Mark Tidbit 3: Present Yourself to the Priests

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Update: For the whole Mark Tidbits series, see here.

In the last Mark Tidbit, I looked at Jesus' anger at the leper's condition before he healed him (Mark 1:40-45). In this one, I want to look about Jesus' words to the leper after he healed him:

See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them. (Mark 1:44, ESV)

Some readers puzzle about why Jesus didn't want him to talk to anyone. I'll just record my conclusion that he wasn't out there to spread his reputation or to get everyone to see who he was and what he was all about. The fact that he kept going around and speaking to large groups, healing, performing exorcism, etc. shows that he did have a concern for the people, but he didn't seem to be about doing those things for their own sake. He seems to me to have been picking up disciples throughout these towns through a filtering process while caring for people's needs as they came to him. His avoidance of crowds and quick efforst to move on show that the healings and even teachings of crowds didn't seem to be his main purpose but more for the sake of preaching a message for the purpose of gathering that those who responded to it as a large group of disciples. He knew that crowds gathering for purposes other than his main focus at the time would just have distracted from his real purpose. Many people in these crowds had different expectations for him from what he had in mind for this visit but would eventually be fulfilled after his death and in many cases only at his return. His purpose for now was to gather the followers who would form the basis of his new covenant people, and he by demonstrating how different and new what he was doing was, and in effect it's a demonstration of who he is. That required talking to the crowds and performing miracles, but the key focus was on distinguishing himself from anyone else as divine. I'll dwell on that theme in the next post or two. Most of his teaching in the rest of the book once this primary filtering process is over is teaching to the disciples who would form the basis of his gathered people.

I say all that only to set up what I think is a more interesting question. He wasn't about simple popularity but in fact wanted to avoid it, as shown in this case by his command to the guy not to tell anyone (which they guy studiously ignored, leading to large crowds searching for him, forcing Jesus to leave for another town). Yet he insists that the healed man, who has already been declared clean by Jesus, go to the priests for their examination. This was important enough that Jesus saw it as the one exception to his command not to tell anyone. Why?

One obvious explanation is suggested by Jesus' words. "Show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them." This was commanded by God's Torah. That should be sufficient for a good first-century Jew. When someone had a skin condition like this, the priests had the authority to declare them unclean and cause them to dwell outside the camp (or town/city once they were in the land). No one else had that authority. When the person became healed of the condition, the Torah required that the person go back to the priests and be examined. Only the priest had the authority to declare the person clean.

One thing this reveals is that, whatever Jesus would teach about his fulfillment of the Torah, he wasn't really teaching people to abandon it now that he was around. Mark does tell us of his Lord of the Sabbath statement shortly after this, in which he seems to suspend a Torah regulation, declaring that he has the authority to do so, though it's not clear if it's actually a violation that he suspends or is just an assumption beyond the regulation that the Pharisees had accepted but that Jesus tells them is a faulty extension of the Torah. Scholars disagree on that issue, and I'm not sure what I think. In this case, though, the ritual regulations are assumed by Jesus still to be relevant. I don't follow Aquinas in his distinction between a moral law and a ceremonial law, which are not biblical categories and seem incredibly reductionistic to me. Some say Jesus suspended the ceremonial laws but retained the moral laws. I see no such statement anywhere in scripture. Jesus said none of the Torah would pass away but all was fulfilled in him. There's room for different views on what that means, but this passage shows that, whatever it means, Jesus was willing to abide by one of the items usually placed within the ceremonial law by those who use that category.

What can this submission to the Torah mean? I call it submission because it is. Jesus had already declared the man clean. His astounding method of doing so was through touch, which in the eyes of the Torah should have transferred uncleanness from the man to Jesus but in fact worked in reverse (cf. Leviticus 11:34-40). In some sense Jesus has authority over the Torah in his reversal of the direction of transfer. It's incredible that in the face of that Jesus would touch the man. Other healings he performed didn't require touch. One resurrection a few chapters later occurred when he wasn't even physically present. Yet in this case Jesus touched the man, which reveals as much about his care for the man as it does about his identity. As James Edwards puts it in his commentary on Mark, "It removes the social, physical, and ritual separations prescribed by the Torah and customs alike."

