Year B 6th Sunday: Mark 1:40-45

1:40 A man suffering from a virulent skin-disease came to him
and pleaded on his knees saying, 'If you are willing, you can cleanse me.'
1:41 Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand,
touched him and said to him, 'I am willing. Be cleansed.'
1:42 And at once the skin-disease left him and he was cleansed.
1:43 And at once Jesus sternly sent him away and said to him,
1:44 'Mind you tell no one anything, but go and show yourself to the priest,
and make the offering for your cleansing prescribed by Moses as evidence to them.'
1:45 The man went away,
but then started freely proclaiming and telling the story everywhere,
so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town,
but stayed outside in deserted places.
Even so, people from all around kept coming to him.


After having called disciples Jesus started his Messianic work: preaching and healing. Evening came (1:32) and morning (1:35), a new day. That new day brought new aspects. Jesus went to other towns to proclaim the Good Message (1:38-39). And another aspect of the new day: his Messianic work has adverse effects for himself. We didn’t hear that before. In this case he has touched a leper and has to isolate himself in the desert.

Picture: Peter Clare. Detail Mark painting.


The translation gives ‘virulent skin-disease’. Perhaps it was a ‘virulent skin-disease’ according to our science, but Mark calls the patient ‘a leper’. In the Biblical culture that was the most drastic illness you could get.

In the book of Leviticus (13:45-46) Moses writes, ‘Anyone with a contagious skin-disease will wear torn clothing and disordered hair; and will cover the upper lip and shout, "Unclean, unclean." As long as the disease lasts, such a person will be unclean and, being unclean, will live alone and live outside the camp.’

Leprosy meant a radical isolation. In the eyes of the Biblical people God must have had heavy reasons to punish someone and to withdraw himself from such a person.

We notice that the man does not ask to be healed, but to be cleansed. So that he can return amongst the people. Mark lets us feel with how much hesitation the man approaches Jesus by using three participles: 1. ‘pleading’, 2. ‘kneeling’ and 3. ‘saying’.

Jesus’ emotion is characterized by a Greek word where we hear ‘intestines’. Jesus is touched, stirred in the deepest of his heart. In the Gospels the Greek word Mark uses is attributed to God, Jesus and the Good Samaritan. It is the source from where God’s compassion and mercy originates. It is translated here with ‘feeling sorry’. In my opinion a too British translation. He is deeply stirred.

Jesus touches the leper and speaks four imperatives: 1. ‘see’, 2. ‘go’, 3. ‘show’ and 4. ‘bring’ (an offering). That Jesus touches the leper is amazing. It was forbidden. Now he is as unclean as was the leper himself. The consequence is that he has to isolate himself and to stay in the desert. So to speak: he takes the place of the leper.

In the beginning of his Gospel Mark wrote that it was the spirit from heaven who threw him out into the desert (1:12). There we said that it was a programmatic move: by joining the ‘wrong’ people and the sinners (those who came to be baptized) he would be isolated. Here, in the story of the cleansing of the leper we hear an example of that isolation. It was the holy spirit who inspired him to do Messianic work (healing the leper). So, it was because of the holy spirit that he had to withdraw into desert.

In the meantime the cleansed leper has to show himself to the priest. The priest was the only one with the authority to declare that somebody was not unclean anymore (Lev.14:2-8).

Picture Meditation

This picture takes part of the Matthew Cycle by Peter Clare. Last year we didn’t have the opportunity to show it. So, we can use it now.

The main part of the picture is taken up by the encounter between Jesus and the leper plus all the crowd which is witnessing it. Top left we see the leper in his bubble, together with other people in a sad situation. On the right we see another bubble in the shape of a little house (or a chapel) where Jesus speaks to the cleansed leper alone.

Matthew tells us that a really large crowd followed Jesus. Most of these people are clothed - in one way or another - in the colours of Jesus, sign that they have something in common with Jesus. (In the Dutch language we can say that they put on something of Jesus).

In the foreground the spectators throw up their hands in adoration. Do I see another Jesus..., or perhaps a brother of Jesus in the crowd? Or is it Jesus himself who has joined the people who are in need, just as he did when he was baptized by John the Baptist? ‘Standing among you is the one you do not know... (John 1:27).

Did I ever experience that somebody around me was isolated? Treated as a leper? Perhaps because of having made a mistake, committed a fault, or simple struck by misfortune? How did I look at them? Was I ‘stirred’? Was there something I could do...?

And do I know the experience that I myself was an untouchable for whatever reason? Isolated? Were there people to help me? Or did they avoid me? Do I remember how I felt, how I prayed perhaps; what I desired?

by Fr Dries van den Akker SJ