The Gospel of Mark recollects a scene that makes me cringe every time I hear it. I wish I could say it was the account of Judas’s betrayal of Christ, or the description of Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. But it is not.
In the first chapter of his testimony to the life of Jesus, Mark describes a man with leprosy who comes to the feet of the unusual rabbi in great need. On his knees, he begs with a statement of certainty, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” To this Jesus responds with an act of healing that would indeed change everything in the life of man pushed to the outskirts of a society, declared leprous in more ways than one. Jesus heals him and then immediately tells the thankful man not to tell anyone. The command is troubling to me, but more so is the story that follows.
As an aside, Mark’s Gospel, the shortest of the four, is largely concerned with getting the message of Christ out without delay. He opens his account with a single-sentence introduction, and his favorite word throughout the book is a Greek word meaning “immediately” or “at once.” The story of the leprous man is no different.
In response to this man kneeling at Jesus’s feet, Mark describes Jesus immediately willing and sympathetic. “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured” (1:41-42). Mark conveys a compassionate savior who is near to us, reaching out with a power that is relevant to our lives. In the Gospel of Mark, the divine equation is not only apparent but spoken with urgency. God is near; Christ has come; if you will seek him, you will find him.
But the passage continues. Jesus sends the healed man away “at once” and “with a strong warning.” “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them” (1:44). It is at this point in the account that I find myself getting quite self-righteously concerned. How difficult is it for a man who was just healed to respond in gratitude by heeding Jesus’s simple instructions? It is a strange command, yes, but isn’t this the least he can do?
Yet Mark reports a man eager to speak of the power he has seen. “Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news.” Adding uncomfortably, “As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.”
The chapter concludes with hope, the story on a positive note (people still find their way to Jesus), but it is often no match for the discomfort I feel. The story Mark tells hinges on the concepts of action and reaction; the words “at once,” “immediately,” and “as a result” remind us unpopularly that behavior has consequences. Of course, I know we are not islands. I rejoice when the act of falling at Jesus’s feet causes a move of compassion in Christ and healing in the hearts of those who need. But I cringe at the thought of my own wrong behavior causing consequences to God. I don’t want to think about my ability to grieve the Holy Spirit with my anger, or my foolishness, or my disobedience. I don’t want to think about the times I have gotten in God’s way, “fixing” the catastrophes through which the Spirit may have been reaching someone, turning away from Christ’s simple instructions and forcing him to lonelier places.
And yet, isn’t this the reality of the Cross itself? At the actions of humanity, he was dismissed to the loneliest place of all. I, too, am free to act and react, to make choices and affect others. But behavior has consequences; there is always a cost. My behavior brought something into the world that wasn’t meant to be there, something God chose to remove by bearing it—by bearing me—upon the Cross. There is indeed a cost, but so there is also a redeemer.
Again and again, whether we reject it or truly hear it, the Christian story requires us to wrestle with the one who responds on our behalf. How often has he reached out to us with compassion only to find that touch rebuffed? How often have we rejected his grace, wisdom, or way, believing we know better? Yet even here, even unto death, his hope and work remains: O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have longed to gather you together as a hen gathers her chicks…
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.