-tongue, announce the nearness of God’s Kingdom. And the story begs of us the questions, “If we choose, could we not … should we not show in our bodies and confess with our tongues what Christ Jesus has done for us?


1 As Hans Wiersma has noted, the film seeks to reverse the irony of the biblical narrative, and, ironically, fails: “A lot of viewers, incl. Roger Ebert, saw Life of Brian as innocent Python silliness. But some scholars since have seen it as a sophisticated presentation of an alternative Jesus, the so-called historical Jesus. Throughout the film, the Python’s Jesus (named Brian) is clearly the opposite of the Jesus of the New Testament, thereby putting the New Testament Jesus — Jesus Christ, the Son of God — in stark relief. Ironically Life of Brian highlights Jesus under the form of one who is the opposite of Jesus, namely, Brian. … In the end, Brian gets crucified by mistake and Brian’s crucifixion accomplishes nothing. “Crucifixion’s a doddle” as one character says. “Life is quite absurd and death’s the final word” sings the man crucified next to Brian. The astute viewer should be aware that this ending is, in terms of meaning, the opposite of the way Jesus’s crucifixion is understood in the New Testament.” “Redeeming Life of Brian: How Monty Python (Ironically) Proclaims Christ Sub Contrario.Word & World Vol. 32, No 2, Spring, 2012, 166-177.

Healing Lord Jesus, you performed miracles that helped followers become aware of your presence and your magnificence. Surprise us today with miracles that we desperately seek, and make your presence known to all. Amen.

God, whose almighty word   ELW 673, H82 371
Praise, my soul, the king of heaven   ELW 865, H82 410, UMH 66

Bless the Lord, O my soul, David Ferreira
Psalm 103, William Beckstrand