Compassion and Anger: Two Versions of Jesus and the Leper (Mark 1:40-45)

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on February 10, 2021

In this week’s passage, Jesus meets a leper who asks to be healed.  Two tasks for us today: first, we’ll do some background work on lepers in Mark’s world, and second, we’ll look closely at a textual problem which can significantly change how we read this story.

 

First, some background.  This is one of those passages where both Mark and his audience know and/or assume a great deal which we 21st century folks don’t know.  Mark tells us this is a “leper” who approaches Jesus.  In the scriptural world, “leprosy” isn’t so much a specific disease as a term used for a variety of ailments.  These ailments have both biological and social implications, and this is a big part of what Mark assumes his audience already knows.

 

The background is in Leviticus.  As strange as it usually seems to us, Leviticus is an immensely practical book for ancient Israel, and this is no different when it comes to skin ailments.  Leviticus 13-14 outlines the symptoms of several possible skin/scalp/beard conditions and what the proper response is to be.  Some of these ailments are very minor, or are not ailments at all[1], and some of them are serious and considered “leprous.”

 

Minor ailments could result in the person being quarantined for a length of time, at the end of which they’d be examined by a priest.  (That this job belongs to a priest is already a clue that the biological and social dimensions are connected.)  If all was well after a week, then they may be quarantined for another few days just to be sure, and if it’s all clear, then it’s just a matter of making sure their clothes were washed and then getting on with things (Lev. 13:4-6, for example).  But if the disease had spread, then it was deemed “leprous” and a priest had to declare them unclean (Lev. 13:8). 

 

In the context of Leviticus, someone with a leprous disease was unclean and would be removed from the population for as long as the disease persisted.  Furthermore, they were expected to wear torn clothes, wear their hear disheveled, and cry out ‘unclean, unclean’ as they went (Lev. 13:45-46).  For lepers, the biological and social realities were intertwined: one’s bodily disease could determine whether one could participate in the social body. 

 

It’s important for us to remember that most ancient civilizations did not focus on individuals the way we 21st century Americans do.  The individual rights of one person were secondary to the integrity of the social body as a whole.  Thus, an ancient leper’s removal from society would not have been imagined primarily as ‘discarding a sick person’ so much as it was imagined as preserving the integrity of the social whole. 

 

Still, the Levitical code is severe for lepers.  In Mark’s day, it’s also probably more theoretical than practical.  The narrative context of Leviticus has the Israelites sojourning in the wilderness; thus, Leviticus imagines that the unclean leper would dwell “outside the camp” (13:46).  For Mark’s audience who lived in Galilee and were not wilderness nomads, however, it’s not clear where lepers would have lived.  It is possible that many were social outcasts, perhaps effectively homeless, and relegated to a marginal and precarious existence.  However, this is certainly not the case across the board.  In Mark 14:3, for example, Jesus has dinner at the home of a man with leprosy, which suggests that the man enjoyed at least the material security for hosting dinner and perhaps even enjoyed a measure of social standing. 

 

That dinner episode in chapter 14 is near Jerusalem, not Galilee, so the situation is not exactly the same as the leper in Mark 1:40-45.  At the very least, the episode in Mark 14 is a strong suggestion that, for Mark’s audience, the strictures imposed on lepers by Leviticus were not iron-clad rules to which everyone strictly adhered.  At the very least, it seems to me that a leprous disease which was visible on the face, say, would be far more isolating than one covered easily by clothing.

 

So, what was life like for the leper in Mark 1:40-45?  While it is unlikely that this leper lived with quite the level of isolation Leviticus imagines—there is no evidence that he is going around crying “unclean, unclean,” for example—it is likely that ordinary social interactions were uneasy or unavailable for him.  He may not have been forced into literal geographical isolation, but his ‘uncleanness’ would have made him a de facto pariah in his own neighborhood.  What I mean is that even if he experienced no active rejection from his community, and even if he were materially secure, his daily experiences would likely have involved little to no affection or physical touch.  Even if no one was forcing him to leave town, it’s possible, and perhaps likely, that he would not have been sought out as a companion or welcomed into various gatherings.  In other words, he may have been passively rejected by his fellow townsfolk, whether consciously or no.

 

One final note here: what remains constant in both Leviticus and Mark is that the priestly class are the ones who get to declare whether or not this man is clean (Lev. 13:3 and 23; 14:21-32; et al.  Also, Mark 1:44).  For a leper seeking to be cleansed and readmitted to society, there were rituals to be observed and offerings to be made. Moreover, Leviticus gives different instructions for folks who are materially well-off as opposed to folks who are less secure (Lev. 14:1-20 and 21-32, respectively).  Given that Jesus tells the cleansed leper to present himself to the priest and “offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded” (1:44), this bit of the Levitical code seems to have been both practically and theoretically present in Mark’s time.  This is significant for our second task: untangling an odd textual problem that can determine much of how we read this passage.

 

The textual problem is simply that we’ve got ancient texts of this story that say two different things.  The issue is in 1:41.  My NRSV bible reads, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him [the leper], and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” (Emphasis mine.)  We’ll call this the compassionate version. 

 

But there’s a chance that this story should actually go like this: “Angered, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose.  Be made clean!’” (Emphasis mine.). We’ll call this the angry version.

