Jesus at work: Trading places

Here’s something really interesting in Mark’s Gospel that my lovely wife Bronwyn noticed when she was reading the Bible the other day. Close to the beginning of Mark, in chapter 1, Jesus meets a man with a skin disease:

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40)

The word ‘leper’ actually refers to people with a wide range of skin diseases, not just to people with the modern disease of leprosy. This man’s condition would have been pretty miserable. You might be aware from reading the Old Testament that he would have suffered from far more than a bad complexion and low self-esteem. He would have been a social outcast, condemned to a solitary life outside the main centres of population. That’s because his skin disease was an example of ‘uncleanliness’—a bodily condition that symbolized sin and death, and which excluded ancient Israelites from worshipping God in the temple and from associating with others. God told Moses:

The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 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. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

Jesus, however, is powerful enough to deal with this ‘uncleanliness’. He is not contaminated by touching the man with the disease; instead, he has a kind of ‘contagious cleanliness’ which heals the man:

Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:41-42).

Great stuff! But then, the story takes a slightly unexpected twist:

And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Mark 1:43-44)

We can understand why Jesus wanted the man to show himself to the priest; after all, it was the priest’s job to pronounce people ‘clean’ once their uncleanness had left them (e.g. Lev 13:47-59). In that way, he could be restored to God’s worshipping people. It’s a bit more difficult to understand why Jesus didn’t want the man to talk about it; but we haven’t got time to go into detail about that question here. Instead, I want to show you the interesting bit that Bronwyn noticed:

But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:45)

What’s happened to Jesus as a result of this healing? He’s traded places with the diseased man! He hasn’t actually caught the disease itself—but he’s suffering in the same way that the diseased man would have suffered before he was healed. Previously, it was the diseased man who had to live outside the populated areas and stay in the lonely places by himself. But now, Jesus himself is the excluded one: excluded as a result of his own saving action.

We wondered if Mark is giving us a little hint, early in the story of Jesus’ life, of the much greater and perfect substitution that Jesus accomplishes at the end of his earthly life. By his death on the cross, Jesus came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus deliberately suffers in our place; he dies the death we deserve; he is forsaken so that sinners like you and me can be accepted, and so worship and serve God freely. Is this story of the diseased man a little foretaste of that great truth?

What do you reckon?

7 thoughts on “Jesus at work: Trading places

  1. Nice possibility! I’m hesitant though. First, can’t see anything in the OT skin disease passages about staying in the “wilderness / desert / desolate places” (not a knock-down argument, of course). Second, if it is that, are we supposed to make something of the next phrase – that “people were coming to him from every quarter”? Is it significant that the people joined him there?

    I’m wondering whether it’s more likely to be a reminder of Israel’s “wilderness” experience (same word) on the way to the promised land: Jesus is the true Israelite, and those who are with him become the new Israel. Thoughts?

  2. Interesting, I’d never noticed that before! But I think Jesus’ position is significantly different to the leper’s – the leper was outcast and rejected by the community, and was therefore lonely, while Jesus is forced out of towns by his popularity, and still people seek him out. He may be outside the community physically, but it’s for the exact opposite reason that the leper was outside the community, physically and relationally.

  3. Hi Stephen and Tim, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that Jesus’ position is not the same as the leper’s in every way. But I still think there are hints of a partial substitution going on, in some sense.

    True, there is no mention of the “desert” directly in the leper passages. Nevertheless, Jesus has to remain “outside” (exo) the towns, and the people with skin diseases also have to remain “outside” (exo) the camp (Lev 13:46, Num 5:3-4). When God gave these commands to Moses, they were in the “desert” (Lev 7:38; Num 1:1, 19) – so being “outside” the camp meant being in the “desert”.

    The idea of Jesus having an Israel-like “wilderness” experience is an attractive one; although since Jesus has already had his desert experience and completed his 40 days (Mark 1:12-13), yet another experience of the same kind seems less likely to me.

  4. Hi Lionel,

    That’s an interesting discovery!

    Would there be any relationship between Jesus going out to a ‘desolate place’ himself voluntarily in verse 35 and Jesus being out in desolate place as a result of healing this man in verses 40 – 45?

  5. Hi Hank, that’s interesting! Actually, there’s an involuntary element in verse 35 too; Jesus seems to go out into the wilderness to escape the crowds who are after him to perform healings and exorcisms. Thinking about it further, I think this is yet another case where Jesus’ removal of uncleanness from others (sickness and demons) forces him out into desolate places (the place where unclean people were supposed to go).

  6. What do I think? I think:

    – firstly, I’m annoyed that I was interrupted while reading this post, and only got back to it today
    – secondly, your wife is a clever woman. Thanks Brownyn!

Comments are closed.