The cost of mercy
I want to be more like Jesus.
But as I encounter Jesus through Scripture, I’m often convicted that I have a very long way to go.
It happened again as I read Mark 1:40–45. It is early in Jesus’ ministry, and he’s travelling throughout Galilee, preaching, healing and driving out demons. Suddenly, a man with leprosy falls on his knees at Jesus’ feet, begging, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
In those days, leprosy was a catch-all term that included a variety of skin diseases. In many cases, people with leprosy suffered less from their skin condition than from the social isolation that came from the “unclean” label assigned to them as a result.
Leviticus 13:45–46 captures a sense of the isolation experienced by people with leprosy: “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”
The power of a touch from Jesus
So the man’s plea to Jesus is not only to be healed, but to be made clean – to be restored to full participation in worship and in the life of the community, to be allowed to freely experience human touch and to have the stigma of sin removed from him. He has no doubt that Jesus is able to accomplish this. The question is whether Jesus will be willing to do so.
Jesus demonstrates his willingness in a gesture that speaks more loudly than words ever could. Without hesitating, he touches the man, who for the duration of his illness has had to carefully avoid even accidental contact with others lest they too become unclean.
Jesus touches this man, whose loneliness has at times been overwhelming, who has wondered if he would ever be able to shake a hand or receive a hug or embrace his family again without first carefully weighing the consequences. Jesus reaches out, and his touch speaks volumes. “I am willing. Be clean!”
Jesus is more than willing to make the man kneeling at his feet clean again. But this willingness doesn’t come without cost.
At the beginning of the text, the man with leprosy finds himself on the outskirts of society, confined to the lonely places. But after his encounter with the man, it’s Jesus who now finds himself in the man’s shoes. It is Jesus who can no longer enter a town openly. It is Jesus who finds himself in lonely places. Talk about trading spaces!
The cost of mercy
It’s not that I don’t want to help others. I do. Most of us would readily agree that we want to serve others when we can.
With Jesus, though, I find his seeming lack of concern over the consequences of his actions unsettling. His disregard over the fact that touching this man will make Jesus unclean too. His absence of thought as to whether this skin disease might be contagious. His willingness to make this man clean despite any personal cost.
The isolation, the inability to enter towns openly and the restrictions as to where he could travel don’t seem to deter Jesus from reaching out in love and compassion to a man in need of mercy.
“Love your neighbour as yourself,” Jesus said. I’d like to say I do. But the reality is that when I encounter a neighbour who has bedbugs in his apartment, I’m more willing to offer my prayers than my presence, words of condolence than willing hands to help.
If I take a hard look at it, what I want done for me and what I’m willing to do for my neighbour are two different things. I’ll help, but only after I’ve carefully examined the potential personal cost.
Jesus loved and served first. I’m not even sure he got around to counting the cost.
As I reread this text, I wonder if it’s not actually the man with leprosy who is most in need of cleansing. Seeing the darkness within my own heart, I find myself in his place, kneeling before Jesus, praying, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
—Kathy McCamis is a student at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary Canada on the Canadian Mennonite University campus in Winnipeg, and a member of Fort Garry MB Church.