This is the first in a new series of devotionals of encounters with Jesus in Mark's Gospel which we'll be posting weekly through July. We hope they'll encourage you through these transitional and uncertain times.
Monday 6 July
Jesus was indignant… ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’
When governments started requiring citizens to maintain ‘social distancing,’ I was disheartened by the term. Physical distancing is necessary to keep one another safe in the midst of a pandemic; social distancing sounds like the cause of loneliness and isolation.
Perhaps that is why I’ve been drawn to a story early in Mark’s Gospel, where we meet a man who knows the pain of both physical and social distancing. He has leprosy - or, at least, one of a number of skin diseases that were grouped together at the time. Under the Old Testament law those with such diseases were required to wear face coverings, to live in isolation away from the community, and to warn anyone coming near them with a cry of “Unclean! Unclean!” More than just distanced, he would have been an outcast.
It is no wonder that he approaches Jesus hesitantly. He is sure that Jesus is able to help him, yet he doubts that Jesus is willing to do so. He says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
“If.” That’s what being an outcast does to you. It makes you unworthy of help and unlikely to receive it. It’s a desperate situation to find yourself in.
Yet this man’s circumstances are even worse than they seem. Not only is he physically and socially distanced because of his skin disease, he is spiritually distanced as well. Lepers were kept apart from the worshipping life of God’s people, outside the camp and away from the tabernacle. They could meet a priest only for a diagnosis - clean or unclean - but if the priest touched them, he too would become unclean. The contagious uncleanness of a skin disease was a visual illustration of the contagious uncleanness of the sin that keeps us away from God, and the powerlessness of the priest to solve the problem.
That’s why I find this man so relatable, and his testimony so encouraging. If I look beyond the quarantines and the face-coverings, I see a man who had a desperate spiritual problem and who went to Jesus to be cleansed of it.
“I am willing… be clean,” Jesus said. Jesus is always willing. Unlike the priests, who were able only to diagnose the problem from a distance, Jesus “reached out his hand and touched the man.” Against the contagious uncleanness of the sin-sickness we all carry, Jesus has a contagious holiness that cleanses and purifies those who come to him for help.
In Jesus, we find help in a time of need. He isn’t afraid to associate with us in our sin-sickness. He draws near to us when others would keep away; he reaches out to us when others would recoil; he cleanses us when others would be polluted by us.
And then, as this incident with the leper shows, Jesus trades places with us. The man’s story ends with him travelling widely, talking freely, spreading the news of what had happened to him. Meanwhile, we are told, “Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in the lonely places.” By bringing this man in, Jesus was cast out.
It is an amazing truth that Jesus is able to cleanse those who are sick. But as this man with a skin disease discovered, the even more amazing truth is that Jesus is willing to do so, even though it costs him.
That is true help in a time of need, and real hope for these troubled days we are living in.
Written by Alastair Gledhill, Resource Development and Online Engagement Consultant
Ali has previous experience working in digital communications, before more recently serving on the ministry team at All Souls Church. He has joined the team at CEM to help update resources and build engagement. He lives in central London.
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