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Mark 1:40-45 Biblical Commentary:
MARK 1:40-42. A LEPER CAME TO JESUS
40A leper came to him, begging him, kneeling down to him, and saying to him, “If you want to, you can(Greek: dunasai—you have the power to) make me clean.” 41Being moved with compassion (Greek:splanchnistheis—filled with compassion—or orgistheis—filled with anger—manuscripts differ, see below), he stretched out his hand, and touched him, and said to him, “I want to. Be made clean.” 42When he had said this, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was made clean.
“A leper came to (Jesus) begging him” (v. 40a). In Jesus’ day, the word leprosy was used for a broad range of skin conditions, to include such diseases as boils and ringworm (Edwards, 68—see also Leviticus 13-14). Some of those diseases had no known cure, and were thus greatly feared. Some were highly communicable, so lepers were required to live in isolation.Torah law prescribes:
“The leper in whom the plague is shall wear torn clothes,
and the hair of his head shall hang loose.
He shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’
All the days in which the plague is in him he shall be unclean.
He is unclean. He shall dwell alone.
Outside of the camp shall be his dwelling” (Leviticus 13:45-46).
The Old Testament has several accounts of God afflicting people with leprosy as punishment (Numbers 12:9-10; 2 Kings 5:27; 15:5; 2 Chronicles 26:19-21), so people tended to interpret leprosy as punishment for sin.
Leprosy therefore had multiple dimensions—medical, religious, social and financial. The afflicted person (medical) was considered to be ritually unclean (spiritual). Lepers were required to live alone and to maintain a distance of fifty paces from other people (social). If the leper touched another person or was touched by them, the other person was considered to be diseased and ritually unclean until examined by a priest and pronounced clean. In other words, both the disease (medical) and the ritual impurity (spiritual) were communicable. The afflicted person was unable to work, and was thus reduced to begging (financial). Most likely his family was also reduced to begging. The medical problem was terrible, but the other consequences added crushing weight to an already awful situation.
Leviticus 13-14 prescribed in great detail how leprosy was to be diagnosed, and made the priest responsible for examining people with skin problems to determine whether they had leprosy. The priest was also responsible for assessing whether a leper was cured of the disease. If so, Leviticus specified a ritual to restore the person to a clean state.
kneeling (the leper) down to him (Jesus), and saying to him, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” (v. 40b). This leper comes to Jesus begging on his knees. It is clear that he transgresses the fifty-paces boundary that he is supposed to maintain, because Jesus reaches out and touches him. The leper says, “If you want to, you can (dunasai—you have the power—we get the word “dynamite” from a form of this word, dunamis) make me clean” (v. 40). The leper has obviously heard the news about Jesus healing other people, but is uncertain whether Jesus will heal him. If leprosy is God’s judgment for sin, perhaps Jesus will require him to serve his full sentence.
The man does not ask to be healed (medical), but rather to be made clean (spiritual and social). There is, in this story, no reference to healing, but there are four references to cleansing.
This man is not asking for the kind of cleanliness that we achieve by a bath or shower. He is talking about spiritual cleanliness—holiness. The Jewish people of his day equated cleanliness with holiness. If you were unclean, you were unholy. In fact, you were unclean because you were unholy. That’s why Jewish law prescribed that a priest—not a physician—should determine whether a person had leprosy (Leviticus 13). A leprous body was thought to be the sign of a leprous soul, so the priest was to examine a person’s skin to determine the condition of his/her soul (Lenchak).
Uncleanness was thought to be contagious, so a leper was required to live in isolation outside the community and cry out “Unclean, unclean” when anyone approached (Leviticus 13:45-46).
However, one cannot be made clean without also being made disease-free, so this man is asking to be fully restored to normal life in all dimensions. His plea for cleansing rather than healing suggests that he values the restoration of his spiritual and social status even above his physical healing. It also acknowledges his faith that Jesus works by God’s power. Only God can heal a leper, and only the priest (God’s appointed representative) can pronounce a leper clean.
“Being moved with compassion” (v. 41a). This verse presents us with a difficult translation problem. Most manuscripts say that Jesus was filled with pity or compassion (Greek: splanchistheis), but others say that he was angry (Greek: orgistheis). Compassion makes more sense in this context, and some good manuscripts use splanchistheis. However, there are also reasons to accept anger (orgistheis) as the proper reading here:
• First, a standard principle of translation says that the more difficult reading is to be preferred, because copyists are tempted to “improve” a manuscript by changing a difficult reading to an easier reading, but are not tempted to do the reverse. In this case, they would be tempted to change Jesus’ anger to Jesus’ compassion to make the reading easier, but would not be tempted to change compassion to anger.
