Mark 1: 40-45 | A parable of reversals

Sermon 13 February 2021 | Revd Phil Austin

What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘clean’?
clean house – clean up – clean water – clean title – clean sweep – come clean – clean burning – clean oven – cleanliness is next to godliness

Or perhaps mother’s timeless instructions — to always wear clean underwear.

Well, today we’re talking about a different kind of clean.  Today we’re talking about what it means to be clean inside and outside; clean not because we’ve rubbed and scrubbed but because God acting in Christ has chosen to make us so.

Our gospel lesson contains the short but powerful story of a leper coming to Jesus and making an unusual statement. The leper says to Jesus, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”  Now what’s so unusual about this statement is that, for starters, it’s not really a request.  The leper doesn’t ‘ask’ Jesus to be ‘healed’.  Instead, he announces what he believes — that, if Jesus chooses, Jesus can make him ‘clean’.

The man’s ailment is described as ‘leprosy’ but, of course, that could have been any number of different things from acne to skin cancer.  And because people feared the worst, lepers had to live outside of town, apart from their family, and keep their distance from healthy people while supporting themselves through begging.  Whenever lepers went anywhere they had to announce their presence by crying out, “Unclean, unclean!”  And if you touched a leper, or were touched by one, YOU were now unclean. 

The only way lepers could be cured was if a priest deemed them so. (1)  But worst of all, people equated leprosy with punishment for sin, which led to a lot of bad blood toward lepers – you know, the attitude that said, “You’re getting what you deserve”.  So while we tend to focus on the physical consequences of leprosy in Jesus’ day, the total impact of being unclean had religious, social, and financial dimensions as well.

But let’s get back to the leper’s statement.  He says to Jesus, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”  It’s not what we would expect.  We would expect a straightforward request to be healed.  But this is more of a statement about Jesus.  This particular leper obviously knew Jesus to be a healer, but more than that, he knew Jesus had the power to choose to make him ‘clean’.

So what’s the difference between being ‘healed’ and being made ‘clean’?  Well, that’s really the crux of the story. The leper’s statement tells Jesus that he believes Jesus can heal him, yes; but more than that, he believes Jesus can restore him spiritually and socially. He believes Jesus can make him whole again, return him to his family, allow him to go back to work, and back to worshipping God in the Temple.  This leper wasn’t asking for mere healing, he wanted to be CLEAN!  He wanted to be a whole child of God again!  And that is exactly what Jesus does for him.  Through a simple touch, the man is healed of his leprosy and his place is established within the community, within his family, within the religious life of God’s people. 

Jesus warns him not to tell anyone and to go and show himself to the priest.  It’s an odd command, but Jesus doesn’t want to be known simply as a healer.  Nevertheless, the now ex-leper just can’t contain himself and begins spreading the word about Jesus freely, to anyone who will listen!

It’s a fascinating short story—if we just let it end here. But what brings it home for us, what brings meaning to us, is the series of reversals that occur:

First, Jesus responds with compassion.  Which stands in stark contrast to how everyone else has treated this leper.

Second, Jesus touches the leper.  This not only reverses the ‘no touching’ rule, but also the idea that the touch-er would now be rendered unclean by the touch-ee.  But here the reverse is the case!  In this case, it’s not the leper who is contagious, but Jesus!  The leper doesn’t transmit his unclean-ness to Jesus, instead Jesus transmits his wholeness and holiness to the leper and makes him clean!

Third, this story began with the leper forced to live ‘outside the camp’ (Lev. 13:46) and ends with his restoration to the community while Jesus is forced to move outside the town.

And fourth, Jesus tells the former leper to keep quiet but the former leper just can’t and spreads the good news.

Jesus loves reversals and much of his call to us is to see where his touch in our lives turns things upside down for the better.  Which makes me wonder about just how our lives have been ‘infected’ with Christ?  And how are we spreading the health, the wholeness, the healing, and the cleanliness that we have been blessed with.  You see, unlike the leper, I think most of us experience Jesus’ touch not once but many time over the course of our lives.  We are made clean, we experience healing, forgiveness, wholeness, and holiness not just once but repeatedly.  For our part, we are called to consider what it means to be made clean.  But that can be tricky because some of us are content to live with disease; this corporate disease has become “normal” for some so much so that they can’t imagine life without it.

To know that God in Christ chooses to reach out and touch our lives not once, but repeatedly, over and over again throughout our lifetimes that we might know what it is to be clean — that’s the heart and soul of the Good News!  It means we are given the gift of a fresh start not once but many times over!  It means we are blessed with the sure and certain knowledge that

TODAY we have all been touched by divine love;

TODAY we are made whole and holy;

TODAY we have been reunited with our best selves;

TODAY the road out of estrangement is cleared;

TODAY we called into Hope;

TODAY we are made clean!  

A song of Ezekial
 1    I will take you from the nations,  
and gather you from all the countries.
2    I will sprinkle clean water upon you,  
and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses.
3    A new heart I will give you,  
and put a new spirit within you,
4    And I will remove from your body the heart of stone 
and give you a heart of flesh.
5    You shall be my people,  
and I will be your God.
Ezekiel 36.24

Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever.

  1. Torah law prescribes, ‘The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’…He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.’  (Leviticus 13:45-46)