JUNE 3, 2021
When Jesus heals people in the Bible, he does so in a variety of ways.
One time he spits and makes mud and then spreads it on a blind man’s eyes in order to heal him. Another time he yells into a tomb. Some healings are done from a distance, others are up close and intimate.
There are reasons for this. In a previous article, we talked about how the pre-cross Gospel genre is forward-looking, reading more like the Old Testament than the New at times. Jesus’s healings are theologically important, not just because they happen but because of how they happen — because of what they point to, and the truth they embody. One helpful example of this is in Mark 1:40-45 when Jesus heals a leper:
And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
The greater questions here revolve around why Mark includes detail about both the healing and the fallout of the healing. How is this healing borrowing from other pronounced biblical motifs elsewhere in the Bible? How is it speaking beyond itself? How is it setting the stage for a better version of it that will come in the future?
Three big ideas are worth our attention.
An outstretched hand
First, Jesus is moved with pity and “stretches out his hand.” This is a common way Jesus heals, not just by touching but with “outstretched hand.” We see this throughout the Old Testament in reference to God as well. Why do you think this is? He didn’t have to do it this way, right? Doesn’t he calm the wind and waves with words alone later in the story?
Jesus is choosing to heal with an outstretched hand here because he desires to heal in a cruciform way; i.e., a way physically formed into the shape of a body being crucified. He’s not just healing, but casting his stretched out arm on this man, the very arm that would one day be stretched out on a cross and pierced for lepers everywhere, even people like you and me who often fail to recognize our own inner-leprosy and need for healing.
Better than the Law
Second, Jesus says to the leper after he’s healed: “Show yourself to the priest and make an offering for cleansing.” One thing Mark shows us here is the stark contrast between Jesus and the priests. Quite simply, the priests, who represent the Old Testament system built around the Law could not provide healing. In fact, the Law itself commanded lepers to live outside of the city, which is to say the Law literally forced the sick to be separated from God (whose Spirit resided in the temple) until they were clean, just like the Law separates rather than reconciles.
But with Jesus everything is different. Jesus actually heals, ultimately through his death and resurrection, because he’s altogether different from the Law. He is the mediator of a new covenant built on the foundation of his body and blood, not our works. By sending the healed leper to the priests, Jesus is allowing for the man to be restored into fellowship and temple worship as a now “clean” man, but he is also holding up his own power over and against that of the now obsolete Law. The Law waited for people to get clean on their own. But Jesus heals in spite of our inability to get clean. This story is a clash of two covenants and ways of relating to God. The way of Jesus wins this small battle as a sign of the soon-to-come victory in the ultimate war.
But the significance of the story goes even deeper than cross shaped healings and new covenant tremors.
Jesus tells the man not to speak to anyone about the miracle, but he does anyway! This forces Jesus out to “desolate places,” away from crowds and outside the towns. This seemingly unimportant detail is one of the most important things going on in this passage.
Leviticus 13:46, which I alluded to earlier, says, “As long as lepers have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”
Did you catch those last few words? In the Old Testament, someone with leprosy was kept outside the towns, away from others so that they wouldn’t infect others. But in Mark 1, who is the one outside the camp at the end? When Jesus heals the leper, the leper is healed physically and is restored to his community, but Jesus is forced outside the towns, into desolate places … like a leper!
Though not becoming physically leprous himself, Jesus is taking on the appearance of the leper to show us that he is not only healing the man, he’s replacing him. He’s becoming figuratively leprous in the wake of the healing, which is a nod to how one day it would be his substitutionary sufferings that would ultimately restore us. This is the gospel in Mark 1. Jesus’s withdrawal to quiet and deserted areas are not an example for Christians to follow, as if this passage is about private devotion or the pursuit of monasticism. Rather, he is showing himself to be infected with the viruses and bacteria of our sin so we might be cleansed, that our spiritual fevers might break, that our skin might clear, and that our quarantines from God might end.