Jesus Unfiltered: Compassionate Cure (Mark 1:40-45)
Have you ever been in a desperate situation, one of those, “unless God shows this isn’t going to end well” kind of situations?
I remember as a teen when my neighbor got mad at me while we were swimming. He put me in a headlock and held me under water. I thrashed around for what seemed like an eternity, but he wouldn’t let me up. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t break free from his grip. With each passing second I became more and more desperate. It was terrifying.
Sometimes life grabs you in a headlock and won’t let go.
Have you experienced that? It happens. You’re being suffocated by circumstances you can’t shake. Try as you may, you just can’t break free and breathe. When it goes on long enough, you become truly desperate.
I wonder, do you feel trapped in circumstances you can’t escape and that you can’t handle?
Is life suffocating you right now in some way?
I recently read a moving testimony of a single mother of five named Penny who faced a very desperate situation. She was in a relationship with someone for 10 years, and felt like her life was going pretty well. He had a decent job, she was off welfare, and her world was in an upswing. Then her boyfriend fell back into his drug addiction, which took over his life, leaving her to support her five kids alone. Her apartment building was sold, and she was forced to move into a motel.
Even though she worked 40 hours a week, she was unable to even pay the rent, so she began cleaning rooms in the middle of the night at the motel. The little she made cleaning rooms helped to feed the kids during the week.
Her two older children had been attending a church’s junior high ministry, and they finally convinced her to go to church on a Sunday.
She said she really enjoyed it, and God started speaking to her.
But her life became overwhelming. It was so hard to see her children suffering because of her. She just couldn’t take care of them like a mother should. One night she parked in front of the church and cried out to God.
“Why was I given these children if I am unable to take care of them?”
They were hungry, unhappy, and living in a one-room motel. They were suffering because of her inability. She was trying to fix things, but it just wasn’t working. So she asked God if she should turn them over to the state.
She cried for about two hours that night, but got no answer. So she went back to the motel and kept going.
But she kept falling deeper and deeper into a hole she couldn’t get out of.
One day after work, she was at the end of her rope. There was barely anything to feed the kids, they were arguing with each other, she had a stressful day at work, and had to work all night cleaning rooms.
There was no one to help—so she sat down at the tiny table in the room, closed her eyes, and prayed. She asked God for strength. She told him she didn’t need money to miraculously fall from the sky, but she just needed strength to endure through this trial.
She asked him to give her children peace, and to give her a sign that she was going to make it.
After she prayed, she lifted her head and took a deep breath. Right at that moment there was a knock at her motel door. There were two people from a care team at the church. They were holding a cup filled with candy. She started to cry.
There were still some hard times after that, she said, but God gave her strength to find a new life. She joined a small group and became part of that wonderful family. God moved her to a great place to live, two blocks from church. He brought her a promotion at work, so she didn’t have to clean motel rooms at night anymore.
Then she said, “I remember so clearly the feelings of helplessness and saying, ‘If I can just make it through today…’ But our God is faithful. I look at my cup every day now. I keep it in my car as a reminder that when we as people are at our lowest, helpless and broken, if we just turn to God, he will bring us a cup.” Penny H., from a testimony given at Emmanuel Reformed Church, Paramount, California
As we continue our journey through Mark, we’re going to meet a man who was at his lowest. And like Penny, his desperation drove him to Jesus. And it was Jesus who turned his hopeless situation around. Today’s text is Mark 1:40-45.
DESPERATE MEASURES (40)
40 – A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’
It’s likely Jesus healed many lepers during his earthly ministry. However, we only have two occasions on record when he did. One is right here in this text, the other – recorded in Luke 17:12-19, involved him healing 10 lepers at once, but only one of them thanked him. It is significant that this healing in Mark 1 is recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16).
In order for us to fully grasp how desperate the leper’s actions were that day, we have to understand a bit about leprosy.
Leprosy was widespread in Palestine and was one of the most dreaded diseases in the ancient world. It was the subject of tremendous fear and superstition. The term leprosy literally meant to scale or peel, like the scale of a fish. It was a skin disease that is difficult to diagnose and heal. The Hebrew term was used to describe a wide variety of skin diseases besides leprosy, including boils (Lev. 13:18), burns (Lev. 13:24), itches, ringworm, and scalp conditions. Scribes counted up to 72 different skin disorders that were defined as leprosy.
In the Old Testament, leprosy was considered divine retribution for sin. So in the minds of healthy people, leprosy was an outward sign of hidden sin.
Its symptoms included spongy, tumor-like swellings that appeared all over the face and body. As the bacteria became systemic, it began to affect internal organs and it caused bones to start deteriorating. It also weakened the immune system and attacked the nervous system causing numbing in the extremities, which led to disfigurement. Additionally, the sores and rough skin often had a terrible odor, which only added to the loathsome nature of the disease.
It was an unbelievably devastating illness.
In addition to all of this, the social stigma was far worse than the physical symptoms.
Because there was no cure and it was considered to be contagious, quarantine was the only defense, so lepers lived in separate communities.
