According to the book of Leviticus, “The person who has a leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of their head be disheveled. And he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘unclean, unclean!’
He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone, his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
So, if you got leprosy, or really any other skin disease, not only did you have to move outside the city, by yourself, but if anyone did approach, you would have to yell out, “unclean, unclean!” to warn them who you were.
And I know that sounds harsh, like really harsh, but it made sense in a world that knew nothing about germs or bacteria or even the value of hand washing! What they knew was that these things could kill you.
Maybe they wouldn’t, but they might. And in a world where life was precarious enough already, just in day to day living, for the good of everyone, out you go! If it clears up, let the priest know. Otherwise, be gone!
Can you imagine how lonely that would have been? Not only are you sick, facing an uncertain future, you’re doing it all alone. Cut off from family and friends and community.
And the icing on the cake was that anyone who came near you, or touched you, would be labeled “unclean”, too.
And the only way to be able to return home was to get checked out by the priest, the only one who had the power to change your status from “unclean” back to “clean.” From “not welcome” to “welcome.”
Now, before we go any farther, it might be helpful to distinguish the difference between a “disease” and an “illness”.
I know we use those things the same way most of the time, but there is a bit of difference, especially when we’re thinking about what’s going on in the bible.
See, the “disease” is the thing that’s actually making you sick. “Illness” is what it does to your life.
You may have cancer, but feel totally fine. On the flipside, you might be a long-time sober recovering alcoholic and still be ostracized and held under suspicion.
Leprosy, as a “disease” is, in today’s world, a curable bacterial infection. But as an illness, it still cuts people off from community, marks them as something “other”, creates secrets and shame and stigma.
And we know how to cure it! Imagine how much more so it would have been in Jesus’ day. Leprosy, as a disease, might be a death sentence. Leprosy as an illness, definitely was.
And so you might understand the desperation of a man, a leper, who would dare to break the law and not only not warn people away, but actually approach Jesus, begging for help.
“If you choose, you can make me clean. You can take away this thing that is keeping me from life, from my family, from my community. If you choose, you have the power to let me go home!”
And Jesus does choose. He touched him, and the leprosy was gone. Just like that!
But then he does this weird little thing where he tells this man to keep his mouth shut, go straight to the priest, and get the “official” stamp of approval…Which is exactly the opposite of what he does.
Instead, he goes running into town, telling anyone and everyone who will listen what just happened. And I sort of envision Jesus just dropping his head and doing this sort of face-palm.
‘Cause Jesus has things to do! He just said, like 6 verses ago, that his job is to go to all these towns and proclaim the message of God’s Kingdom come near! That’s what he came to do!
And now that everyone knows that he touched a leper, he can’t go into town. At least not without causing a pretty big stink.
And eventually Jesus does do exactly that, but it’s still too early! It’s too early, he’s just getting started. But he touched a leper and now everyone knows and so he can’t go into town to do what he’s there to do.
“The word spread, so that Jesus could no longer go into town openly, but stayed out in the country.”
And it’s not that Jesus had contracted the disease of leprosy by touching this man. But in the eyes of the people, he had the illness.
Sometimes, illness doesn’t have anything to do with disease. Sometimes illness is something that others put on us.
Recovering addicts, former inmates, the physically or intellectually disabled.
There are so many people who are whole and healthy, who have an illness inflicted upon them. Sometimes physically, sometimes socially, but in one way or another, are held at an arm’s length from community.
When Jesus touched that leper, he didn’t contract leprosy. But he did take that illness upon himself. And with it, the stigma and suspicion and isolation.
When he touched that man, when he healed him and sent him home, Jesus traded places with him. The leper returned home, to community. Jesus left town, alone.
And it is a testament to the power of hope, or maybe just desperation, that people still came to him anyway.
You know, there are a lot of different ways we could read through the gospel of Mark this year. But one of the big ones, in my opinion, is reading Mark as the story of how Jesus trades places with us.
Of how Jesus slowly but surely enters into our lives, into the good and the bad and all the in between, until the only left between us and God is death. And so Jesus takes that on, too.
Jesus enters even into our death. Until there is nothing left of our lives, no corner of our existence, where God has not gone and where God is not present.
The gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus taking on all of what is ours and giving us all of what is God’s. In today’s story, Jesus takes on isolation and loneliness and gives back community and home.
And throughout the story, we will see Jesus take on fear and anger and arrogance and pain. And give in return humility and healing and hope. All the way to the end, when Jesus takes on our very death, to give us life.
You know, Mark is not the most sophisticated gospel. Not the most “theologically lofty.” But Mark does show us a God who holds nothing back. Who would go to hell and back, just to make sure not a single one in lost.
In Jesus, we meet our God of love. Our God who takes on all of what is ours and offers back all of what is God’s.
In Jesus, we see the heart of God, broken open and poured out, not for glory or for power, but for you. For your life.
Not just any life for a death. For you he died. To you he gives life. All of your life for all of God’s life.
This is what he came to do.