Lepers were outsiders. They were not only excluded from normal social interaction but they were excluded from the assembly of God. The disease did not elicit sympathy but revulsion and exclusion. They were unclean, contagious, and judged.
The kingdom of God reverses this situation. Lepers are healed, included, and redeemed. It is evidence that the kingdom of God has arrived, and this is the message and ministry of Jesus.
The term λεπρòς (lepros) refers to a dreaded skin disease. It does not have the specific meaning of “leprosy” that the English term denotes. Rather, this could be a skin disease that could disappear after a time and then one would go to the priests for cleansing according to Levitical rituals (just as Jesus tells this leper to do). Nevertheless, Levitical rules were applied to such skin problems and the appearance of skin problems fostered fear.
This early encounter with a leper in the Gospel of Mark functions as a testimony to the presence of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus. The leper initiates this contact–Jesus is not seeking a circus-like healing crusade. The leper expresses confidence, even faith, in Jesus’ ability to heal. He kneels before Jesus and begs him to heal.
Jesus’ response is compassionate. Most translations note this compassion, but some early manuscripts (the Western tradition for those who know something of textual criticism) read that Jesus was “angry” rather than compassionate. Anger is certainly the more difficult reading and, therefore, the more probable. Why would a scribe substitute “compassion” with “anger”? But it is easy to imagine that a scribe might replace “anger” with “compassion.” Elsewhere Mark notes the anger of Jesus (Mark 3:5), and probably does here. I prefer the reading “anger.”
Whether compassionate or angry, the point is important. Jesus does heal out of compassion, but also there is a place for righteous indignation at what a disease does to a person. Who is not angry at Alzheimer when they see destroy the life of their beloved? Who is not angry about the devastating effects of AIDS in Africa and around the world? This anger motivates–it is a sense of justice and goodness that wants, as N. T. Wright says, “puts things to right.” This sort of anger is appropriate for kingdom people as we participate in the mission of God to “put things to right.”
Whether out of compassion or anger, Jesus comes to reverse the curse, to reverse the effects of disease and isolation caused by leprosy. But at this point Jesus does not need any more publicity. Large crowds distract him from his purpose and deter his ministry of preaching and healing. He tells the leper to remain silent about his healing except to show himself to the priest as a grateful testimony, a thanksgiving for his healing. The priestly cleansing would enable the leper to once again join the assembly of God at the temple and synagogue.
Is this reverse psychology on the part of Jesus? The healed leper immediately “heralds” (same word used of Jesus’ preaching) the news (“the word,” literally). But I think Jesus is more interested in his ministry than he is publicity; in conducting the business of his messianic task rather than touting his messianic status. He wants to move among the cities of Galilee freely. Instead, he has to find refuge in the “desolate places” or “deserted places.” This is the same word as in Mark 1:12 and 1:35. Jesus has to seek solace in uninhabited regions in order to pursue his ministry but his fame will not ever give him this rest.
Jesus places a premium on “heralding,” “healing,” and “desert.” He is not interested in fame, healing crusades, or great honors. Jesus prioritizes task over status. Perhaps that is something we should all hear in our multi-media culture that places a premium on one’s “fifteen minutes of fame.”