• Second, Matthew (8:1-4) and Luke (5:12-16), who use Mark as a source, avoid any mention of Jesus’ emotion. If Mark had used the word compassion, Matthew and Luke could be expected to include that in their accounts. However, if Mark used the word anger, Matthew and Luke would be more likely to drop that from their accounts.
• Third, the use of embrimesamenos and exbalen in verse 43. See below for the exegesis on that verse.
Why would Jesus be angry? Scholars discount the possibility that he was angry with the leper for transgressing the fifty-pace rule, because Jesus showed no reluctance to touch the man. They don’t think that Jesus was angry at being interrupted, because he was often interrupted but didn’t usually respond with anger. They favor the idea that “Mark does not intend us to understand Jesus’ anger as directed against the leper at all, but against the evil forces which have claimed the man as their victim” (Hooker, 80).
However, scholars also emphasize that Jesus was trying to maintain a proper balance between teaching and healing, the two primary forms of his ministry in the first half of this Gospel. For the most part, people were drawn to him by his healing miracles, and often failed to see his deeper spiritual dimension. Another possibility, then, is that the healing of a leper would draw people to Jesus for the wrong reasons, something that actually happens in v. 45. In v. 41, then, Jesus senses that the leper is asking him to do something that will throw his ministry off-track. The leper’s plea forces him to choose between mission and compassion—to compromise one or the other. It is easy to see how Jesus would respond with anger to such a no-win choice. This explanation also explains the strong language of v. 43 (see below) and Jesus’ stern warning to the leper not to tell anyone but the priest.
“he stretched out his hand. and touched him” (v. 41b). If Jesus can heal the man by touch, presumably he could also heal him without touching him. His touch seems reckless, because touching the leper should contaminate Jesus (both medically and spiritually). However, in this case, it is not the leper who is contagious, but Jesus. The leper does not transmit his uncleanness to Jesus, but Jesus transmits his wholeness and holiness to the leper and makes him clean (medically, spiritually, and socially).
In this Gospel, we will read about Jesus touching or associating with other people in ways that would potentially defile him—tombs and swine (5:1-20); a hemorrhaging woman (5:25-27); a corpse (5:41); Gentiles and unclean spirits (7:24-26). In each instance, he transmits his wholeness and holiness rather than the other way around.
“I want to. Be made clean!” (katharistheti) (v. 41c). Katharistheti “is probably a ‘divine passive,’ a reverent Jewish circumlocution used to suggest God’s action without mentioning him directly, and it thus implies that God is the active agent in the cure” (Marcus, 206).
“When he had said this, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was made clean” (v. 42). In the beginning, God’s word created the heavens and the earth. Now Jesus demonstrates that his word also has power to accomplish what he orders.
Mark does not tell us whether Jesus simply stopped the disease or also removed the disfigurement that the disease would already have caused. Because simply stopping the disease seems such a halfway measure, we should assume that he also restored the man to a normal appearance.
MARK 1:43-44. GO, SHOW YOURSELF TO THE PRIEST
43He strictly warned (Greek: embrimesamenos—another “angry” word) him, and immediately sent him out (Greek: exebalen—drove out—cast out), 44and said to him, “See you say nothing to anybody, (Greek: medeni meden—to no one, nothing) but go show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing the things which Moses commanded, for a testimony (Greek: eis maturion—for a testimony or an accusation) to them (Greek: autois—to them or against them).”
“(Jesus) strictly warned (embrimesamenos) him” (v. 43a). The word embrimesamenos is used to describe a horse snorting. When used of people, it conveys anger, displeasure, or indignation. Mark will use this same word to describe the disciples’ anger at the woman who anoints Jesus with expensive ointment (14:4-5).
“and immediately sent him out (exebalen)“ (v. 43b). The word exebalen is translated elsewhere as “driving out” or “casting out”—i.e., the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness (1:12) and casting out demons (1:34, 39). It conveys a good deal of force—force that the translation, “sent him out,” fails to convey.
So we have three words that convey an angry, urgent mood on Jesus’ part: orgistheis (v. 41), embrimesamenos (v. 43a), and exbalen (v. 43b)—words that seem out of place in a healing story. We must ask why they are there. They seem more appropriate in an exorcism story, so scholars have wondered if Mark somehow mixed elements of an exorcism story into this healing story. However, it seems more likely that Jesus is angry because, in healing the leper, he risked attracting people who will be interested in him only for his magical powers—thereby compromising his ministry. This also explains his forceful warning not to say anything to anyone except the priest. Keep my secret! Don’t blow my cover! Jesus’ anger might also be related to his awareness that the man will disobey his command to secrecy.
