Does He or Doesn't He?
"Does she or doesn't she" is a phrase that passed into popular culture from a hair coloring ad that ran from '55 to '73. "Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure." That's how the ad went. Now that phrase is a book title, a regular line in news stories, and I think there's even a TV show by that name. The phrase is popular because it piques the interest. It hints at a mystery, a paradox. This fits in with Epiphany where we see the glory of God in the face of the Man, Jesus. You haven't done justice to Epiphany until you confront the mystery, the paradox, the apparent contradictions of it. In Our text we see 3 of them all raising the question, does He or doesn't He?
Does or doesn't Jesus keep the Law? How often have I said that one of the reasons God took on flesh and blood is to keep the Law in our place? And I wasn't just referring to the 10 Commandments but the Jewish civil and ceremonial Laws too. Well, touching the leper is a serious breach of the ceremonial Law. The only thing that defiled a Jew more than touching a leper was touching a dead body. Lepers were the living dead. A clean man, a rabbi, a teacher deliberately touching a leper was bigger news than healing a leper. It was a willful violation of the Law, and so unnecessary. Jesus doesn't heal the man by touching but by saying, "I will; be clean!" So does Jesus keep the Law or not?
Apparently not, but wait. After healing the leper, what Jesus does do? He sends the man to the priest to offer the sacrifices Moses commanded. God gave no instructions for curing leprosy. He instructed His priests only how to recognize it. A cure only God could do. When God saw fit to cure leprosy, the cured leper presented himself to a priest who then offered sacrifices which restored the cured leper to the Church. So does or doesn't Jesus keep the Law? Apparently so.
In this paradox is an Epiphany truth. Any ordinary man touching a leper would only become unclean in the eyes of the Law, not Jesus. He touches the man and in addition to becoming unclean He cures the leper. The Law must recognize the leper as clean now. And though there's no leprosy on Jesus from the leper, the Law must declare Jesus unclean and deal with Him accordingly. That's how in the coming Lent we'll see Jesus treated, won't we? Like anything that ritually defiled the Temple, Jesus will be taken outside of Jerusalem to be disposed of. God will forsake Him because He sees all sins on Jesus making Jesus not just sinfully unclean but sin itself. So all the punishments the Law requires sinners to suffer Jesus will suffer.
Okay, Jesus does keep the Law, but does He or doesn't He want people to know about Him? Our text says, "Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: 'See that you don't tell this to anyone." What an incredible change in tone! From tender compassion to stern warning. The root of the word for warning means to be moved with anger. Jesus didn't just say, "Let's keep this between you, me, and the fencepost." He said, "Don't you dare tell anyone." And to emphasize He meant it Jesus didn't just "send him away," no, the text says Jesus "threw him out."
Does or doesn't Jesus want people to know about Him? Apparently not. But Jesus sends the man to the priest to provide a testimony to them. Since Jesus sends the man to a priest who could sacrifice, He's sending him to Jerusalem; only there could sacrifices be offered. Jesus is giving the whole priesthood of Jerusalem testimony that He could do what they all confessed only God could do: heal leprosy. So Jesus wanted the priests to know Him through the evidence of this miracle, but Jesus didn't want this healed leper to make Him known.
Our insert makes it sound like all the leper did was go out talking about this miracle. This gives the impression that if the guy had gone out proclaiming the Gospel that would have been okay with Jesus. If he had gone out spreading the good news rather than just news, it would have been fine. A more accurate translation doesn't bear this out. It says literally, "Going out he began to preach much and to blaze abroad the word." But Jesus didn't send him to do that, did He? Evidently Jesus didn't want this man preaching the Word. Evidently there are times and places it does more harm than good.
The text says that the healed leper went out and preached the word, and as a result people came to Jesus from everywhere. We're they coming for the Word or for a miracle? The text doesn't say. We know from last week's text the crowds came for miracles. We see that in the feeding of the 5000 as well. But there were occasions like on the seashore when the Word is what congregated people. Yet, honestly, what does the person who believes God has given him a miraculous healing usually end up talking most about? Not the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Not how Jesus saved them from sin, death and the devil, but their miracle.