What's important for me here is that his touch made the man clean rather than making Jesus unclean, which shows that he somehow stands apart from the normal order as the Torah declared it. That must mean some authority over the Torah. So why should he have the priests examine him to make the same statement about his cleanness that Jesus, who showed authority over the Torah, had already declared? I can't see this as anything other than submission to the Torah that he did not need to submit to. (His challenging of various points of the Torah in other places, including the Sabbath regulations and dietary laws, shows that his respect for it here really is submission, though I think what he does in those other places is not disregard for the Torah but more his demonstration of its having been fulfilled in him).

Let's get back to the priests, though. Isn't Jesus authority higher than theirs? One major thrust of the book of Mark is to focus on his authority and how different he was in his authoritative teaching, healing, words to demons, and authoritative declarations about people's forgiveness and cleanness. So it can't be that he really thought of himself as absolutely coming under their authority. Some think it could be just his willingness to work within a system that was still going on but about to end, and there's something to that, but why would he do that? I think it reveals something important about Jesus' attitude toward authority.

We see in other parts of the New Testament that Jesus is referred to as the logos, often translated as 'Word' in English. In other words, he is the expression of God's speech both prior to creation and now in human form (most notably in the prologue to John's gospel). He is also described as not taking advantage of his priority, authority, or glory but submitting himself to God and the will of God in serving the purpose set out for him (in the Gethsemane accounts of Mark, Matthew, and Luke and the final discourse to the disciples in John 14-17 but more explicitly in Philippians 2). We see Paul's statement that, when God hands everything over to him after the final consummation of the rule of God, he will in turn hand it over to God in ultimate submission to his Father (see I Corinthians 15). Why is God's Word submitting to the Torah? Well, the Torah is God's word and thus is God's word. [Keep in mind that his command isn't just to present himself to the priests but to fulfill the requisite sacrifices for cleansing also from the Torah, so it's broader than just the priest's authority.] This is all part of Jesus' submission to the Father. The eternal submission of the Son to the Father shows up here in his willingness to submit to the priests who were authorized by his Father to declare people clean or unclean. He may also have the authority to do so in some way that isn't specified in the Torah, and as the great high priest the author of Hebrews says he is he should have that right. Yet he is willing to abide by the authority relations God has set up. (Consider the accounts of his circumcision and baptism in relation to this also.)

What does this mean for us? For one thing, it shows that someone completely equal in divinity with the Father can be eternally submissive to the Father without loss of equality. Role differences do not require difference in status, value, or identity. This deflects some of the modern opposition to hierarchical role relations among equals. My favorite example is when the elders of my congregation, who are clearly the spiritual leaders, show up to set up the chairs for the service and work under a setup team leader as they do so. My second favorite example is when the head elder of my congregation in RI would go to work under the authority of a member of his congregation five days a week while in spiritual authority over him as his pastor. If the biblical record is taken seriously, I don't see how you can get around the statements that I as a husband have authority over my wife that she doesn't have over me. Yet Paul in Galatians insists that there is no male or female when it comes to status in God's people, and he says quite clearly in I Corinthians 7 that the husband's body belongs to his wife as much as hers belongs to him, so there is true sexual equality.