“See you say nothing to anybody, (medeni meden—to no one, nothing) (v. 44a), but go show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing the things which Moses commanded” After warning the man to tell nobody nothing (the double negative, medeni meden), Jesus orders him to show himself to the priest and to offer the proper offering. Leviticus 13 tells the priest how to inspect a person for leprosy—what to look for and what to do. Leviticus 14 tells about the offerings to be offered and the ritual to be performed to cleanse (spiritually) a person who is found to be disease-free (medically). The cleansing is an eight-day process, culminating in the cleansed leper bringing two male lambs, a ewe lamb, a grain offering, and a log of oil for sacrifice (Leviticus 14:10). Leviticus makes an allowance for a poor person who cannot afford such expensive offerings (Leviticus 14:21 ff.).
The man should not have to travel far to find a priest. Many priests serve in Jerusalem a few days each year and live elsewhere the balance of the year. However, sacrifices must be offered at the temple, so the man will have to travel to Jerusalem to complete his sacrificial obligation (French, 119; Wright, 14).
Jesus’ command for the cleansed leper to show himself to the priest is in the man’s interest, because he cannot re-enter society without the priest’s approval. It also demonstrates Jesus’ devotion to Torah law, a matter that will shortly be in dispute as he forgives a paralytic’s sins—God’s prerogative (2:1-13), calls a tax collector to be his disciple (2:14-17), defends his disciples’ failure to fast (2:18-22) and their harvest of grain on the sabbath (2:23-27)—etc., etc., etc.
“for a testimony (marturion) to them” (autois) (v. 44b). What is the purpose of this marturion—this witness or testimony? Is the man bearing witness only to the fact that he has been made clean, or is he also bearing witness to Jesus’ unique power? It would seem that both are true.
Note the difference between Jesus’ power and that of the priests. The priests are authorized to pronounce a man clean, but Jesus has the power to make them clean.
It is quite legitimate to translate autois “against them” instead of “to them.” It is possible, therefore, to translate Jesus’ words, “for a testimony against them.” When the man presents himself to the priest, the priest will have to assess his physical condition. If he finds the man to be disease-free, the priest will have to bear public witness to that fact and participate in a cleansing ceremony to allow the man to re-enter society. If the priests acknowledge the healing but not the healer (Jesus), “they will stand condemned by the very evidence which they have supplied” (Lane, 88).
If this is the intent of “for a testimony to/against them”—if Jesus intends to force the priest to acknowledge Jesus’ Godly power—the urgency of his stern admonition to go to the priest becomes obvious. Not only will the man’s visit to the priest restore the man to society, but it will also condemn the priests, who will certify the healing and thus Jesus’ Godly power—but who will continue to oppose Jesus.
MARK 1:45. BUT HE BEGAN TO PROCLAIM IT MUCH
45But he went out, and began to proclaim (Greek: kerussein—from kerusso—to preach) it much, and to spread about the matter, so that Jesus could no more openly enter into a city, but was outside in desert places: and they came to him from everywhere.
“But he went out and began to proclaim (kerussein – preach) it much, and to spread about the matter” (v. 45a). The man disobeys Jesus’ order, preaching the word so effectively that people overwhelm Jesus, seeking his help. While inconvenient for Jesus, the man was nevertheless proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ work.
“so that Jesus could no more openly enter into a city, but was outside in desert places” (v. 45b). The problem is that “the publicity created audiences, not congregations (Craddock, 104). There are at least four points of irony in this verse:• A disobedient man is among the first to preach the good news about Jesus.
• Jesus’ fame hampers rather than enhances his ministry.
• This story began with the leper forced to live “outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46) and ends with his restoration to community life. The story begins with Jesus moving freely among villages, and ends with him forced to live “out in the country” (v. 45). The two men have traded places. Jesus finds himself suffering a leper’s isolation.
• “An ability of Jesus, namely his power to heal (1:40), has now become the cause of his inability to move about (1:45)” (Marcus, 210).
“and they came to him from everywhere.” (v. 45c). But Jesus didn’t have to go to the people. They came to him.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Wright, Tom (N.T.), Mark for Everyone (London: SPCK and Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001, 2004)
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