Mark starts off his gospel in a unique way – it’s all action. He doesn’t use genealogies, birth narratives or theology to tell you who Jesus is. He uses stories. It’s very postmodern in that respect. But the stories aren’t just random events: they’re carefully selected illustrations of Jesus’ power and identity. Mark systematically builds a narrative out of healing, deliverance, forgiving, and other miracles which lead to the pregnant hanging question in 4:41 – Who is this guy?
The story that finishes chapter 1 is often unnoticed in this accelerating sequence, or if it’s mentioned at all it’s to show the compassion that Jesus has for the socially marginalised. But that’s not what it’s really about. It’s not about healing at all. Mark’s already told us about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, so why do we need another healing story?
The clue is in the request: You can make me clean, if you want to. The man wants to be clean. Leprosy (and other skin diseases lumped together with it by the ancient Israelites) resulted in the victim being ritually unclean. This meant he could not pursue his relationship with God, because he had no access to the temple to make the appropriate sacrifices to restore and maintain this relationship. This man’s biggest concern was not his disfiguring disease, or his resulting social isolation, but his inability to draw close to God because of his uncleanness.
In Hebrew thought there were three classes of purity: holy, clean and unclean. If you wanted to move up the scale there were complex rituals for purification involving the blood of a bird sacrificed over a bucket of ‘living’ water (Leviticus 14:5), but it was very easy to move down again. Just eating a prawn or touching a dead body made you unclean. So people went to great lengths to avoid touching lepers, or even gravestones. So in this instance, something utterly amazing has happened. Jesus touched the leper and not only did he not become unclean, the leper became instantly clean! In our culture we have lost the impact of this, but it is in fact an indisputable allusion to the divinity of Jesus. It’s an interesting verse to use (say) with muslim people, who have retained in their culture an understanding of uncleanness. This verse amazes them.
Ritual purity is not a recognised concept in the West, so we have no real mechanism for understanding it, but the awareness of it is still there. Like Lady Macbeth, frantically trying to wash the illusory blood from her hands, deep inside we know that we are unclean, but we don’t know how to deal with it. Perhaps this is why we are so obsessive about hygiene – at least we can clean the outside of the cup! Sometimes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder manifests as a paranoia over cleanliness – it’s even nicknamed ‘Lady Macbeth syndrome’. People who have been sexually molested often scrub themselves vigorously to get rid of the inner contamination as well as the external, and it has been suggested that sometimes self-harm can be a way of trying to deal with this, as bleeding lets the ‘inner dirt’ out.
Sometimes Christians suffer from a similar problem. We’ve been told over and over again that our sins are forgiven, and we know that as soon as we repent our sins are blotted out by God, but we don’t always feel forgiven. We want to keep saying sorry, or earn our forgiveness. That is because we still feel unclean. We aren’t taught that Jesus cleanses, so we can’t appropriate the ritual purity before God that enables us to feel clean. We are like Isaiah, in that we know we are people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5), but we don’t experience the cleansing.
500 years before Jesus was even born, Zechariah prophesied about him, that through him God would open up a fountain for ‘sins and impurity’ (Zechariah 13:1). Unless we fully appreciate this dual aspect of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross we do not fully enjoy the grace he has poured out on us. This Easter we can stand before God not only forgiven but spotless and without blemish because we are washed with the blood of the Lamb.