Mark 1:40-45: Redefining the Sacred
As I write this, it occurs to me that today I, along with thousands of others, am about to participate in a sacred ritual of sorts. It begins with being dropped off at the curb by a taxi. From there I proceed to an electronic kiosk, insert my credit card, use the touch screen to input various kinds of information, and then finally receive a white slip of paper. I walk a short distance and then join a queue of people who also have obtained a white slip of paper. One by one we are solemnly ushered to an official in a blue uniform. He or she checks to make sure that the white slip matches my driver’s license and that my driver’s license matches me. Walking further, I take off my shoes, empty my pockets and put my possessions onto a moving conveyor belt which then disappears into a dark tunnel. Then on prompt from yet another blue-clad official, I walk slowly and deliberately into a special threshold, pause, turn to the side, hold my arms up in the air, wait for the signal, and then proceed. I then gather my possessions and put my shoes back on.
Where will all this take place? Well, in an airport of course, in its sacred space. There is nothing flippant or irreverent in my saying so. After all, “sacred” or “sanctified” simply mean “set apart.” In our society, one example of sacred space is the secure area of airport terminal. You just can’t traipse in and out, at least not without severe consequences.
In Israel it was the same way with the temple. There were strict protocols for entry and woe to those who failed to adhere to those protocols. Just as in a modern airport you have to be clean of potential weapons or explosive devices, so it was in the temple system: you had to be “clean.” This was serious stuff.
When we consider this nameless leper in Mark 1:40-45, we are considering someone who is unclean by definition, likely has been so for some time, and likely will remain so for some time, perhaps interminably. It is doubtful that the man had “leprosy” as we tend to define it, that is, as Hansen’s Disease. Instead the Jews used “leprosy” to refer to any number of conditions which had the presenting symptoms of flaking skin. Malnutrition sometimes manifests itself in flaking skin. Given the high poverty rate in first-century Palestine, a good as guess as any is that here we have a man who was very poor, malnourished, and his skin paid the price accordingly.
The man himself would have also had to pay a price. For scripture clearly taught that any individual who upon examination drew the priestly verdict of “unclean” was to be barred from public worship, at least worship as enjoyed by most Israelites (Leviticus 14). (In rabbinic Judaism we have testimony that lepers were allowed to enter synagogue worship but were forced to remain behind a screen.) If you were unclean, you could not fully participate in the temple life. You were shut out from the people’s religious life and in some senses too the very presence of God.
As a leper, you would also experience social isolation. Lepers, just like the one in our passage, were obliged to announce their presence loudly wherever they went in public. This gave the people sufficient opportunity to clear out of the way and keep their distance. A leper’s public appearance struck fear and revulsion in the people. You were quite literally untouchable.
Thus far in Mark’s narrative we have seen Jesus cast out demons and heal the physically afflicted. Once the leper falls on his knees before Jesus, we are presented with a new question: can Jesus take that which is unclean and make it clean? On the basis of either personal observation or hearsay, the leper believes just that. How will Jesus respond? It is a suspenseful moment.
Jesus’ immediate response, as Mark tells the story, is neither verbal nor physical, but affective: he is “filled with compassion” (v. 41). (Observing the divergent witness of the Greek manuscripts, some text critics argue that the evangelist actually first wrote “being anger” and not “filled with compassion” [orgistheis and not splangnistheis] but I remain unconvinced.) He is filled with compassion because of the man’s condition. Mark is careful to note this because compassion has always been the motivating ground for Yahweh as he was about to act on behalf of his people (Isa 14:1–3; 30:18; 54:10; 60:10; Jer 42:12; Ezek 39:15, 25, cf. Deut 30:3), that is, to bring about their release from exile.
Then Jesus does something truly remarkable. He reaches out his arm and touches the leper. If you were there, you might have even heard someone gasp. Upon meeting a leper, any Jew of the day would have instinctively stepped back. One can understand why. To have physical contact with a leper meant incurring a prolonged state of uncleanness and therefore isolation. But rather than stepping back Jesus steps forward, stretches out his arm (the Greek word cheir means both “hand” and “arm”) and touches the leprous man. Why does he do that?
In the first place, we have to imagine that Jesus realizes that this man had been long deprived of human contact and therefore was sorely in need of a human touch. In touching the leper, he takes care not only of his physical condition (and its entailment of ritual impurity), but also his emotional needs. It comes as no surprise: Jesus is about the restoration of the whole person, in his physical, spiritual, and emotional aspects.
But I believe there is another reason why Jesus stretched out his arm, or at least, why Mark records him as doing so with exactly these words. In the book of Exodus, the reader finds Moses assuming a recurring position, the position of holding out outstretched arms. The very first time Moses does this is in connection with leprosy, where his hand is made leprous white, and then is turned whole again (Exod 4:4–7). Later, Moses stretches out his arms as part of calling down the judgment of the ten plagues against Egypt (Exod 8:5–6, 16–17; 9:3, 15, 22–23, 29; 10:12–13). Then again, as some of us will remember from the famous Charlton Heston movie, Moses stretches out his arms in order to part the Red Sea (14:6). Still later he is required to stretch out his arms to secure victory over the Amalekites (17:9–16). Again and again in the Exodus, Moses stretches out his arms to effect the miraculous, more pointedly miracles of judgment.
