I love the stories of when Jesus touches and heals the lepers. They are beautiful stories of Jesus reaching out beyond the societal margins and touching those he’s not supposed to touch. And in this story in particular I love that Jesus, “I am willing”. Those must have been soul-lifting words to this man. And while messages about inclusion and reaching out to the outsiders in our world is absolutely within this story, I’m not so sure that’s what this story is about or why it’s in Mark’s gospel. It’s a nice story, albeit a short one, but it quickly takes a turn as it moves from moving toward the outsider to the problem of fame.
Jesus is “moved with compassion”, which in Greek speaks to feeling deep down to the depths of one’s bowels. One could argue that level of compassion and feeling is so profound that it almost makes you sick to your stomach. That’s how deeply Jesus feels here, and because of this he heals the man. For no other reason does he do this but raw compassion and mercy. And then he does this strange thing, which he often does in the Gospels, which is that he gives this man a “stern warning” not to tell anyone about this, but to go the priests for the ritual cleansing which “Moses commanded”. What? First of all what is this ceremony that “Moses commanded”? And secondly, aren’t we supposed to boldly proclaim the hand of God at work in our lives to the world? Yes. But also no.
The cleaning is an elaborate ceremony outlined in Leviticus 14:1-32, and Jesus wants this man to be quiet about this healing until he goes through that. But why? I think it’s two reasons:
1) This is a reminder that Jesus is a Torah observant Jew. And while he’s going to do a lot that will challenge the current socio-political-religious systems of the day, he’s not there to replace Judaism. He’s there to honor it. So, yeah, I healed you, but you should still go and do rituals, do the things that we do. It’s easy for we Christians to look at the Gospel stories and think that Jesus has come to be some kind of replacement for Judaism. This is dangerous. This kind of thinking is not a far leap to antisemitism, a growing concern in our world today. Let these little verses thrown in there be a reminder of the beauty and validity of Judaism that Jesus also embraced.
2) Jesus is also concerned about the degree to which his healing power is granting him celebrity status in the region, and that he may become known for something other than what he is. He is not a magician. He is not a show. He’s not building a brand. And he knows what fame does. Fame takes your eye off the ball of authentic work, and even though you may have started out with the purest of intentions, it leads to a life of viral blog posts, book signings and keynote speaking at the latest sexy conferences. Jesus wants none of this. When fame enters in, you lose control of your schedule and priorities and your job becomes preserving the fame. So the stern warning is that Jesus doesn’t want fame to hijack his mission and work.
But the man can’t resist. He shouts it out to the world, and the masses start coming. Mark says that “[Jesus] can no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country” (v. 45). He’s got to go into hiding. He’s forced to lay low and let the hype the die. I love this about Jesus, especially in this day and age of Twitter followers, YouTube hits, Twitch channels, and blog subscribers. We live in a world where it is easier than ever before to get caught up in “fame”. We find ourselves in awe of the latest Christian blogger and can’t wait for their speaking tour so we can get a signed copy of their latest book. Does that look like the Kingdom? Can you imagine Jesus doing a book signing?
None of this is entirely or necessarily bad, but what is our work becoming when our leaders in the faith spend hours sitting at a table signing books. As an aspiring writer, blogger and tweeter whose followers and subscribers are so limited that they could all fit in my living room, it’s easy for me to critique those who have the masses following them. But I think we also need to be cautious about this trend in church-world. We are all just servants who are here to be vessels of God’s kingdom on earth as it in heaven. So the next time you find yourself star struck by a prominent leader in church-world, remind yourself that they are no different than you. They’re just famous and sell lots of books. And if they’re work is designed to sell more books, their eye is off the ball. Jesus knew that fame is not innately bad, but it is dangerous. Be ware of fame, beloved.