Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

by Crossings

Choosing the Outsider
Mark 1:40-45
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Analysis by Steven C. Kuhl

40A leper came to him [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him, he sent him away at once, 44saying 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.” 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

DIAGNOSIS: Trapped by the System

Step 1 – Initial Diagnosis: The Way Things Are Under “the Priests and Commandments of Moses”
Encountering people like “the leper” (the socially unacceptable, the outsider) begging for help, while not unknown to any of us, is uncommon to most of us. For the most part, we don’t have to deal with them. That’s not because they are so far and few between, but because the system in which we live is very good at keeping them out: out of sight and out of mind. That’s what the system, i.e., “the priests and commands of Moses” (v. 44), the law of God, is for: to keep the good in and protected, and to keep the bad out. Don’t be mistaken about the leper. He doesn’t represent the kind of people who simply “fall through the cracks” or “miss the safety net.” The issue, in this case, is not social injustice, though that abounds too. Actually, attending to issues of social justice is also the job of the priests and commandments of Moses. Here the leper is an outsider for good reason. He is a real threat to the good order of God’s creation, an affront to a decent, clean, safe and – dare we say holy – way of life.

Step 2 – Advanced diagnosis: No Choice; No Freedom.
While there certainly are people who would identify with the leper, my guess is that most people reading this programming or hearing this gospel will not. Most of them/us are in the system and under its protection, and are generally thankful for it. From our vantage point, the system does a lot of good. Still, look at the cost (the limits) the system imposes on us. What if we have a boundary experience with an outsider, like the leper and Jesus, and are “moved with pity.” (v 41) Are we free to choose for the outsider? Or do the pressures of the system, “the priests and commandments of Moses,” shake our confidence, causing us to question not only the wisdom of our compassion, but also the freedom to act on it? Let us cast off all illusion. There is usually hell to pay for crossing the boundaries of political correctness and touching certified outsiders with compassion and pity. Life within the system therefore leaves them with no choice about what to do. Obey the system and abandon the outsider. What about us? After all, we too are quite aware that the “priest and commandments of Moses” have God’s sanctions behind them, and we who are under them have none.

Step 3 – Final Diagnosis: Untouched by Jesus; On the Outs with the System.
Such lack of confidence does not simply leave the outsider untouched by us (by our pity and compassion and help), but it also so entraps us in the system of “priests and commandments of Moses” that we ourselves remain untouched by Jesus’ pity. That is ultimately bad news. For to remain untouched by Jesus is to remain unclean, and to remain unclean is be a certified outsider forever, not only with regard to society, but God. It’s easy to be fooled by present day perceptions. But the day will surely come when the standards of the priests and commandments will find all things presently under its protection, including us, unclean. That truth cannot be concealed forever. And when it’s revealed, the system itself will have no choice but to cast us out along with all else that is unclean. Those who are trapped by the system end up being on the outs with the system. That’s the inevitable outcome of life under the rule of the priests and commandments of Moses – by divine authority.

PROGNOSIS: Freed by the Outsider

Step 4 – Initial Prognosis: Jesus the Outsider by choice.
Strange as it may seem, the hope of the outsider does not rest on them figuring out how to get “in” with the system, with “the priests and commandments of Moses.” That is an impossibility. Rather, their hope is secured only as Jesus chooses (v. 41) to go “out” to them. Of course, by going out to them he also becomes an outsider. By going out to them he also becomes one who is on the outs with “the priests and commandments of Moses.” And all this is by his own choosing. Once Jesus chooses to help the outsider, the leper, then Jesus becomes an outsider by choice. “He can no longer go into a town openly” (towns being the secure realm of the system) but must now stay “out in the country.” (v. 45) But that’s now where Jesus chooses to be found, on the outside, so that those who are cast out may be in the proximity of his compassionate touch. Just how much of an outsider Jesus must become by choice in order to save outsiders doesn’t become clear to us until the end of the story when he is “out of the city on the cross.” There we see that he is on the outs, not only with the human agents of God’s judgment (the priests and commandments of Moses), but with God himself: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 16:34). On the cross, we behold him as the Outsider of outsiders, challenging the whole system of the “priests and commandments of Moses” as the gatekeepers of holiness before God, and setting up himself as the new standard and gatekeeper. This challenge would be the height of foolishness if it wasn’t for one thing: namely, that Jesus is doing all this as the Son – the Holy One – of God (Mk 1:24). At this time in Jesus’ ministry, of course, that identity is known only to the unclean spirits and to the outsiders he cleanses. It is not yet public knowledge. But for us who live after the resurrection, the Word is out.

Step 5 – Advanced Prognosis: Choosing the Outsider, Christ.
Having the Word out about the cleaning touch of Christ and having that same Word “within” (that is, being cleansed by it) are not quite the same thing. The Good News of Jesus becomes good news for us only as Jesus’ choice for us results in becoming also our choice for him. There’s an old adage that says “Beggars can’t be choosers.” While that is true with regard to life in the system, life under the “priests and commandments of Moses,” it is not true for those whom Jesus has touched. Jesus came precisely so that “beggars” (v. 40) like the leper, beggars like us, can be choosers: Choosers of Christ because Christ first chose us. In traditional biblical and Christian language, that choice is called faith; and it is nothing short of a life changing confidence with regard to God as well as his lawful agents, the priests and commandments of Moses.

Step 6 – Final Prognosis: Free to Choose the Way Things Will Be.
Because of Christ’s choice for us and our choice for him, we are now thoroughly people of choice: Free to live as Christ lives – for others. That fact is demonstrated by the paradoxical ending of the text. We, who are cleansed by Christ, are free either to keep (v. 43) or not to keep (v. 45) the commandments, depending on what is helpful. Therefore, we Christians are not antinomians, even though our life is based on the One who utterly opposed and discredited the law as a basis for holiness through his death and resurrection. The law, the system, “the priests and commands of Moses,” still has its usefulness. It’s just that that usefulness is limited; it cannot save the outsider. Only Jesus can do that. Therefore, Jesus says to the leper, its “OK” to go and “show yourself to the priests and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded.” But you do that not because you are trapped by the system and have no choice. Rather, you do it “as a testimony,” not only to the fact that you have been cleansed by the One who is outside the system, Jesus Christ, but that, having been cleansed by him, you are no longer a threat to the world that the system is charged to protect. (v. 43) Christians are perfectly free to choose to keep and support the work of the system, the priests and commandments of God, when that is helpful to others. On the other hand, Christians are also free not to keep the commandments of Moses when its not helpful, especially, when the issue is the cleansing of outsiders. When that is at issue we (the cleansed) are perfectly free to touch and embrace the other regardless of what the law may say. That’s what the leper chose to do in our text. He chose to proclaim Christ freely. (v. 45) But as he did – and as we do – we need to realize that we are acting outside the system, and that those who are trapped in the system will more than likely confirm their bondage by treating us as outsiders, as Jesus himself was treated. But for us outsiders cleansed by Christ, that is precisely our freedom, our cross — by choice!


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