Mark 1:40-45

Commentary Excerpt by Tom Boomershine

Leprosy was the most feared disease of antiquity. It was a horrible disease in which people's hands and face and body were eaten away. People who were lepers were forbidden to have any contact with people. They were sent out into the countryside.They were required by Jewish law to say "unclean, unclean" to anybody who was near so that they would not come near them. It was forbidden that anyone would touch them or even be close to them because of fear that the epidemic would spread. The societal structures of Jesus' day were trying to prevent an epidemic. That was also why it was necessary for the leper to prove his cleansing to the priest in order to be free to enter into normal social relationships again. This was a legal as well as a religious matter. He needed to offer a sacrifice but he also needed to show himself to the priest so that the priest could authorize that he was indeed clean. The offering was a sign of his cleansing that would convince people that he really was clean. Only this would convince people to no longer isolate him and drive him again into quarantine.

The desperation of the leper is reflected in the way in which he asks Jesus. He begs him and kneels before him, and says "If you want to, you can make me clean." The translation here matters. The NRSV translates the Greek word thelas (from the verb, thelo) as “If you choose” and the NIV as “If you are willing.” Both are possible translations but neither conveys in English the depth and intensity of either the leper’s request or Jesus’ response (NRSV-“I do choose” NIV-“I am willing.”) The best translation is “If you want to” and “I want to.” The word that is used for "moved with pity" (NRSV) in Greek is splagnizo (NIV adopts the Western textual reading orgisthas,“angry, indignant.") The best translation is “deeply moved” or “moved with compassion.” The verb splagnizo literally means “to turn over the bowels.” If you've ever had that experience of seeing or talking with someone who was disfigured, had suffered a grave injury or lost a limb, you can feel your bowels turning over with compassion for that person. That's what is described here and you need to convey the intensity of that emotion in your words and in the tone.

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