Wineskins Archive

January 23, 2014

Jesus Challenges Culture (Sept-Oct 1993)

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by Dan Anders
September – October, 1993

The opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel picture an authoritative Jesus. In a series of dramatic vignettes, Mark shows us that Jesus is in control. He rapidly faces down the Devil and chases out demons. He calls disciples to follow him, and they follow without a word. He gives teaching that is fresh, clear, distinctive. He heals all kinds of diseases and sets his own daily schedule. He even claims God’s exclusive prerogative of forgiving sins.

The section contains several other decisive pictures of Jesus’ authority. Some of them relate to his challenge of traditional rules and behavior among God’s people.


A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

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.
(Mark 1:40-42).

In this simple story Jesus clearly stepped across the cultural and religious norms of his day. The Law of Moses gave clear instructions as to how leprosy was to be diagnosed and treated. Almost the entire thirteenth chapter of Leviticus is taken up with these detailed regulations.

Basic to all the rules was the requirement that lepers were to be isolated from the rest of Israelite society. “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45,46).

This isolation was not so much for fear of contagion, or because of hygienic concerns. The “uncleanness” of a leper was ceremonial, like that resulting from touching a dead body or a woman’s menstrual period.

The Law required that such defiled people could not fellowship with the rest of society. They could not share in corporate worship. Until the term of their uncleanness passed and certain rituals were completed, they had to stay away from undefiled persons.

The leper in Mark’s story threw away the book of rules. His desperate plight drove him close to Jesus. He did not shout out the horrible warning cry “Unclean!” Instead he begged Jesus to heal him.

Jesus’ reaction, according to this text, was not gross revulsion. Rather he was “filled with compassion” – a word that is often used in the Synoptic Gospels almost exclusively to describe Jesus’ own emotions.

“Compassion” is a strong word. Our English word is from Latin, meaning “to suffer with.” The Greek word splagchnidzomai indicates a sharp pain in the intestines, which to ancient cultures was the center of the emotions. We reflect that same understanding when we speak of “feeling something in our gut.”

Do not miss the point of this simple statement. Jesus’ compassion for a leper is powerful. A Jewish scholar, C. G. Montefiore wrote, “Here we begin to catch the new note in the ministry of Jesus; his intense compassion for the outcast, the sufferer, who, by his sin, or by his suffering…. had put himself outside respectable Jewish society.”1

Jesus, filled with inner pain at a sufferer’s plight, did the unthinkable! He “reached out his hand and touched the man.” He simply stepped over the rules of acceptable behavior.

There are some strong implications that follow from Jesus’ action. For one thing, he clearly cared more for people than he did for cautious legalisms.

Make no mistake about it: Jesus’ actions violated a ceremonial rule. His behavior ritually defiled him. Here is the clear rule: “Or if he touches human uncleanness – anything that would make him unclean – even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty” (Leviticus 5:3).

Jesus was more concerned about a suffering human being than he was about some ceremonial regulation. Which receives our greatest attention: meticulous keeping of traditional rules, or genuine helpfulness to others?

I know a Christian woman who disapproves of homosexual behavior. But her rejection of gay lifestyles does not stifle her human compassion. She works regularly to care for AIDS patients in a variety of helpful ways. She does not let cultural norms keep her from touching the untouchable.

Change the figure a bit. It is a good thing to oppose abortion as a means of birth control. But do we merely object to wrong? Or do we practice right? How many abortion protesters adopt a child from a minority racial group> Who will take a child who is born HIV-positive or drug dependent?

Following Jesus means more than keeping careful rules to maintain our purity. To follow Jesus involves doing good, even when we must go against society’s taboos.

Another implication of Jesus’ action here is that he was not specially concerned with what people thought of him. Undoubtedly some who saw him touch a leper thought he had broken the Torah.

Now there is no specific rule that forbids such contact – just the clear consequence of becoming ceremonially unclean. That act alone was enough to turn off some people. Jesus simply didn’t care about such jaundiced opinions. Whatever people thought of him, he did what was right for people.

If we dare to become Christ-like, we will reach over barriers of class or gender or nationality or acceptability. Regardless of how others may condemn us, we will determinedly do what we believe to be right.

Another implication from Jesus’ touch is his own strong sense of right. He knew the right thing to do. And he took it on himself to do it. His authority and integrity would not let him back down, in spite of negative press. Being judged in the wrong was not very important compared with doing what was right.

“His touching the leper does not imply disrespect for the Law, but rather reflects his consciousness of being the Son,” Jesus knew who he was and what he had to do. No rule or ritual could derail his firm commitment to behave as he knew he should.


Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
(Mark 2:13-14).

Anyone who reads the Gospels has met the Pharisees. These were the “Segregationists” or “Puritans” of their day. They insisted on the absolute distinctiveness of Israel and its religion. They demanded a sharp demarcation from the world.

It is certainly true that the old covenant Scriptures warned Israel not to mix with pagans and idolaters. There was real risk that God’s people could be led away to serve other gods.

But the Pharisees had gone a step farther to keep themselves pure. They simply wrote off all who contacted pagans, and also any who failed to keep all the proper purity rules. Such careless Israelites were considered “sinners” by true puritans.

The tax collectors were a despised group because they worked for and associated with heathen Romans. To fellowship with such riffraff could defile a really conscientious Jew. The best thing to do, a Pharisee would argue, was to avoid any contact with people who failed their purity tests. Such scumbags were simply below the level of Pharisaic fellowship.

Needless to say, Jesus had a very different view of life. He wanted to welcome every needy person. His only requirement was that people recognize their own need of salvation.

So instead of rejecting a tax collector, Jesus called Levi to be one of his closest followers. And then he compounded the situation by going to a party in Levi’s home, eating with “many tax collectors and ‘sinners.’”

It made Jewish religious leaders gag that a supposed rabbi had such poor taste in company. They began to write Jesus off. He couldn’t be a real teacher if he had such faulty spiritual discrimination.

But their hyper-critical judgments could not sway Jesus from helping people who needed help, regardless of what the separatists thought of him or his companions.

Some people need help, know that they do, and so want help. Others don’t know that they need help and therefore do not welcome it. Jesus always focused his main attention on those who knew that they were sinners needing salvation.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:3,4,6). These are the people Jesus applauds, the ones that God accepts. Jesus can only save and bless those who turn to him, because they have no other place to turn.

Quite often, these needy folks will not be the “rich and famous.” They may be unattractive and uncouth. Usually they will be different from our social group. They could be distasteful to our preferences. They may not be “our kind of people.”

Who in our day are these lepers? These tax collectors? These “sinners”? They may be the unwed mother, the undocumented alien, gays or lesbians, the handicapped, the gang banger, the divorced person, the woman who’s had an abortion, the alcoholic. You fill out your own list.

The plain truth is, almost any time we feel repelled by a person’ behavior, Jesus would be right there. Whenever someone sees his or her spiritual sickness, Jesus will be their physician.

Heedless of his own reputation, Dr. Jesus always makes house calls. Maybe we who claim to follow him should do more of the same.

1 Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, p. 187
2 C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, p .93.
Wineskins Magazine

Dan Anders

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