Commentary on Mark 1:40-45
Last Sunday’s gospel lesson impressed upon us the scope of Jesus’ ministry and mission,
and the power of the good news of His preaching and healing to impact the lives of all who flocked to hear the message of forgiveness and presence of God’s new reign. With today’s lesson there is no relenting in the intensity and success of that mission, whose fast-paced movement by now has developed a kind of rhythm.
In the final words of last Sunday’s lesson, we heard that Jesus’ mission encompassed all of Galilee and drew the whole world to Jesus’ doorstep. But today, once again much like in the case of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:29), we are drawn back to the particular, to the impact of Jesus’ healing power upon the life of one individual. In fact, the whole movement of today’s lesson mirrors that of last Sunday’s verses, Mark 1:29-39. Whereas that lesson began with the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and ended with reference to Jesus’ mission throughout the whole of Galilee, this lesson begins with the healing of a person with leprosy and ends with reference to the spread of Jesus’ fame and people coming to Him from “everywhere.”
The clear effect of the progression of these texts is to proclaim the power of the good news, present from the very beginning in Jesus’ mission and ministry. Whereas in the other synoptic gospels this story needs some time to work its way out, in Mark this power has its “epiphany” already in Mark’s unique portrayal of the ministry and preaching of John the Baptist. When Jesus announces the “kingdom of God” has already come near and the reign of God is upon us in this good news, His preaching compounds and strengthens that message. “Immediately,” (to use Mark’s favorite word) the powers that be are engaged. Jesus’ healing and casting out of demons acknowledge His authority and power as something to be reckoned with. In Jesus’ presence lives will be changed. But as the story progresses, beginning especially in last Sunday’s lesson, there are signs that such power will not go unchallenged. The new and the old are bound to clash; the new will not be contained by the old. That impending clash becomes more explicit in Mark 2:1-12 and 2:13-22, but it already breathes beneath the surface in this Sunday’s lesson.
The leper’s arrival and request press the issues of the good news squarely: “If you are willing, you have the power to make me clean” (1:40; my translation). The NRSV’s “if you choose, you can…” disguises and softens Mark’s loaded words of “will” and “power.” Here, we are invited to face the issue of how Jesus will address the matter of “clean and unclean” in the particular realities of this world. That particularity is clear in the leper’s question, which is not about cleansing and power in general, but about the power to make “me” clean. Ultimately, the issue of the good news is whether it has the power to effect change in my life and yours.
The leper’s question recognizes that if there is to be healing, it will be dependent on a God who “wills” that it be so. The “if” in his question leaves that matter provocatively up in the air. As such his words remind us that hearing the arrival of this Jesus as good news is contingent on finding in him the epiphany of a God who actually “wills” that this healing be so. But his words also recognize that such actuality takes more than “will.” The will to cleanse remains only a possibility until it meets the appearance of One who has the “power” to deliver on the promise of that will. This issue of power is central, for it stands both at the beginning and end of this lesson, though it is unfortunately disguised in the English translations. It is here in the leper’s request (verse 40). It is there again in verse 45, where strangely and surprisingly we hear that the successful spread of the word about Jesus means He no longer “has the power” (NRSV, “could”) to go around “openly.” Instead, He must stay in secret in the wilderness. (Literally, he does not have the ability for “epiphany”).
Of course these matters of power will ultimately move this story to the cross. But for now, Jesus’ immediate answer is clear. Jesus is moved with compassion. He reaches out, touches the leper, and says, “I am willing.” If there is any question of the requisite power to cleanse, it is avoided and leapt over. The “I will” becomes immediate reality in Jesus’ command: “Be made clean” (Mark 1:41-42).
In Jesus, “I will” is the power of the good news to change lives and the message of Epiphany; that in Jesus this will and power of God is clearly revealed. Boundaries are crossed; issues of power are addressed; unclean becomes clean; the sick become whole. And Jesus will get into trouble for this!
The trouble is perhaps suggested in the refusal of this good news to be restrained, even by Jesus’ own command. Jesus gives the former leper two commands, “See that you don’t tell anyone,” and “Go show yourself to the priest,” neither of which he obeys. Instead, this man goes out and “preaches” the “word” mightily (Greek: polla; literally, “in many words”). And his preaching is effective, so much so that Jesus becomes hampered in His own ministry (Mark 1:45).
This epiphany story draws us into a number of tensions of discipleship and faith. The leper’s story makes clear that God’s will in Jesus to touch, to cleanse, and to make whole is not just imagination or wish. Instead, it is promise that has the power to touch the particularity of lives, broken and suffering from the powers of the unclean in this world. It also makes clear that the proclamation of this good news has the power, even today, to burst the boundaries of constraint that would keep this good word from being heard. The story of this Jesus will get out!
But tucked within this story, even so close to the beginning of Mark’s good news, is the impending approach of a journey eventually leading to the cross. In these few short verses, this story moves from Jesus’ “power” to His “lack of power.” The story moves from open proclamation of this healing, to Jesus’ inability because of it to no longer go about openly, resulting in His return to the wilderness. However, people still flock to Him in the “wilderness,” inviting us to look back in this story and recall a similar report about John the Baptist. But these words also point us ahead to Mark 9:2-9, next Sunday’s lesson for the last Sunday of Epiphany, traditionally known as Transfiguration Sunday.