Feast Day: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Mark 1:40-45; 2 Kings 5:1-14
“Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I do will; be made clean.”
In our readings this morning we meet two lepers who receive healing from the Lord. I want us to behold the compassion of Jesus Christ who reaches out to touch us, cleansing from every sin those who are penitent, and thereby makes us whole by restoring our relationship with God and with one another.
“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Straightaway Mark tells us that this man is a leper. In Ancient Israel lepers were an isolated and desperate people reduced to a pitiful state of existence on account of their being pronounced ceremonially unclean according to the law of Moses.
Listen to this passage from Leviticus that describes the daily life a leper in Ancient Israel: “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,” (13:45-46). Not only did lepers experience terrible physical suffering but emotional and mental suffering as well, cut off and isolated from their own families and communities. What a pitiful existence.
Lepers were ceremonially marked off like this, easily distinguished from the rest of the community, to enable others to avoid them at all costs so as not to become unclean themselves. Even a passing encounter with a leper was enough to render one unclean. For example, there is a Rabbinic teaching that says, “If an unclean man [afflicted with leprosy] stood under a tree and a clean man passed by, the latter becomes unclean.” Lepers were avoidable, forgettable people.
Now, in this story you and I are the leper and though we may be physically well our contagion is sin. Even more than leprosy in Ancient Israel, sin isolates us and separates us from God and from one another. We have a need at our very core to be healed and restored to life with God and each other, to have the work of sin undone in us. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we cannot cure ourselves.
The next thing I want us to notice is what Mark tells us about the leper’s posture. How does he come to Christ? Begging him and kneeling before him. Begging is very much a last resort. We know that this man would have been cut off from his family and community supports. Probably he had burned through whatever resources remained and exhausted all other possibilities. Now he has come to the end of himself and must resort to his last play—beg. Throw himself utterly and completely at the mercy of Christ.
It is interesting to contrast this with the story of Naaman that we heard in our first reading this morning. Naaman was not an Israelite and therefore the same ceremonial laws pertaining to cleanliness were not applied to him. In fact, we learn that Naaman was doing well for himself. Commander of the king of Aram’s army. A man of some power and wealth. Though he was feared in battle there was one enemy he could not defeat: “The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy,” (2 Kings 5:1).
As we heard, when Naaman got wind of a prophet in Israel who could cure him of his affliction he set off with vast amounts of silver and gold, a caravan of horses and chariots, and even an endorsement from the king of Aram himself. In other words, unlike the leper in our gospel reading Naaman rolled up to Elisha’s house with a show of strength and wealth. A show of strength that masked his weakness. A show of wealth that masked his poverty.
And so Naaman had to leave his horses and chariots, silver and gold, there at the entrance to Elisha’s house. He was not permitted to bring them in. Because the healing that the Lord had for him was not for sale. He would have to learn that all of his strength and all of his wealth were not going to get him any closer to the healing and wholeness that he so desperately desired.
Are we so different from Naaman, you and I? How manifold are the ways that we attempt to cover up our weakness and our poverty! The ways we try to minimize our sin, try to conceal it from God and even from ourselves. Yet, whatever our accomplishments may be, and they may be many and they may be great, they amount to little when we are faced with our brokenness. An outstanding career contributes jack to the remission of your sins.
Every time we enter this house of worship—perhaps because like Naaman we have heard that there may be healing here for us (2 Kings 5:3-4)—Jesus Christ invites each one of us to let down our guard, to lay down our showy displays of self-sufficiency, so that our hands are empty and able to receive the gift of his healing love. Because when we approach Christ in our poverty and weakness, exposed and vulnerable yet truly ourselves, he does not delay in having compassion upon us.
So then, we needn’t fear knowing ourselves as sinners. We needn’t conceal or cloke our sins before God and ourselves but can rather acknowledge and confess them humbly before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father and know the infinite joy of his forgiveness.
Think, for example, of when we come to the altar rail for communion. Laying aside all pretense of our own worthiness and instead falling on our knees in adoration of Christ, stretching out our empty hands before him in the hopes that we will stretch out his hand toward us. And what do we find but that he gives us himself, touching our deepest wound, and filling us with his love and mercy.
From his knees in adoration the leper says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He knows that Jesus is able to heal him. Maybe he’s heard the reports that have begun to spread throughout the region about what Jesus has done for people. How he delivered a man possessed by a demon of how he took Simon’s ill mother-in-law by the hand and at once the fever left her. The question for this leper is not can Jesus but will he? Maybe you’ve wondered this yourself. You know that he is quick to have mercy and forgive and that he has done so for others, but would he do the same for you? Does he want to?
I love what happens next. Mark tells us that Jesus was “moved with compassion.” Everything about Jesus is shot through with compassion and love. Even the judgement of Christ, that we see throughout the gospels and that can seem to us so counter to love, is itself a manifestation of the compassion of Christ that burns away all that opposes God’s good will.
Jesus here was moved with compassion. “He stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do will. Be made clean!” He stretched out his hand and touched him. Recall what we learned about leprosy earlier. To even come near a leper was to risk being made unclean yourself, cut off and isolated from your people, pitiful, accursed, damned. Yet Jesus Christ reaches out his hand and touches him.
Now the word “touch” here literally means, “to fasten to.” Jesus clings to this leper, becoming unclean himself, becoming accursed himself, becoming damned himself, because he was moved with compassion. He did not fear the man’s contagion but only desired to heal him and restore him to life with God and with his community.
I was reminded this week of the story of St. Damien of Molokai. In the 19th century there was an epidemic of leprosy (later called Hansen’s Disease) in Hawaii. It was so bad that in 1865 the king passed the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy which resulted in those with the worst cases of leprosy being required to live under a medical quarantine on the island of Moloka’i.
Initially the Kingdom of Hawai’i intended to provided resources and support to this leper colony but soon they became overwhelmed with the need. At that time the Bishop believed that the lepers needed a priest. Despite the high-risk, eventually four priests volunteered to go including Father Damien, a Belgian priest.
On May 10, 1873 Father Damien arrived to be a priest to the approximately 800 lepers that had been exiled to the island. On his arrival he spoke to those gathered as, “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.”
In his time with the people of Molokai he helped build homes, a church, he dressed ulcers and wounds, made coffins, dug graves. Six months after his arrival he wrote to his brother in Europe saying, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” Finally, after eleven years living amongst the lepers of Molokai Father Damien contracted the disease himself and died shortly thereafter.
In a similar way Jesus Christ does not fear our contagion. He does not walk past you or avoid you, but rather fastens himself to you, taking all of your sin upon himself, becoming unclean, becoming accursed, becoming damned, and he bears the full weight of it all the way to the cross. Because he is full of compassion and he wills to forgive you your sin and make you whole. He wills to heal the wounds of division and separation. He wills to step into the isolation that sin creates and reconcile us to God and to one another. “I do will. Be made clean!”
 Leviticus 13:3, 15
 Lane 85, fn145