If the Son Sets You Free, You Will Be Free Indeed

SCRIPTURES & ART: Jean-Marie Melchior Doze’s painting shows real liberation theology — a man truly poor is set free by Jesus Christ.

Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, “Jesus Healing the Leper,” 1864
Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, “Jesus Healing the Leper,” 1864 (photo: Public Domain)

It’s almost a paradox that, although Mark’s is the shortest Gospel and we’ve read it on five Sundays since Jan. 10, we’re just today finishing chapter one!

For the past three weeks, Jesus has healed many people: the possessed man in Capernaum, Peter’s mother-in-law, and many sick and possessed people from that town. As we noted, those healings reveal Jesus’ identity and mission: He comes not on a public health campaign to rid the world of disease, but as a healing Redeemer who restores man to the wholeness and integrity that, but for sin, was his. 

Today Jesus heals a leper. Our contemporary experience of COVID may perhaps give us some insight into how people saw leprosy in biblical days. It was contagious, spread usually by breath or water droplets. It led to a slow and painful death that involved skin and nerve damage, disfiguration, kidney failure, nasal (breathing) problems, and/or blindness. With no antibiotics in biblical times, it was incurable: the vaccine never came. Its victims were like the “living dead,” excluded from society, bereft of social ministration or interaction, feared and kept “socially distanced.” Lepers were required to provide warnings of their approach. (See the First Reading, one of the few times Leviticus appears in our Lectionary).

It’s not accidental that our language treats “leper” analogously as one socially ostracized. Lastly, given the too rapid correlation sometimes found in the Bible between sickness and sin coupled with the pervasive personal devastation leprosy wrought, sin was often analogously treated as spiritual leprosy.

Methinks our current pandemic — considered both rationally and histrionically — gives us some insight into how the appearance of a leper on Jesus’ path might have been taken.

In light of all that, what’s striking is that this leper is the first sick person in Mark who takes the initiative to present himself to Jesus.* The Capernaum demoniac is driven by the devil to Jesus’ feet. The family tells Jesus about Peter’s sick mother-in-law. The townspeople crowd at Peter’s door, having “brought to Him all who were ill or possessed by demons” (1:32). This leper “came to him” (v. 40), on his own and driven by faith, seeking healing. Nobody stands behind or with him. He comes truly alone. And, with faith, he “begs.”

The 19th-century French painter Jean-Marie Melchior Doze captures that moment in today’s oil painting. Doze, from Nîmes in southern France, devoted almost all his artistic career to religious painting, and he does have another cure of a leper. This one, however, is particularly worth noting.

The return of classical elements is evident in the painting: the columns, the porches, the building architecture all seem more Roman than Jewish. Jesus strikes a particularly classical pose. But those are not the most important elements worth commenting.

Jesus is, artistically and theologically, at the center of the action. There are, in fact, three “actors” in this painting: Jesus, the leper, and the encircling crowd, the onlookers, the witnesses. The man falls before Christ. He cannot get any lower: he is on the ground. He hardly has a face. His posture says two complementary things about his faith and his own powers. Apart from putting himself in Jesus’ way (itself an action of grace), he can do no more. He’s powerless, at the end of his rope. His position is one of utter begging and deprivation, but it’s also one of desperation, almost a semi-fetal last attempt at self-preservation. He is practically naked. The cloak below him is even darker than he, like a “worm and not a man, scorned by everyone” (Psalm 22:6) in a dark puddle. He knows he has no resources, no recourse. All he has is his ability to give himself to this Jesus whom he believes “if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Not even just cured but clean — because he has clearly internalized everything leprosy meant.

In his powerlessness, his is a very powerful act. Contrary to first impressions, the man who showed initiative exercises an extraordinary degree of autonomy amidst his extreme limitations. He puts everything he has — which is practically nothing — on this encounter with Jesus. 