More painful than the physical pain and discomfort was the social segregation.
They were forced into social isolation – from family, from worship at the synagogue, from all personal interaction. They were allowed no human contact. It was forbidden to touch a leper or be touched by one, not so much by an explicit command, but by the nature of the disease. It simply wasn’t done.
To safeguard the rest of the community, lepers were to make themselves look as undesirable as possible and to call out unclean, unclean when they encountered another person. The closest a leper could be to someone without the disease was six feet (that sounds familiar!). One Rabbi reportedly bragged that he wouldn’t even buy an egg on a street where he saw a leper. Another boasted that he threw rocks at lepers to keep them far from him.
Just imagine the priest proclaiming you as unclean and then hearing this pronouncement. Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-4). No wonder there were few more terrifying words to a Jewish ear than to be pronounced unclean.
Perhaps now you can see why this man was so desperate.
Leprosy was more than a disease; it was like a death sentence.
The only thing more defiling than contact with a leper was contact with a dead body. According to Jewish historian, Josephus, lepers were treated as if they were dead.
So this man was not just ill, he was an outcast. He had not simply lost his health; he had lost his family, his friends, his home, his livelihood. No-one would, indeed no-one was allowed to, associate with him. (Michael Wilcock).
One of the greatest tragedies of COVID is how it has separated people, isolated those who are sick. It’s just awful how many people died alone in nursing homes and hospitals, separated from the people they loved. Leprosy was the much same. Lepers simply weren’t permitted to interact with healthy people.
Understanding all of this puts a new light on what the man did when he saw Jesus. His actions show us just how desperate he was that day. Instead of staying at a distance or calling out unclean, unclean, this leper, by contrast, came to [Jesus]. In Matthew’s account (Mt 8:2+), he uses an intensified verb which means literally to come near. He had to be desperate to break all the social and ceremonial norms.
He had no illusions about his condition. He saw his situation for what it was. There was no hope. But his actions also reveal his faith. He believed Jesus could cleanse and heal him, but he wasn’t sure if he would. Jesus might just react the way everyone else did, keep his social distance. Desperately, he humbled himself before Jesus, falling down on his knees, begging him, abandoning himself to his mercy
By all rights, Jesus could have turned the other way and kept his distance. That’s what everyone did. But he didn’t. His response was even more scandalous than the leper’s.
COMPASSIONATE CURE (41-42)
41a – Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
Can you comprehend now how scandalous Jesus’ response was?
He went against all customs and norms. Imagine how shocked those with him were. When others were turning away, Jesus was turning toward him. As others recoiled in horror, he reached out his hand to touch him. But it isn’t just his reaching hand that is shocking, it is the concern etched on his face.
While others were disgusted at the sight of the man, Jesus was moved with compassion.
Even more than when he touched Simon’s sick mother-in-law (1:31), Jesus’ touch of this poor leper is a profound expression of compassion.
He didn’t have to touch him to heal him. So why did he do it?
He did it to demonstrate his identification with sinners and his willingness to fully enter into the cursed and broken world.
With that simple touch, Jesus’ Kingdom authority coursed through the man’s body, bringing about an immediate and complete cure. The leprosy left him. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, there was no recovery period, he was instantly made whole. His skin was completely clear. The ravaging effects of leprosy were immediately reversed.
Think of all the implications of this act of compassion.
He didn’t just restore the man’s physical health, he also removed a curse that stigmatized and separated him from society.
He restored his relationships, bringing him back into fellowship with family and the household of God.
For the first time in ages, this man had human interaction with people besides other lepers. As one commentator put it, the healing touch of Jesus signaled a coming reunion with family and friends, a reintegration with the society from which the disease had cut him off (Wilcock). It was the idea of that reunion that explains why Jesus sent him off to the priest.
STRONG WARNING (43-44)
43-44 – Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning. See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.
One of the legal responsibilities of priests was making pronouncements regarding diseases (Lev 13:50; 14:2-4). They were responsible to maintain the ritual cleanness of Israel. In effect, priests served as health inspectors for the Jews. They were the ones who declared a person unclean, and they were the only ones who could declare someone clean. Out of respect for the Law, Jesus directed the man to the priests to complete the cleansing process as a testimony to them of his healing power. Before being officially cleared to reenter society, lepers had to fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic Law regarding infectious skin diseases as outlined in Leviticus 13-14.
And he also warned him sternly not to tell anyone else. Instead he told everyone.
TRADING PLACES (45)
45a – Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news.
In a sense, you can hardly blame the man. He’d just experienced something absolutely remarkable, something unheard of. A clean person touched him.
But that was nothing compared to what resulted from that touch. His entire life was turned around. His physical suffering was over in an instant. His leprous skin was like new.
In a moment he went from a pariah to part of society. He didn’t have to hide or holler unclean any more. He could go home to his family; he could hug his parents, his kids. He could go to the synagogue and worship with the people of God.
Everything changed with that one touch.
So it is understandable that he would spread the news.
