Mark 1:40-45. Jesus Heals a Leper… and The Messianic Secret.

The Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time comes from Mark 1:40-45. In this passage, Jesus heals a leper, and then asks the leper to be discrete about the healing.  Instead, the leper ‘proclaims the Good News’ of his own healing by Jesus. Mark the Evangelist then tells us that the fame of Jesus was so great that he could not move about publicly: he instead sought out “deserted places.”

Healing a Leper

Mark tells us that a leper asked Jesus to make him clean. Jesus obliged, and stretched out his hand and touched the leper. This would be somewhat scandalous, since Levitic law (Lev 13:1-16) considers a leper unclean. The authors of the Synoptic Gospels regard the “healing of the leper” to be such a pivotal story that it is recounted in all three Gospels: Mk 1:40-44; Mt 8:2-4, and Lk 5:12-14. In addition, Luke recounts a second story – the healing of the ten lepers (Lk 17:12-19). The frequency of the stories featuring the healed leper tells us that Christ’s mission is to spiritually and physically heal: to restore, and to bring back into the community those that are not whole. To quote Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus and the apostles are to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, and drive out demons.

Models of Faith

Just as important, the frequency of these stories tell us that the leper is actually a model of faith. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that when the leper comes before Jesus to be healed, he kneels or falls down before Jesus.In today’s passage, the leper came to Jesus kneeling down and begged him. Though the lepers are “unclean” according to Levitic law, their humility in asking to be healed moves Jesus to honor their request.

"Jesus Heals a Leper." (right half). Cosimo Roselli, 1482. Sistine Chapel.

The Gospel pericopes about the healing of the leper are, at one level of interpretation, purely symbolic.  Each person is made unclean by sin, and each person can only be forgiven and made whole by Jesus. The account of the leper reminds us that we, like the leper, should approach Christ with profound humility when we ask to be forgiven or healed. It would foolish to believe that we are, before God, greater or better than the leper. If the leper can, with humility, ask for healing before Jesus, then perhaps we can do the same.

Deserted Places

Surprisingly, it is Mark’s shorter Gospel that articulates a theology of retiring to the wilderness to pray… in a way that neither Matthew, Luke or John do. For a third time in Mark’s first chapter, we are told that Jesus seeks solitude.  Eremos is Greek for desert. In verses 13, 35 and 45, we are told that Jesus seeks out the eremos – the desert wilderness. In verse 13, Jesus is tempted by the devil and also ministered by angels. In verse 35, Jesus seeks the eremos to pray. In verse 45, he seeks the wilderness simply to be alone.

What Secret in Mark’s Gospel?

About a hundred years ago, the German scholar William Wrede published a book called, The Messianic Secret. The book theorized as to why Jesus repeatedly told those whom he had healed to tell no one anything. To someone who does not understand Scripture or Christian theology, the words of Jesus seem strange. Wrede, who is more of an agnostic scholar than a theologian, supposed that the Gospel author Mark concocted stories of the miracles of Jesus. For Wrede, the words “tell no one” are a Freudian slip. According to Wrede’s genuinely nut-ball argument, Mark knew that Jesus was not the Messiah, and Mark knew that Jesus did not rise from the dead. According to Wrede, Mark the Evangelist had to explain why the Jews did not understand Jesus to be the Messiah. Thus, Mark invents the “tell no one” pretext.

The problem with the messianic secret is that, as the Gospel of Mark tells us, the fame of Jesus spread over his own objections.  Mark tells us three times in chapter one that Jesus headed for the wilderness to avoid crowds, and to pray. Yet Mark also tells us, three times, that news about him spread quickly (verse 28), that everyone was looking for him (verse 37), and that the leper who was healed spread the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly… (verse 45). That Wrede does not appreciate the tension caused by the growing fame of Jesus – in chapter one of Mark – speaks to Wrede’s lack of any context or conventional  knowledge about Mark’s Gospel. When Wrede interpret’s Mark’s Gospel, he seems to be operating in an historical vacuum.

Realistically, Jesus asked those he healed to keep the news a secret because Jesus knew that reports of his healing would impede his ability to move about Galilee freely in order to preach, and that it would anger the religious leaders of his day sooner rather than later. There is no messianic secret in Mark’s Gospel, as Mark tells us repeatedly that the Good News was propagated by people who believed.  The propagation of the Good News did not require the express encouragement of Jesus, as Jesus was not someone who advertised himself. The Good News had a momentum all its own.

Mark 1:40-45

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, 
touched him, and said to him, 
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once. 

He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest 
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them.”

The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

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