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Mark 1:40-45
6th Sunday after the Epiphany - Year B

Other texts:


LARGER CONTEXT

Two weeks ago, I presented the following as part of an outline of these opening chapters of Mark. In this arrangement our text is related more closely with what precedes it than with what follows.

a) The Beginnings in Capernaum (1:21-28) 
b) Healing Peter's Mother-in-law (1:29-31) 
c) Other Healings (1:32-34) 
d) Departure from Capernaum (1:35-39) 
e) Healing a Leper (1:40-45) 

a) Healing and Forgiving the Paralytic (2:1-12) 
b) The Call of Levi (2:13-14) 
c) Association with Sinners (2:15-17) 
d) Jesus and Fasting (2:18-22) 
e) Sabbath Violations (2:23-28) 
f) Healing the Withered Hand (3:1-6)

However, Donald Juel, (Mark, Augsburg Commentary) connects our text with what follows. He puts Mark 1:40-3:6 together and titles the section "Transgressor of the Boundaries." He states: "Jesus' healing of the leper is the first of several stories that deal with Jesus' violation of ritual boundaries" [p. 43].

Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus) also includes our text with what follows under the erudite title: "Challenging the Ideological Hegemony of Priest and Scribe (1:40-2:15)" [p. 152]. (I challenge anyone to use that in a sentence in a sermon -- and have it understood by anyone in the pews.)

In some ways our text relates to what goes before it. It is another healing story and there appears to be no opposition to Jesus' miracles in these stories. Jesus has already broken a few boundaries. Two of his healings were on the sabbath day. In our text, he touches the unclean leper -- an act that makes him unclean.

In other ways our text relates to what follows it. Jesus may be putting himself in opposition to the priests in our story. In the miracle that follows, Jesus is certainly in opposition to the scribes. The events after that have the "scribes of the Pharisees" questioning Jesus' actions.

THE LEPER'S (ILLEGAL) ACTIONS

Why does the leper come to Jesus? By doing so, he breaks the rules of Leviticus 13-14.

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his 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. [Leviticus 13:45-46, NRSV]

This particular leper does not cry out, "Unclean, unclean," -- a cry to have people stay away -- most literally he "is calling him [Jesus] to his side" (parakaleo -- a present tense participle -- it was an ongoing or continuous or repeated calling). This word is used as a summons or prayer or plea for help. The leper is the first one to cross the ritual boundaries. He approaches Jesus. He calls on him to come and help.

Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) writes: "As Hooker [The Gospel according to Mark] suggests, the story is presented in a fashion which intimates that we are to think of this man has having an apparently incurable disease who is driven by desperation to violate the social codes in order to find a cure." [p. 102]

Should people with terminal illness be allowed to step outside the boundaries of normal health care to try and find a cure, e.g., using drugs that are not yet approved by the FDA?

What he asks for is a present general condition in Greek. The translation of some of the words can influence the meaning.

Especially if the translation "declare me clean" is used, this leper is approaching Jesus as a priest -- one who had the power and authority to declare lepers clean and thus restore them to normal society.

Myers (Binding the Strong Man) writes about this: "The leper appears aware that his approach to Jesus, a nonpriest, was itself in violation of the symbolic system, which is why he gives Jesus a chance to refuse. It is almost as if he says, "You could declare me clean if only you would dare (1:40)."

Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) also notes: "...the primary concern is with being clean so that he can reenter Jewish society, being a whole person. This is a very Jewish way of looking at disease, by focusing on its ritual effects, whereas a pagan would have simply said, 'If you will, you can make me well.'" [p. 103]

I had mentioned in an earlier note that "faith" is not mentioned in any of these healings until 2:5 -- and then it is not the faith of the one who is healed. Yet, can we not say that the leper's approach to Jesus -- his disregard for the social and ritual rules -- his belief that Jesus had the power and authority to cleanse him or declare him clean, if Jesus should want to do so -- are actions of faith?

In many ways, Mark's understanding of faith is that it is a determination that will not let rules, customs, or even buildings stand in one's way of getting to Jesus.

