40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
The main character of this ministry encounter is labeled by most translations as “a leper,” but this translation is misleading. Joel Marcus translates this word as “scale disease,” and points out that this term “designates a variety of conditions in which the skin becomes scaly, but not what today is called leprosy (Hansen’s disease) (Marcus, 205).”
The caution here is not to get caught up in the diagnosis of a disease. Jesus does not respond to the symptoms of a diseases in this encounter. He responds to the social stigma and the ramifications of a label. Here we enter into the realm of symbolic action.
Ched Myers writes, “In the symbolic order of Judaism, illness was associated with impurity or sin, a state that meant exclusion from full status in the body politic (Myers, 145).”
To be labeled a leper in the time of Jesus was to be labeled “unclean” by the religious authorities - In this instance, the priests, whom Jesus refers to in verse 44. Being labeled unclean meant that this person could not participate in community life. This person could not go to the synagogue for worship. This person could not shop at the market. This person is socially dead, to return to the metaphor from the last lesson.
This person with the scale disease seeks out Jesus, recognizing his authority, and asks for the label to be changed from “unclean” to “clean.”
1:41 - 42 - Touch and Healing
By touching the man with the scale diseases, Jesus would also carry the label of unclean. That was the rule. To touch the unclean was to become unclean yourself. But that’s not what happens in this case.
In this case, the man is healed and regains the label of clean. Jesus removes the label that keeps this man from participating in the life of the community. It is another instance of social resurrection. Jesus literally and metaphorically gives this man a new life.
Myers again - “In sum, Jesus’ symbolic acts were powerful not because they challenged the laws of nature, but because they challenged the very structures of social existence (Myers, 147-48).”
1:43 - 45 - Healing as Confrontation
After the healing, Jesus sends the man back to the priests. This moment is often understood as Jesus participating with the priestly structure, but this does not make sense given the conflicts between Jesus and the priests. Jesus’ action “only makes sense if the man had already been to the priests, who for some reason had rejected his petition (Myers, 153).”
Myers argues, “The cleansed leper’s task is not to publicize a miracle but to help confront an ideological system: the change in object (from “priest” to “them,” verse 44) suggests a protest against the entire purity apparatus, which the priests control. He is to make the offering for the purpose of ‘witnessing against them’ (Myers, 153).”
Jesus makes a statement against the priestly order. He is angered at their misuse of the purity system. The system has created victims and has taken life away from members of the community. It is a broken system that Jesus confronts with his ministry of healing.
Questions for Modern Day Disciples
- Where do we encounter social labels that take away life?
- What labels to do carry that keep us from a full life?
- How do we participate with Jesus in confronting broken systems and promoting healing?
Next week we will make our way into chapter 2.
Blessings on the journey.