One thing worth noticing about this is that Jesus' submission is willing and not forced, and that's the model for Christians. God does not force anyone's submission but asks for willing submission to Christ, and part of the submission to Christ that is willing involves my submission to my spiritual leaders, the elders of the church in its local representation that is my congregation. Part of that for children is to their parents. Part of it for wives is to their husbands. Part of it for employees is to their employers. Part of it for citizens is to their civic leaders. There are disanalogies between these different kinds of relationships, and there are other kinds of relationships that don't get explicit treatment, but the model in all these biblical passages is relationships with authority difference, with authority delegated by God, with authority in this case primarily a responsibility (and certainly not a right), a responsibility that we too often fail in carrying out. Those who are under that authority are asked to submit willing and cheerfully, in the same way that Paul encourages giving cheerfully in II Corinthians 8-9. He commands that they give cheerfully, which means it's not just a recommendation to do so, but the command is to do so cheerfully, and it they do it out of mere duty they're not following the command. It's a willing choice to do so, and once they have the proper understanding of what giving is all about the Corinthians will do so. The same is true for submission to authority.

What's especially interesting about the example before us is that it's Jesus submitting to the authorities God has set up, and it's not as if the priestly authorities were really in his favor. He criticized them numerous times, and they were ultimately the ones who handed him over to be killed. Yet he recognized their authority and was willing to submit to them in their Torah-given and thus God-given authority to declare this man clean before God. If Jesus can recognize the authority of a corrupt leader as God-given, how much more should we do so, since we have less right to distance ourselves from that authority on moral grounds. After all, he is the Word of God. We're not. We have no authority to declare political leaders we don't like to be no longer worthy of the respect God has commanded us to give them. I wonder how our attitudes toward our leaders in our congregations would change if we took this seriously (and those not in congregations need to rethink their attitude toward the organized church very seriously in light of the biblical treatment of authority). There are numerous places this might affect how we talk about people God has placed where they are and how we should think about our relation with those people.

The most obvious to me is the denigration people apply to political leaders. Those Christians who oppose President Bush need to be very careful how they frame that opposition. If John Kerry wins this election, the same will go for the Christians who differ so strongly with him. I really regret how Christians treated President Clinton. This doesn't mean not disagreeing or not being willing to pronounce a moral wrong to be a moral wrong. It does mean not making fun. It does mean being fair and trying to get a person's position right, as conservatives work hard to avoid doing with John Kerry. I'm not sure all the consequences of this, but I've seen enough failures in this that it makes me wonder how submissive to God these people are who are unwilling to submit to the authority of those God has appointed to lead them. I'm not innocent of it myself, but I'm aware that it's wrong and have made an effort to resist the tendency as I submit to Christ. I encourage us all to do that.


A couple of additional thoughts (not to disagree with anything you have put forward). We studied this passage in my small group last week, so I've been thinking about it as well.

One is simply the fact that Jesus touched someone who was unclean. This was not something an Israelite would voluntarily do. If I had the inclination I'd run through the whole spiel on clean/unclean as part of culture, but it's a bit long. I'll just mention that both Jesus rivalling the synagogue authorities and this act of touching were both deeply disturbing within that context.

The second, and this is pretty speculative, is that this is the only known case of someone applying the law regarding presentation after healing from leprosy. I heard this from a converted rabbi whose name I never caught. There is no biblical record of an Israelite being healed of leprosy in the OT, and apparently none in the rabbinic literature either. One can only imagine the response of the priest who the healed man saw.


reading your post more closely (it's way too easy to skim on the internet), you do talk about the touching aspect. My thought is more along the lines of how that would be seen publicly.

One of the most useful and accessible works on 1st C culture I'm aware of is the _Handbook of Biblical Social Values_, eds. Pilch and Malina. There are a lot of other great works in that field, but this one covers a lot of ground.

I wonder if this rabbi friend is assuming this is what we now call leprosy. It almost certainly wasn't. The English word 'leprosy' is a direct transliteration of the Greek, which was the same word used in the Septuagint. Pentateuch scholars today are almost universally agreed that the symptoms of whatever sort of skin conditions this described in Leviticus don't look anything like what we now call leprosy. I'm guessing this rabbi thinks it must have been unheard of to be healed of leprosy because that's not something people get healed of. But the skin conditions in Leviticus could well have including things like eczema, dandruff, poison ivy, or sunburn. The reason the cleansing ritual was there had to do with temporary conditions whose condition turns out not to involve a danger to everyone else.

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