Witherington expresses well the plight of this man: "A man with this disease was among the living dead -- untouchable (cf. Num. 12:12; Job 18:13; 11QTemple 45.17-18). (p. 103)

JESUS' EMOTIONS

Verse 41 presents a textual difficulty. Some ancient manuscripts have splagchnistheis = "having pity". Others have orgistheis = "being angry".

Metzger (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament) writes about this variant reading:

It is difficult to come to a firm decision concerning the original text. On the one hand, it is easy to see why orgistheis ("being angry") would have prompted over-scrupulous copyists to alter it to splagchnistheis ("being filled with compassion"), but not easy to account for the opposite change. On the other hand, a majority of the Committee was impressed by the following considerations. (1) The character of the external evidence in support of orgistheis is less impressive than the diversity and character of evidence that supports splagchnistheis. (2) At least two other passages in Mark, which represent Jesus as angry (3:5) or indignant (10:14), have not prompted over scrupulous copyists to make corrections. (3) It is possible that the reading orgistheis either (a) was suggested by embrimesamenos ["warn sternly"] of ver. 43, or (b) arose from confusion between similar words in Aramaic (compare Syriac ethraham, "he had pity," with ethra`am, "he was enraged"). [pp. 76-77]

R. T. France (The Gospel of Mark) dismisses the argument about scribes not changing Jesus' anger in Mark 3:5 & 10:14. He notes that "unlike here, there was obvious cause for anger" (p. 115).

Most translations have gone with the emotion of "pity" (or "compassion"). Sometimes there is a footnote about the "anger" reading, sometimes not. Matthew (81-4) and Luke (5:12-16) omitted these "emotional" terms in their accounts.

Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) opts for the angry reading. After his comment about the leper daring Jesus to heal him, he writes:

Jesus does indeed dare, but Mark tells us he is angry (orgistheis, 1:41). Then, after the declaration of wholeness has been delivered, Jesus, "snorting with indignation" (embrimesamenos), dispatches the man back to the priests (the probable meaning of exebalen). How are we to make sense of these strong emotions?

They only make sense if the man had already been to the priests, who for some reason had rejected his petition. Deciding to make an issue out of it, Jesus sternly gives the leper these orders:

See that you say nothing to anyone! Rather, go back and show yourself to the priest and make the offering prescribed by Moses for your cleansing as a witness against them [1:44]

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") 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" (eis marturion autois). This is a technical phrase in the Gospel for testimony before hostile audiences (6:11; 13:9). [p. 153]

I agree with most of his word studies. I like the word embrimaomai. It originally referred to the snorting noise horses made -- and I think they tried to duplicate the sound with this word. The same word is used later in Mark concerning the disciples' reaction to the woman who wastes her ointment on Jesus. They scold her, because the ointment could have been sold for about year's wages and the money given to the poor (Mark 14:5).

I'm not convinced that exebalen means to "send back". It usually means "to send or cast out." It is most often used of Jesus or disciples "casting out" demons or evil spirits. The prefix ek (or ex) means "out" or "away". It is ironic, that when he was unclean and supposed to stay away from people, he comes to Jesus. Now that he is clean, Jesus sends him away.

Witherington suggests a different approach quoting Guelich: "'Therefore, Jesus' anger is a " righteous anger" that recognizes the work of the Evil One in the sick as well as the possessed....' This makes good sense in light of the use of the term 'cast out,' which also occurs in this narrative." [p. 103]

After looking and dismissing some reasons for the anger, France concludes:

Mark certainly wants us to understand that Jesus emotionally affected by the encounter, but does not explain why. The most likely explanation is, perhaps, that the suffering caused by the disease, both physically and socially, moved Jesus not only to compassion but to anger at the presence of such evil in the world; perhaps also over the insensitivity of the social taboo. That the anger was not directed against the man himself is implied by the immediate compassionate response. [pp. 117-118]

I imagine that most of us have felt such anger when a painful or deadly disease afflicts a loved one. While we have compassion for the person, there is anger at the cancer or the infection or the addiction that is sapping life away from the person. There was anger at the cystic fibrosis in the confirmation student. He died as a teenager. There is anger at the leukemia that has attacked a 40-something friend. There is anger at the diseases that have kept a young mother in the hospital, away from her children, for weeks.