That’s often how disobedience works, isn’t it? We know what we’re supposed to do or not do, but it doesn’t make sense to us on some level. So we go with what seems right or natural, or what feels right.
And in so doing, we end up disobeying the Lord.
And the results are always disastrous.
45b – As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
Earlier Jesus told Simon (v. 38) that he wanted to go to the nearby villages – so [he could] preach there also. That is why [he came]. So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. We don’t know how many other towns and villages Jesus got to before he ran into this leper. But it’s not likely he made it to all 240 towns in Galilee before this incident forced him to stop entering the towns because of the crowds.
This one encounter changed the course of Jesus’ movements and interactions.
Before we wrap up, think about the juxtaposition of Jesus and this leper. When they first met, the leper’s disease forced him in lonely places, outside the city. Jesus, on the other hand, was freely visiting towns and villages.
But after their encounter, their positions are reversed.
The once-leper is now free to roam about any town or village he likes while Jesus is forced out into lonely places.
Jesus, essentially, took the leper’s place.
This is a wonderful metaphor for what happened when Jesus died on the cross. Perhaps unlike any other healing, this miracle serves as a powerful analogy of the truth of salvation – the spiritual restoration of sinners who respond to Jesus in faith.
So what can we take away from this remarkable miracle of Jesus?
TAKEAWAY #1 — Jesus touched the untouchables. He bids us to do the same.
Imagine the shock of his disciples, the fishermen who were following him. They were likely disgusted by the sight and smell of this diseased and despised man. They had to be shocked by his audacity in approaching them. They were used to touching scaly, smelly fish, but they couldn’t imagine touching the spotted skin of this dirty leper. Imagine their hushed silence when Jesus reached out his hand and placed it firmly on the diseased flesh of this man. It was nothing short of scandalous. Unlike the people around him, Jesus was filled with compassion for the man. It was this kind of behavior that eventually earned him the scornful nickname friend of sinners (tax collectors, prostitutes, etc.).
I believe Jesus wants us to be a friend to sinners too, to touch the untouchables, to share and show his love to the least of these around our neighborhoods, the immigrants and foreigners, the sinners. My friends, there are many untouchables around us today, often hidden from plain view because they are despised. And there are millions around the world who need to receive the touch of Jesus. We are called to bring All of Jesus to All the World.
Think about it. Why did this leper approach Jesus? For some reason, he felt like he could trust Jesus. Jesus felt safe. I wonder, do people feel that we are safe? Is our church a safe place? Is your home a safe place for untouchables?
TAKEAWAY #2 — Jesus’ healing touch isn’t only for lepers.
My friend, hear me. His healing touch isn’t only for lepers. It’s for anyone and everyone in need of grace. It’s for you and for me. And Jesus is the only one who can bring healing and cleansing. He alone can make you whole. And he’s not only able – he is willing.
Jesus has the power to bring health to your physical body (although he won’t bring total and final healing until the resurrection). His touch can take care of your infirmity today. He can restore and repair what is broken. He can remove disease and restore health, the disease no doctor can touch with modern medicine.
His touch also has the power to heal relationships, to restore broken fellowship, to reconcile shattered relationships. Broken and estranged relationships cause incredible trauma and pain. Especially when you’ve tried everything in your power to fix it, but it only makes matters worse. It feels so hopeless when a person walks away from you. Jesus’ touch can heal even that kind of pain.
Most important of all, Jesus has the power to cure our deadly disease of sin. Truth is, leprosy is a good picture of our sinful condition. And his healing of this leper is a metaphor for salvation. Jesus humbled himself and entered this broken world in order for you to enter his home in heaven. Jesus wants to trade places with you. He wants to take on your sin and give you his righteousness. If you put your faith in him, he is willing and able to heal your sin disease.
Whatever healing or cleansing you need, Jesus is able to bring with a touch of his tender hand.
His powerful touch can heal a broken body, calm a troubled conscience, comfort a grieving heart, restore a shattered relationship, or whatever else is ailing you.
He alone is willing and able to touch the hurting places in our lives and make us whole.
He doesn’t always heal in the ways that we want, but he gives us the grace we need to joyfully endure until the day he grants full and complete healing – in heaven.
Are you desperate for a touch from Jesus today? Is there an area of your life that needs his touch?
Friend, bring your request to him. Call out to him, and let him touch and restore you right now.
I think the leper would agree with Penny, when we are at our lowest, helpless and broken, if we just turn to God, he will bring us a cup.
Will you turn to Jesus today? He wants to touch you and make you whole.
Blog post adapted from the message by the same name delivered on Sunday, October 24, 2021.
The NIV Application Commentary, David E. Garland.
The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series: The Gospel According to Mark, James R. Edwards.
Believer’s Church Commentary: Mark, Elmer A. Martens & Willard M. Swartley, editors.
Let’s Study Mark, Sinclair B. Ferguson.
Reformed Expository Commentary: Luke, Volume 1: Chapters 1-12.
The Harmony of the Gospels, Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry.
The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Mark, by John MacArthur.