The reason why Moses must stretch out his arms is because he is a visible emblem of Yahweh, who through the Exodus is stretching out his arm (Exod 7:5, 19). Egyptologists have recovered a good deal of iconography which graphically depicts the mighty Pharaoh stretching out his arm with a view to beating those he has subjugated. Such iconography was obviously propaganda to remind the people as to who was in power – and who was not. In the scriptures, Yahweh and Moses are both described as stretching out their arms in response to what would have been the very familiar image of Pharaoh with his outstretched arms. It is almost as if Yahweh were saying, “So, Pharaoh, you think you will stretch out your arms so arrogantly to display your power? Well, let’s see what happens when I stretch out my arms through Moses?” Yahweh did so and the result is now history.
Returning to Mark 1, this suggests two things. First, it more than hints that Jesus is playing the role of Moses (and perhaps the role of Yahweh too) who was the human redeemer par excellence. Mark’s point is that if Yahweh secured the redemption of Israel through Moses, now He was about to do the same through the agency of Jesus. The New Exodus, already amply hinted at in Mark 1:2-3, would manifest itself in this: that God through Jesus would take the unclean and make it clean.
Second, this implies – or at least potentially implies – that Jesus’ act of compassion was simultaneously and paradoxically an act of judgment. When we consider the first Exodus, we realize that what was good news for the people of God meant an abrupt demotion for Pharaoh. But what about the New Exodus? Do we find any indications of judgment in Mark 1:40-45? Indeed we do. Jesus instructs the healed leper to go to the priest and offer a sacrifice for cleansing “as a testimony eis them” (v. 44), which is best translated as “a testimony against them,” that is, against the priests.
In this connection, we note that according to Torah, it was only a priest who could declare someone clean or unclean. Thus Jesus, in pronouncing the leper clean, is transferring to himself the prerogative reserved for the priest. This may well be related to the observation that Jesus had – unflinchingly it seems – violated the Jewish purity codes.
Some might suggest that Jesus’ decision to do so reflects his commitment to a higher norm of love which trumps the purity system. The problem with this explanation, other than being suspiciously modern and romantic, is that it begs the question as to how this squares with Jesus high view of the law elsewhere. Still Jesus’ move here demands some kind of explanation. We have no indication that he, on touching the leper, suddenly recoiled, thumped his own forehead with his fist and said, “Arghh. What was I thinking?!” Nor do we have any impression that he intended to go through the steps of remediation to resolve a state of personal uncleanness. What are to make of Jesus apparently skirting the requirements of clean and unclean?
Before offering my own explanation for this, perhaps a word is in order regarding the dynamics of clean and unclean in ancient Judaism. In Jewish thinking uncleanness is typically a centrifugal, contaminating force. For example, if you take a ritually clean handkerchief and touch it to an unclean leper, the leper does not become clean but the handkerchief becomes unclean. Clean and unclean do not have a symmetrical relationship; instead the unclean dominates over the clean. There is, however, an exception to this rule, and that exception is the temple, in particular, the altar before the Holy of Holies. Apparently, the altar had a way of conferring cleanness, so that the force of cleanness radiates out, turning that which is unclean to clean.
We already have a subtle but nonetheless strong indication that Jesus is presuming the take the role of priest (an indication which will shortly be reinforced in 2:1-10 when Jesus pronounces a man’s sins as forgiven). In this case, it is no stretch to surmise that Jesus, in the very act of touching the leper, is also obliquely establishing his role as the temple, that is, the one place where the unclean became clean. The temple of course was the unique place of God’s special presence and activity, even as it was the seat of atonement. If in Judaism the road to God led directly through the temple, then Jesus in a stroke is symbolically announcing that he is now that road to God, the human embodiment of divine presence. Perhaps all this was not immediately clear to onlookers at the time; indeed, it probably wasn’t. But as we begin to see Mark’s story unfold, especially in the final six chapters, which include dire predictions of the current temple’s demise with the veiled promise of a new one, we have to reason to suppose that even here Jesus is saying, “I am the new priest and the new temple.”
What does this mean? That I will leave to my reader’s reflection. But perhaps it bears stating that what Jesus was doing in showing compassion required considerable courage. Imagine someone fabulously wealthy coming along and announcing new plans to build a string of airports, serviced by commercial jets, attracting a new set of customers who will no longer have to go through standard security procedures. Imagine such a person establishing a different and unapproved system, operating by a different and equally unapproved standard. If you think the Federal Aviation Administration would stand up and applaud, you have another thing coming. If you think that Jesus’ peers in the priestly system were cheering Jesus on for his compassion, you also have another thing coming. Jesus was prepared to rock the religious establishment to make way for a new way characterized by compassion. In today’s world we can roll with established cultural expectations or we can take the courageous step of aligning ourselves with the compassion of Christ.
Dr. Nicholas Perrin is Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.