Mark concludes the first chapter of his gospel with the account of the cleansing of a leper. A leper is not only a sick person, but he or she is also an ‘outcast’. According to the Jewish view leprosy makes a person socially and ritually unclean, resulting in his total exclusion from the community (Cf. Lev 13 – 14). People are not to have contact with a leper, lest they be ritually defiled. In the light of these laws we can understand why the New Testament describes the healing of a leper as a “cleansing”.
At the sight of the leper Jesus is moved with pity. The original phrase, according to some manuscripts is “being angered” and not “moved with pity”. Confronted with the pathetic condition to which a leper is reduced by religion and society, Jesus reacts with anger. He touches the leper, the untouchable, risking ritual defilement himself. His touch and his word bring cleansing to the leper. Jesus, thus, actualises the kingdom that he preached. It may be noticed that the vocabulary of exorcism is present in this narrative. The phrase, “He sternly charged him” (Mk 1: 43) is a Semitic equivalent used in exorcisms. Similarly, the addition “the leprosy left him” (Mk 1: 42) echoes the departure of the evil spirit (Mk 1: 26).
The prescriptions regarding the procedure to be followed by those cleansed of leprosy are found in Leviticus 14: 2-32. Jesus asks him to fulfil them as a proof to the people of his cleansing (Mk 1: 44).
The Jewish religion and society had erected a barrier against lepers. A leper was cut off from all social and religious life. He was prohibited to participate in the community’s worship. Jesus’ instruction to him to go and show himself to the priest and make the prescribed offering shows that the cleansing was meant for his full integration into the community. The cleansing of the leaper is a sign that the kingdom embraces everyone, especially the outcasts. It breaks down barriers and offers wholeness and fellowship to all.
Jesus commands the cured man not speak about his action. But the Good News of his cleansing by Jesus bursts all bounds of secrecy and Mark tells us that the man went about “preaching the Good News” (Mk 1: 45).