Granted, that statement aims to provoke. Yet it's a serious claim concerning an important matter with respect to Jesus and the Gospels. One often reads that Jesus transgressed social and religious boundaries that tied people to their oppression. In particular, the argument goes, Jesus liberated people from the Jewish purity laws that tied them down. He touched lepers, healed on the sabbath, came into contact with menstruating women and with corpses. In short, many say, Jesus' "casual" attitude toward the purity laws demonstrated a commitment to compassion over purity.
Three things are wrong with this argument, and I'd like to dwell on the third. First, when this argument comes from preachers and theologians it carries with it an often subtle anti-semitism. Jesus is good news because he freed people from their restrictive Jewish laws. This line of argument has an old and pernicious history.
Second, it's not at all clear that Jesus ever violated the laws of Israel. Touching lepers and corpses made a person unclean, but it did not constitute a violation of the law as such. One might imagine debates over the legality of healing on the sabbath, but it's far from clear that Jesus violated the law in that respect. Tellingly, all of the Synoptic Gospels narrate arguments between Jesus and his contemporaries concerning the legality of his behavior, but only one of them -- Mark -- suggests that Jesus actually violated the law. Mark 7:19 says that Jesus declared all foods clean, a statement that Matthew omits and Luke lacks. Instead, Matthew, Luke, and John all suggest that Jesus was law-observant, not a transgressor of the law. (One might add that all of our evidence suggests Jesus' followers continued to observe the law after his death. Why would they do that if Jesus himself did not observe the law?)
For our third point, let's take a cue from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is absolutely clear that Jesus often reaches out to people. He travels from village to village, he sees people with disabilities and heals them on his own initiative. He keeps company with sinners. He seems committed to human wellbeing, even liberation.
Yet several key stories in Mark suggest that in some important cases Jesus was himself the learner, called out by others to perform his wonderful deeds. We'll look at Jesus' famous interaction with the leper (1:40-45), the healing of the paralytic (2:1-11), his encounter with the hemorrhaging woman (5:24b-34), and his dispute with the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-30).
For today, let's just look at the story of the leper.
- Jesus does not approach the leper. Rather the leper comes and kneels before Jesus. This action locates the initiative with the leper, not with Jesus.
- We should pay more attention to the leper's act of kneeling. We tend to see kneeling as a form of reverence and devotion, as indeed it probably is. But kneeling is also a powerful physical act that claims attention. If a person is walking along, and someone kneels before them, the act of kneeling blocks that person's path. Moreover, the act of kneeling demands some sort of acknowledgment. Perhaps the leper is showing reverence to Jesus; certainly, the leper is impeding Jesus' progress.
- The leper's action combines with his speech, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." This claim poses a challenge to Jesus. It does not request Jesus' intervention so much as it poses a test of Jesus' character. The leper is calling Jesus out.
- At this point we should attend to a major text critical problem in 1:41. Most of our ancient manuscripts tell us that Jesus was "moved with compassion" for the leper. But a few describe Jesus not as feeling compassion but as angered. (* See below for a discussion of this problem.) Now, why might Jesus respond with anger? Perhaps Jesus is angry because (a) a leper (b) has gotten into his way and (c) challenged his good will.
- The leper does not obey Jesus. Jesus commands the leper to keep silent about his cleansing, but the leper goes out disseminating the word about Jesus. In effect, the leper forces Jesus out of the closet into a new mode of ministry. This, according to Mark, forces a reluctant Jesus into the public light.
That said, Jesus deserves a great deal of credit in this case -- and in a way that might instruct his twenty-first century followers. Confronted by the leper, Jesus follows through by entering a new phase of his ministry. He does touch the leper, he does effect cleansing, and he does continue as a public advocate of the marginalized. In this way Jesus makes for a wonderful hero, the example of a person called forth into a world of hurt and need. Whatever his agenda is before he meets the leper, it's not the same after. Jesus does not set his own agenda; rather, his mission is shaped in response to the people who call him forth.
* An increasing number of interpreters find this minority reading compelling. It's easy to explain a Christian scribe would change an original text from anger to compassion, since early Christian copyists tended to smooth over the portrayal of Jesus. But why would a copyist do the opposite? Can we imagine a scribe turning Jesus' compassion into anger?