In Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism, Jonathan Klawans outlines the differences between ritual impurity and moral impurity. Moral impurity, which includes acts like adultery and murder, comprises a category of impure, sinful acts. Ritual impurity includes natural processes, like childbirth, marital sexual relations and menstruation, and does not reflect sinfulness. Leprosy, which designates any number of skin diseases, falls under the category of ritual impurity.
Although a person with a skin disease was guilty of no sin, “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lv 13:45–46). Someone with leprosy was cut off from the totality of community and religious life. And while most ritual impurities lasted only a short time, often a day or a week, a skin disease could remain with a person in perpetuity.
It is no surprise that when a leper sought out Jesus, he begged him to restore him to physical wholeness so he could live in community again. Kneeling before Jesus, he said simply, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And though he entreated Jesus, he did not plead his case but made a statement of fact: you are able to do this. It was a powerful act of faith in Jesus’ power and trust in Jesus’ compassion.
Jesus had “pity for the man,” rendered by the Greek verb splanchnizomai, which indicates deep feelings, affection and love. Jesus was moved by compassion for the leper’s situation and “stretched out his hand and touched him.” With the word, “Be made clean,” and the touch, “immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”
Did Jesus do anything wrong in touching the man? Absolutely not, for although the ritual impurity of a leper was contagious, it was by no means sinful. While Jesus might have made himself technically unclean by touching the man, the healing restored the man immediately, so there was no impurity to transmit. Why does this matter? Because it is important to stress that Jesus was careful to follow the purity laws, not flout them.
After the man was healed, Jesus “sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’” Jesus’ compassion did not spill over into a joyous hug, welcoming the leper back into community; instead, Jesus sent the healed man on his own mission to fulfill the purity laws, as described in Lv 14:1–32. The man, by the healing of his leprosy, was only part way to reinstatement in the community. The priest must still examine him, and this process, as outlined in Leviticus, will take over a week to complete. He was on his way to full reintegration in the community, but he was not there yet.
But why did Jesus wish him to “say nothing to anyone”? Did Jesus truly expect this man, joyous at being made whole, to keep quiet? Should he not tell the priests who had healed him? Since Jesus’ mission was to call people into the kingdom, why would he tell the newly restored leper to say nothing? The healed leper certainly could not be silent! He “went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.” The number of people coming to see Jesus increased to such a degree that “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country.”
There is tension between Jesus’ desire that the leper say nothing and Jesus’ mission to proclaim the kingdom. There are a number of statements similar to this in the Gospel of Mark. Scholars call this the Messianic secret and explore why Jesus calls people to follow him, heals people publicly and then tell these witnesses to say nothing to anyone. Is this a psychological ploy by Jesus or a literary technique of Mark?
Whatever the scholarly answer, the (healed) leper’s response suggests that the sheer joy of the Gospel overwhelms those whom Jesus has touched. Yes, the leper will fulfill the purity laws, but in his gut he knows he cannot remain silent after experiencing the Gospel’s healing power.