In spite of his anger (at what we aren't sure), Jesus heals him. Witherington then writes:

...we are told quite specifically that he touched him, which stands in contrast to what we find in 2 Kings 5:10. This would certainly render Jesus unclean, but the issue of Jesus' view of the Levitical laws is not really fully broached until Mark 7. One could argue that Jesus was willing to incur uncleanness in order to help others, but this seems an inadequate assessment because we are nowhere told that Jesus, like the man he heals, ever went through the ritual cleansing after this encounter. What Mark will suggest in chapter 7 is that Jesus believed that with the inbreaking of God's dominion these rules about clean and unclean, and indeed also various Sabbath rules, were obsolescent. Such rules had fulfilled their purpose, but now the Holy One of God had appeared and a new state of affairs was at hand. [pp. 103-4]

The change from the singular "priest" to the plural "them" in v. 44 is interesting. Who are "they"? What is the "witness" (martyrion) that the former-leper is to give them? It seems to me that his witness is to indicate to "them" that his healing and the declaration of his cleansing took place outside of their jurisdiction. Someone, namely Jesus, is undermining their (God-given) authority in the community. This also means that Jesus is undermining the Law as given by Moses.

COMMAND OF SILENCE

Jesus commands him to say nothing to anyone, but to go to the priests. Was he to tell the priests what happened? Could he share the news after performing the proper sacrifices?

Because the leper disobeyed and began proclaiming all over the place, Jesus is no longer able to enter cities openly. Why? One answer is that he became too popular with the people. I was at a high school basketball game where a well-known professional football player was in the audience. During half time he was mobbed by fans wanting his autograph, which he gave. However, when the second half began, he shooed everyone away. "I came to watch the game," he told them. Celebrities have a problem with going about openly. They can be mobbed. The crowds can keep them from doing what they really want to do. That seldom happens to us pastors.

There is another possible reason for Jesus staying outside the cities in the wilderness places -- he had become unclean by touching the leper. As the now-clean leper tells everyone what happened to him, it would have been clear to all the people that Jesus had become unclean. It was against the rules for anyone to associate with Jesus -- but see quote from Witherington above.

A third possibility is suggested by Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) which they call "gossip backlash". They write:

Among nonliterate peoples (only 2 to 4 percent could read or write in agrarian societies), communication is basically by word of mouth. Where reputation (honor status) is concerned, gossip informed the community about (and validated) ongoing gains and losses and thereby provided a guide to proper social interaction. Its effects could be both positive (confirm honor, spread reputation, shape and guide public interaction) and negative (undermine others), though overall it tended to maintain the status quo by highlighting deviations from the norm. It thus functioned as an important mechanism of informal social control. For example, in cases where a person sought to claim more honor than his birthright provided (an action considered stealing in a limited-good society in which gain for one automatically meant loss for someone else), the gossip network could trigger a backlash that cut the claimant down to size very quickly. That may be the reason for Mark's note here (1:45) that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town. Since he is in his home region and his reputation is growing, backlash may have started. [p. 185]

The phrase, "getting too big for his britches" seems to capture some of the sense of this interpretation. Was Jesus, a carpenter's son from Nazareth, acting too big for his britches by declaring a leper clean -- actions that were limited by law to the priests?

Whatever the reasons, the leper's disobedience made life more difficult for Jesus. Have you ever thought that talking about your positive experiences with Jesus could be counter-productive? I maintain that proper evangelism begins with silence and listening. For news to be "good" for the hearer, it has to address their needs and concerns. I also think that one reason many Lutherans are skeptical of evangelism is because they have seen it done badly by too many people (usually on TV).

