Living life under a stay-at-home order has got me thinking about one of the early stories in the Gospel of Mark.
Here is the story, found in Mark 1:40-44, as translated by Nicholas Zola (the translation that is found in the companion book that we have been using since we started our study of the Gospel of Mark back in September of last year):
Well, a man with a skin disease comes to him, imploring him, “Sir, if you are willing, you can cleanse me.” And filled with compassion, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and says to him, “I am willing. Be cleansed.” And immediately the skin disease left him, and he was cleansed. And warning him sternly, he sent him off at once. But he says to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer what Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim and spread the word so much that Jesus could no longer publicly enter a city, but remained out in the country. And they were still coming to him from everywhere.
(The Book of Mark: And who do you say that I am? p. 83.)
It is not so much the fact that this man had a disease that makes me link his story to our current situation of dealing with the COVID-19 outbreaks, but the fact that this man’s disease resulted in his social isolation.
In ancient Israel, and up through Jesus’ day, anyone with a skin disease, like this man, was excluded from the community. This just wasn’t Israel’s leaders’ idea, but came from God’s own commands in Leviticus 13:45-52 and Numbers 5:2-4. This man’s skin disease prohibited him from going inside the Temple grounds, not unlike our inability to gather together to worship in the same building on Sunday mornings during our current crisis.
At least we enjoy modern technologies that enable us to gather together virtually.
I suspect that this man’s expulsion from his circle of family and friends was even harder for him to bear than his exclusion from temple worship or the effects of his disease.
I don’t think I would have appreciated this truth without having gone through a couple of weeks of stay-at-home social distancing. Whatever this man’s perspective on his circumstance, he had faith that Jesus could fix his problem. So this man set out to find Jesus to ask him to heal his disease.
The man apparently violated the protocol of distancing himself from others to get close enough to Jesus to ask Jesus to heal him. This can clearly be seen by the fact that Jesus can stretch out his hand and touch the man. By doing so, Jesus heals the man of this disease which has kept the man from temple worship, and which has kept him in social isolation.
Jesus’ message of “the kingdom of God has drawn near” (Mark 1:15) is not just a message that Jesus has come to take care of our sins which separate us from God (although that is an extremely important part of it). It is also a message that Jesus’ coming inaugurates the kingdom of God’s rolling back the effects of Adam and Eve’s fall. Our fallen world, besides being filled with people whose sin separates them from God, is also characterized by disease and death which is even greater than the sum of all the parts of our individual sins. Jesus’ overpowering demons in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark is another indicator of the truth that the kingdom of God has drawn near.
Ever since the fall, mankind has been alienated from God, but we are also alienated from one another.
In this healing, Jesus is helping this man overcome his disease, but Jesus is also helping restore the man to his community.
That is why he instructs the man to go show himself to the priest. The man could not legally return to his family and friends until a priest has examined him and declared him free from the disease that isolated him from others. Leviticus 14:1-32 describes this long and involved process of restoration.
But if Jesus’ healing of this man results in the man’s restoration from isolation, the healing also results in Jesus’ further isolation from the community. Despite Jesus’ request to the man to not talk about the healing, the man can’t contain his joy and tells everyone who will listen about what Jesus has done for him. Mark records the result in verse 45: “But he [the man healed of the skin disease] went out and began to proclaim and spread the word so much that Jesus could no longer publicly enter a city, but remained out in the country.” If you are wondering why Jesus could no longer publicly enter a city, Mark gives us an example in Mark 3:20. Apparently the crowds would hound Jesus to the extent that Jesus could not even eat. Jesus’ love and compassion on this man ends up resulting in Jesus trading his own ability to freely move about in society in order to restore this man’s ability to freely move about in society.
That is something to think about for us who are struggling with our current situations. We have all heard that Jesus died on a cross to take my place in paying the penalty for my sin.
Here we have a story of Jesus taking a man’s place of social isolation upon himself in order to restore the man to his place in his community.
It is also worth remembering that we are not alone in our current isolation. That same Jesus who is filled with love and compassion, is present with us whether or not we are aware of his presence.