Look what Jesus does. Jesus trades places with an outcast. That’s how the story works. At the beginning of this story Jesus has just left Capernaum because he was insanely popular. He’s cast out demons, and cured all sorts of illness. The Gospel says the whole village was gathered around the door of the house (Mk. 1.33). So Jesus takes off at the crack of dawn and he goes out to a “wilderness place” to pray. The disciples hunt for him. They find him, and he says, “Let’s go. I need to go to all the villages and do the same thing. I need to announce God’s Kingdom.” That’s the mission. So it’s no surprise that he runs into a leper while he’s traveling from village to village, criss-crossing those wilderness places. We just heard the rules - that’s where lepers (like me) had to live: outside the camp. And what happens at the end of today’s story? “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the wilderness places.” (Our translation reads “country” which makes it sound kind of like a vacation, right? But really it should say “wilderness places” - sometimes our translations get in the way…).
Jesus wants to go into all the villages announcing God’s Kingdom. But by the end of this story, he’s traded places with a dirty outcast in the wilderness. And the question is, why? Why can’t Jesus enter the villages? Is he stuck in the wilderness because of his insane popularity, or because people now think of him as a dirty outcast. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t say for sure. But remember, leprosy is as much about a social label as a medical condition - and Jesus just crossed all the wrong boundaries with all those officials who should be issuing a clean bill of health. He’s popular with the common people, and hated by the ruling officials. Perhaps that had something to do with being stuck in the wilderness.
Jesus can do anything, it seems. He casts out demons with a single word. He cures the lame and the sick by simply raising their hands. He cleanses lepers with a single touch. But Jesus can’t force anyone to cooperate. The only limit for Jesus in the Gospels are people, like this healed leper, who don’t have “eyes to see” or “ears to hear” what Jesus is doing. And in our world, we’re the ones, like this healed leper, who limit how much life Jesus brings to the rest of the world. We’re the ones, like this leper, who say things and do things to make Jesus perhaps look and sound undesirable in the rest of the world. That’s the shocking thing. If we meet Jesus but fail to really listen - we become more of an obstacle for Jesus than anything else.
About a century after the Gospel stories took place the Roman Empire was struck with a massive epidemic (The Rise of Christianity, ch.4). It first hit the Roman army in the East, and from there it spread across the empire. This wasn’t about small, little skin blemishes. This was an all-out plague. The mortality rate was so high that Marcus Aurelius described caravans of carts and wagons hauling the dead from cities. Historians estimate that upwards of 25-30% of the empire’s entire population died. Millions of people. Containment mattered.
In the middle of that massive epidemic the classic Roman physician Galen had a front row seat. He was in the middle of it. And he did what any sane person would do: he ran away. He got out of Rome as fast as he could and he retired to the country far away. Containment, whatever the cost.
It’s what any sane person would have done - except the Christians. When everybody else was running to the hills, it was Christians who stayed behind to nurse the sick and the dying. Many of them died too. But guess what? When that epidemic was over, the survivors wanted to learn a bit more about those Christians. And many of those survivors became Christians too. Not only that, but a couple of centuries later (and a couple of epidemics later) Christianity became the religion of the empire. It happened because Christians were willing to take the place of outcasts. In those earliest days, Christians had an amazing reputation for love of God and love of neighbor. And it changed their world.
Containment makes a lot of sense. Unless we believe that we’re called to be agents of God’s life and healing. If that’s what Jesus is about, then we’re called to engage our world - every part of creation. We’re not looking to suffer for the sake of suffering. But when we’re faced with the pain and suffering of this world, the path for God’s new life is always going to be the path of engagement, not containment.
At the end of this story we notice how Jesus himself has become the place where people gather. Despite all the obstacles put in his way, people come flocking to Jesus out in the wilderness - from every town and village. Because by God’s grace, even the obstacles we create can be used to spread God’s life, and to serve God’s mission. So the question for us today is: where are we being called to engage, to reach out, and to spread the good news about Jesus? And if we’re able to engage our world even a little like those earliest Christians, if we’re willing to actually trade places with the outcasts, then who knows, it just may change our world too. Amen.