Witherington suggests that this man bore witness about the wrong thing in the wrong way and that the results of his witnessing were all wrong. [p. 104]

SUMMARY

I wonder if Jesus' negative emotions could have been caused by the fact that this leper put him between a rock and a hard place. The leper presented himself before Jesus with sufficient trust for a miracle to happen, but for Jesus to perform the miracle, Jesus had to bring the sick man's uncleanliness and unsociability upon himself. This would make open entrances into the towns and synagogues more difficult, if not impossible. Jesus was forced to make a change in the way he had planned to minister to the people. Yet, the crowds continued to come to Jesus out in the deserted places.

James Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark) gives this story the title, "Jesus Trades Places with a Leper." He concludes his comments with:

Mark began this story with Jesus on the inside and the leper on the outside. At the end of the story, Jesus is "outside in lonely places." Jesus and the leper have traded places. Early in his ministry Jesus is already an outsider in human society. Mark casts him in the role of the Servant of the Lord who bears the iniquities of others (Isa 53:11) and whose bearing of them causes him to be "numbered with the transgressors" (Isa 53:12). (p. 72)

Perhaps those who have watched some of those "trading places" TV shows will find a way to tie them into this interpretation of Jesus' acts in this text.

Witherington suggests: "It has been said that the capacity for righteous anger is essential to being a minister or servant of God." [p. 105] If we are not angry about some sort of evil in society, and doing something about it, how well are we listening to God's word? Could that be a way of looking at cheap grace a grace that doesn't produce anger within us at the injustices and evils and unfairness in society; a grace that doesn't motivate us to do something to seek to remove such problems from people's lives?

Witherington offers this summary:

...in the main [Jesus] came to proclaim the good news of the inbreaking of God's dominion, not primarily to give temporary respite from a human condition that is eventually terminal anyway. Jesus is certainly not a reluctant healer, but on the other hand healing is not the focus of his mission.

...It is perhaps Jesus' firm belief in resurrection that in turn makes him take a more limited view of the value of temporary cures for creatures who will one day did in any case.

This is not to say that healing in this life is not a very good thing. It is simply to say that it is at most a foreshadowing, not really a full foretaste, of the life to come. Jesus the healer of temporal illnesses and difficulties, according to the earliest Evangelist, must be exegeted in the context of Jesus the proclaimer of something greater than temporary solutions -- the inbreaking of the dominion of God. [pp. 106-7]

ADDITIONAL SERMONIC IDEAS

What is the relationship between personal encounters with Jesus and rituals in our worship services? I strongly believe that Jesus comes to us in the Word and Sacraments. Participating in them is essential for the Christian life. At the same time, I hear people talking about very real, personal experiences with the divine; sometimes through dreams and visions; sometimes through miraculous healings; sometimes through other events. How do we clergy deal with such experiences that may have taken place outside our authority and control? How do we counsel such people if they have concluded that they no longer need the rituals of "organized religion," which they feel are empty of the Jesus they have experienced?

I wonder, does the church try to control Jesus? Which of our church "rules" might Jesus break if he were walking around today? Which of our church "rules" might we need to break in order to get close to Jesus? Who are like lepers in our communities? What is our congregation's relationship to such people? Are there people whom we wouldn't want to touch? Would Jesus touch them? Do we ever feel like this leper? Have we ever experienced Jesus like this leper? How has Jesus healed and restored us to wholeness? Are we ever the priests in this story? Are our congregations the "them" who need a witness about the power and authority of Jesus?

When is it time to witness? When is it time to be silent? Most Lutherans have no trouble being quiet about their faith. They can easily follow Jesus' command to say nothing to anyone. Yet, the leper was called by Jesus to be a witness to others -- not necessarily with his words, but by his actions. I maintain that every Christian is a witness -- their witness may be good or it may be bad -- but their actions, their words witness to who they are as people -- and people of God.

In a former congregation, we had a bulletin board with pictures of our members on it. Frequently at weddings or funerals when there are many non-members in the building, they will look over the pictures. Nearly always someone points to a picture and says something like, "I didn't know they went to this church." I wonder what the speaker thinks about our congregation from their contact with that person, whom they now know belongs to this congregation.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com