Jesus' power to heal, to do miracles is not the point Jesus wants blazed abroad. No, what needs to be known is the simple truth that He kept the Law and could do what everyone admitted only God did, that is, He was God in flesh. Remember when Jesus forgave the paralytic His sins? The Pharisees were upset because only God could forgive sins. Then Jesus healed the paralytic to prove to them that He could do on earth what they admitted only God could do, forgive sins. The physical miracle was secondary and only done for the sake of the spiritual truth.
The greatest miracle anyone experiences is their sins being forgiven. Even if Jesus healed you of cancer, rescued you from drugs, or made you rich, how many unbelievers could say they've experienced these too? No, your miracle is that Jesus has made your scarlet sins white as snow. Jesus has forgiven the sins which your conscience, the devil, and the world declare unforgivable. But who gets excited about that? When people give their testimonies what do they usually talk about? Not the Word and Sacrament that bring the forgiveness Jesus won on the cross, but the physical things Jesus did for them or how deeply they feel about Jesus. But after Jesus rose from the dead, what did He command be preached to all nations? Miracles and feelings about Him repentance and forgiveness in His name?
Apparently Jesus does want people to know Him as the fulfiller of the Law and as God in flesh and blood. But does He or doesn't He will to heal? We keep bumping into this question in Epiphany because Jesus keeps healing people. In 20 plus years of ministry, I haven't seen one disease healed by a miracle that no one could deny. How many have you seen? While Jesus did heal this leper, even the leper knows the matter of healing is an 'if.' And the 'if' of the leper is more questionable than we say it in English. He says, "If ever you are willing" which means he is sure Jesus has the power to do the healing, but wherever, whenever He might will it is totally up to Him.
Jesus willed to heal this leper, but it was of far more than leprosy. He sent Him back to the Church, so he could again take part in Divine Services. If you believe, as you should, that spiritual burdens are heavier than physical ones, then you know the heaviest burden of leprosy was not being allowed to take part in Church services. You couldn't enter into the Temple to take part of the Old Testament Sacraments. You could sometimes get close enough to hear a rabbi preaching, but for the most part you were condemned to live away from Word and Sacrament. Jesus restores this leper to all the riches of God's grace by taking the judgments of the Law upon Himself and cleansing him of all that kept him outside of the Church.
And here's the tragedy of this text which I have seen replayed dozens of times in the Church. I told you I've never seen a miraculous healing where one moment they were sick and the next they were on their feet, but I've seen our Lord heal homes, marriages, bodies, and lives. I've seen people, just like this leper, who in their sickness, their turmoil, their affliction where drawn to Jesus. They clung to Jesus in their state of wretchedness even as this leper does here. And Jesus healed them as sure as He did this leper, and like this leper they were content with the physical healing, with their normal life being restored to them. They didn't return to Word and Sacrament in their newfound health, but even as this cured leper did, they go off doing what they think they ought to do for Jesus.
They believe that because Jesus healed them, He certainly must love them and they certainly must have His blessing in their life from now on. This is false. If being healed is proof of God's love and blessing, then what about the millions of Christians who die in their illness, their painful existence, or their troubled lives? The proof of God's love and blessing is not being healed by Jesus, it's Jesus and the gifts He left us. Miracles point people to Jesus as God in flesh and blood. And what miracles has this God in flesh and blood left us? The miracle of Water that can rescue our souls from hell, of Words that can forgive a lifetime of sin, of Bread and Wine that bring to us His Body and Blood to eat and drink for strength, life, and salvation.
Does or doesn't Jesus will to heal? Through the miracles of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion, Jesus wills to heal all eternally. Other healings can only be "ifs." If a healing serves Jesus' glory, if it serves your eternal wellbeing, and if it serves God's will that all come to repentance and faith, you can be sure Jesus will heal. "But those are big ifs," you say! Of course, they are. That's why only the Man who is God can make that call, and why we always pray, "If you are willing..." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany VI (20060212); Mark 1: 40-45