Jesus is also autonomous, supremely autonomous. He stands there in solemn and certain assuredness of who he is and what he wants to do. Unlike the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law, where he takes her by the hand and raises her up, his hand here simply lets his power flow down on this man who can sink no lower. In contrast to this almost invisible man in a dark puddle who recognizes he is unclean, Jesus is immaculately clean, garbed in white. And, just as the Centurion relied only on Jesus’ Word, the leper relies only on his will: “If you want, you can make me clean.”

Which is what Jesus wants.

Ours is an age that prizes “autonomy” and eschews dependence. “I don’t want to be a burden on anybody.” The leper, having hit rock bottom, knows this is a lie. He knows that, left to his own resources, he can only spiral further downwards towards death. But, paradoxically, by picking himself up and giving away his “leper’s mite” to Jesus, he exercises a far greater autonomy than any of the spectators, erect and sound, that witness this event. 

Karol Wojtyła recognized this paradox. In Sign of Contradiction, his Lenten retreat for Pope St. Paul VI, the future pope says that the human person exercises his royal dignity precisely when he falls to his knees, in full awareness of his poverty and in honesty of conscience, confesses, “Bless me Lord, for I have sinned.” It’s what the French poet Charles Péguy sought to capture when, speaking in the Father’s voice he observed, “All the prostrations in the world are not worth the beautiful upright attitude of a free man as he kneels.” This leper, in and aware of his nothingness, is truly free.

That leaves us the circle of spectators. It’s a very human thing that, when something’s going on — good or bad, fight or kiss — people form a circle. Maybe that’s why we shouldn’t be so surprised by the communion of saints, which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews [12:1] calls a “great circle of witnesses,” watching the greatest drama ever played out: salvation history. Do these five include the four apostles (Peter, Andrew, James and John) who have featured so prominently in recent weeks? Are they curious if Jesus will “pull off” another healing, or have they already come to know and expect that of him? Two (John? Peter?) have hands folded: are they praying? For his cure, their staying disease free, or both? Three seem much more curious at the outcome. To my surprise, given the repugnance leprosy evoked in biblical times and considering this is the first leper Jesus is explicitly mentioned as running across (unless there were any in the crowd at Peter’s mother-in-law’s door), you’d think somebody might have looked a bit more off-put than this quintet does.

But, again, they are “witnesses” — and up until now in the Gospels, Jesus has been calling disciples and Apostles to be his witnesses, witnesses he will eventually send to “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). 

We’ve said that Jesus restores and heals because, as St. Irenaeus put it, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” There are two actors “fully alive” in this painting: Jesus, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6) and the leper who, aware that apart from him he can do nothing, seeks to engraft himself in him (cf. John 15:5). The witnesses are on the verge of that life. None has so completely hit bottom that he still does not rely in some way on himself. They will see something; what they do with what they saw remains indeterminate. Men in Bethany also saw a man raised from the dead. Some believed. For others it made them want to kill Jesus (cf. John 11:45-55, 12: 9-10). 

If that circle includes the Apostles, they will also one day be as resourceless as this leper. Peter, for example, will be led to a Roman hill “where he does not want to go” (John 21:18). But, right now, they’re onlookers at the drama of salvation in their midst. A drama that goes on amid ordinary life: notice the people in the background, going about their business, oblivious to what is being played out literally “in front of them?”

For the moment, let’s leave aside the rest of the Gospel. In contrast to the healing of the nine lepers with their lack of overt gratitude (Luke 17:11-19), this leper starts “spreading the news.” Indeed, he makes an argument for Mark’s “Messianic Secret,” because Jesus the Healer becomes almost a leper, forced by the publicity to stay outside towns “in lonely places.” Jesus seeks the witness not of the leper’s auto-proclamation but sincere religious rite: as in the case of the 10 lepers, He sends this man to “show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded … as a testimony.” 

I leave these considerations aside not because they’re unimportant, but because they’re not in Melchior Doze’s painting. That canvas shows real liberation theology: a man truly poor is set free by the Son, and he is now free indeed.

* My reflections are based on the English text without reference to the original Greek.

Dorota Grondelski, an art historian, contributed to this essay.