Commentary on Mark 1:40-45
In this short and apparently simple story Jesus is approached by a leper whom he heals.
Jesus sends the leper back to receive the certification of the priest as to his being made clean and able to re-enter his community. Like Peter’s mother-in-law in the previous story, this former leper becomes a disciple by “spreading the word” about Jesus, announcing what Jesus had done for him.
The problem with the man’s discipleship is that Jesus had commanded him to remain silent about what had happened. In his disobedience to Jesus’ command, whatever his motive may have been, the news he heralded made it impossible for Jesus to go openly into the towns of Galilee. As soon as Jesus appeared in these towns, the crowds became overwhelming. Jesus was eager to heal, but also to announce that God’s reign was coming near. He was in a hurry, on a mission (cf. 1:33-34, 36-38). These are the same settlements that Jesus had determined to visit to his own heralding of the coming reign of God (verse 38).
Let us begin with the seeming simplicity of this story. There are a number of problems with both text and translation of these few verses, probably because of the difficulties inherent in the story itself. First note that verse 40 includes the idea that the leper gets down on his knees although there is considerable doubt that the earliest texts of Mark contained this phrase. Second and more importantly, in some manuscripts of Mark’s gospel, the word translated in verse 41 as “moved by compassion” (see also Mark 6:34; 9:22) is in several manuscripts “moved by anger” (see also Mark 9:19, 23).
There is no manuscript doubt about the very strong language in verse 43 where Jesus is said to have “snorted” at the recently healed leper. The word embrimaomai expresses great distaste or anger. It is used in Mark only one other time (in 14:5) where the twelve scold the woman who had “wasted” money on anointing Jesus. Why would Jesus be angered at the leper? Many have wondered, many have speculated, and no one has a convincing conclusion. To add to the puzzle of translating this word in relation to Jesus, the verb in that sentence is “threw out, cast out,” the same verb used to describe the action of the Holy Spirit with Jesus in Mark 1:12 and the action Jesus takes with demons in other locations (see 2:34, 39). Jesus shakes his head in anger and throws the leper out, demanding that he tell no one how he came to be healed.
Had Jesus been doing an exorcism, this kind of reaction would have been expected. We also know that Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s “rebuke” of him in 8:33 is also harsh. Mark’s Jesus often surprises us with the intensity of his emotion, not least his negative emotion. In 8:33, Peter, though having made the right confession about Jesus is rebuked for trying to impose his own understanding of “messiah” on Jesus. There Peter’s misconception is linked to Satan, as are those demons whom Jesus “throws out” repeatedly.
My sense of this angry verse is that it is not so much connected to the leper personally, any more than Peter is personally attacked. Rather it is Jesus’ anger and determination vis-à-vis the powers that hold creation and its creatures in thrall. These powers are expressed in all sorts of ways — through illness, of course, but in the systems and manners and values that humans have developed to cope with a world subject to powers other than God. Surely no preacher lacks for illustrations of that kind of frustration, often expressed among us toward people who themselves have no control over oppressive powers.
Of considerable interest is the reversal that takes place within this story. The realities of the leper and Jesus are switched within five verses. The leper who ought not enter a community without being freed from his ailment returns to his village, his priest, and his role in life. Jesus is suddenly unable to enter a village and is kept from his role in life. Whether or not Jesus believed that he had come to heal folks, people needed him to do just that, trusted that he could, and managed to find him wherever he went (Mark 2:1-2). We know both from history and from the story of John the Baptist that the development of crowds around a central figure in the Galilee and in Jerusalem would be dangerous to that figure.
Whether people understood their leader as prophet, king, Messiah, teacher, or rabble rouser (it all depends whom you ask!), such crowds made the powers-that-be very nervous indeed. While no one has come up with a way to interpret consistently the “Messianic secret” passages in Mark’s gospel, two things seem clear: 1) Jesus wants to temper enthusiasm about the his own identity as the “Holy One of God” (1:24) until he has endured the cross; and 2) the presence of crowds is a threat to Jesus’ own mission as herald of God’s reign.
It is important for contemporary readers that not all types of discipleship seem to be appropriate in every time and place. When the Gadarene demoniac is healed in Mark 5:1-15, Jesus sends him home precisely to proclaim what the Lord has done for him. The preacher may be able to develop these stories with an eye to the quite distinctive calls to discipleship that shape the lives of those whom Jesus has healed.
As part of this reversal, notice the “if” clause in verse 40. This use of “if” in Greek suggests that the condition set up is very likely indeed to be true. One could almost translate it as “since.” The verb in the condition is best translated by “wish” or “choose” (New Revised Standard Version). The leper says something like, “If you want to (and you do), you are able to cleanse me. Jesus confirms his willingness with a simple. “I am willing.” This seems to me to be central to the passage and here’s why.
At this still early point in Mark we are learning about Jesus and what discipleship as one of Jesus’ followers might be. Mark has shown us a Jesus able and willing to heal all sorts of woes from illnesses to possession. These healings, it is very clear, are signs of what God’s reign means for human beings — a restoration to a condition of blessedness or thriving or flourishing. Humankind will no longer be oppressed by the powers of evil. We have seen Jesus’ intense interactions with the demons who know him. We have also heard Jesus insist that it is his calling to destroy these powers hostile to God’s reign even as he must go about announcing it so that all may have the opportunity to repent and trust God (cf. 1:15).
So Jesus must go where the people are. By the end of this story, Jesus has shown us what it costs to go where the people are and it is a cost he is “willing” to pay. He begins as the one free to wander and proclaim, urgent in his message and successful in gathering crowds. By the end of the story Jesus has traded places with the former leper who is now wandering freely, proclaiming what the Lord has done and creating widespread positive response, while Jesus has become isolated and lonely. There is an exchange of roles, an exchange of realities between Jesus and the man whom he has healed: this points long-range to the role that Jesus is willing to take for humanity itself, giving up his life of freedom for the loneliness of the one isolated on Golgotha, whose “willingness” is a proclamation in its own right. He will use the language of “willing” in 14:36, exchanging his own desires for what the Father “wills.”