 

My understanding of the problem is that this is not a matter of how we translate a specific word, but that when you gather up all the ancient manuscripts of Mark, some of them literally just have a different word altogether here.[2]  What makes this even more interesting is that both Matthew and Luke also tell this story, and yet neither of them include Jesus’ compassion or anger (Matt. 8:1-4, Luke 5:12-15).  Both Matthew and Luke knew Mark’s Gospel and wrote after him, so it’s as though already in Matthew and Luke’s day it was unclear whether Jesus felt compassion or anger at seeing the leper.  Rather than try to decide the matter themselves, perhaps they just cut that part out and went straight to Jesus’ healing the man!

 

So which is it: the compassionate version or the angry version?  I don’t really know.  A stroke in favor of the compassionate version is that the manuscripts reflecting this version tend to be more reliable on the whole.[3]  A stroke against the compassionate version, however, is that Jesus is clearly “stern” in verse 43.  That word “stern” implies something like a snort or growl of indignation on Jesus’ part.  Why would Jesus suddenly change from being compassionate to growling sternly in indignation?  Thus, some argue that the angry version is probably the better one.[4] 

 

If Jesus’ initial feeling is one of compassion towards the man, it’s easy to see why: the man is a leper, lonely, physically ill, and living a life of social isolation.  This also fits with Mark’s compassionate portrayal of Jesus elsewhere (6:34, 8:2).  In this reading, when Jesus tells the man to show himself to the priest “and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded” (1:44), Jesus is simply honoring the rituals of public reintegration after a period of uncleanness.  In other words, he’s helping the man reintegrate into society by making that reintegration public and official.  Jesus’ stern warning, then, is primarily about Jesus’ not wanting the man to spread around news of the miracle (1:43) and maybe something about how the leper is acting already suggests that he has no intention of keeping his mouth shut.  But that’s its own mystery for another day.

 

If Jesus’ initial feeling is not compassion but anger, it’s harder to see why he’s angry, and we have to do some imagining.  It’s possible that this man has already been to see the priests but has not been declared clean, either because his ailment has persisted or because he is unable to do what is required to be declared clean again.  This could be the source of Jesus’ initial anger: he sees a kind of oppression at work in the priestly establishment on whom this man depends for his re-integration.[5]  This would fit with the righteous anger we see in Jesus in the cleansing of the Temple, for example (11:15-16).
 

While this reading is less obvious—there’s no unequivocal evidence in the text that the man has already been to the priests—it does make better sense of Jesus’ “stern warning” and command that the man to show himself to the priest (1:44).  Jesus is already angry at the injustice at work, and so after cleansing the man, he commands that the former leper go to the priests and “offer for [his] cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (1:44). 

 

I’ve emphasized this final phrase because Mark uses it elsewhere when somebody has to testify before hostile peoples and authorities (6:11 and 13:9).  Because this is how Mark uses the phrase elsewhere in the Gospel, it could be that Jesus assumes that the priests are in some way ‘hostile’ to lepers like this man.  Thus, Jesus sends the cleansed man to testify not simply to the priests, but against them.  It might be a symbolic, subtle confrontation Jesus has in mind: the cleansed man’s testimony might communicate to the priest that Jesus has done what the priestly authorities could not do or had refused to do, and moreover, to emphasize that Jesus cleansed the man without placing any material burden on him.  No offering required beforehand, no lamb, no grain, nothing but cleansing.

 

So which is it: is Jesus moved with compassion or anger when this leper asks for his help, and why?  I’ve tried to give sketches of the arguments for both, but I can’t say I’m persuaded one way or the other just yet.  Either way, we have to do some imagining.  Which seems right to you?  Which invites the most interesting questions?  Which creates the most possibilities?

 

I sometimes wonder if the Holy Spirit doesn’t offer us a little problem like this as its own kind of inspired revelation.  After all, how often do we experience compassion and anger as two sides of the same coin?  When we see oppression on the news, we are moved at once both with compassion for those who suffer and with anger at injustice.  Plus, discovering a strange nugget like this in the bible can provoke our curiosity, puzzlement, and desire to learn more.  Perhaps this provocation is how God invites us to drop our nets and follow.  After all, what are whole schools of certainty compared to the mystery of God?

 

God’s Peace,

 

 

Fr. Daniel+

 

[1] It even goes so far as to make it abundantly clear that if somebody loses the hair from their head, they are bald but that this is not cause for concern (13:40-41)!

[2] There is no “one original copy” of the Gospel of Mark, but many ancient manuscripts that were copied by hand in various places and with varying degrees of legibility, reliability, completeness, etc.  A good contrast might be the Declaration of Independence.  You can go to Washington, D.C. and see the actual paper that the founding fathers wrote, signed, etc.  But this isn’t the case with a book like Mark’s Gospel.  We don’t have any physical text written by the hand of someone called “Mark.” 

[3] This is Warren Carter’s perspective.  Mark, volume 42 in the Wisdom Commentary series edited by Barbara E. Reid, OP and Sarah J. Tanzer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2019).  See the sidebar on page 34, especially.

[4] Scholars that favor the angry version manuscripts for this story are Ched Myers and Richard Horsley.  See Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (20th anniversary edition, 10th printing, Dec 2017) Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, 152-154.  See Horsley’s notes to Mark in the Oxford Annotated NRSV, 2010.  Horsley prefers “angered” precisely because it’s more disconcerting and difficult.

[5] This is Myers’ take.  See note 4 above.

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