‘I am willing.’ One of Jesus’ most beautiful sayings, and oft-loved by preachers through the generations. It is a word to us: if you’ve ever wondered if Jesus gets bored of your prayers, or of you; if he tires of your problems, or your requests; if you’ve messed up and wonder if he can make you clean again – hear his voice today, as true now as it was in our passage 2,000 years ago: ‘I am willing.’
Let’s spend a moment today reflecting on where Jesus gets his compassion from. We get compassion fatigue so easily; just how does he manage it? This little story has so much in it, but it gives us some powerful pointers, which reveal the heart of Jesus’ ministry – and also point the way for us to become more like Jesus, too.
First, Jesus sees individuals. As we’ve observed, his ministry (in the second half of Mark ch1) is taking off: large numbers of people are coming to him to be healed (v32), and having begun in Capernaum, he is doing the same in many places (v39). In other words, he is ministering to dozens, or hundreds, of people. But he never loses sight of the one. ‘People’ are not just one blob of humanity – each person matters. This one man with leprosy comes to him and gets Jesus’ full attention (v40).
Second, Jesus lets the man’s story touch him. He is not in ‘professional mode’, performing a task or a routine. The English translation of v41 is ‘Jesus was indignant’ or ‘moved with compassion’ – but the word is a bit more earthy than that. It literally means ‘his guts moved’. Jesus finds the man’s situation gut-wrenching. It makes him physically sick with emotion to see this precious child of God in misery. That is how our troubles and our pain affects Jesus.
And what made Jesus so cross is that the man expected to be fobbed off. He must have come to plenty of rabbis and had a negative reception – so his default approach is to prostrate himself and beg: ‘if you are willing.’ It reminds us that true compassion is often controversial. It offends polite society. It means receiving, welcoming and serving people whom others avoid, who are not like us. The received wisdom of the day is that this man with leprosy should be kept away from society. To touch him would make you, not just ceremonially unclean and needing to perform rituals of washing, but at risk of infection, too.
Jesus breaks all polite boundaries by touching the man – and of course, his power to cleanse works in reverse: far from the man ‘dirtying’ him, Jesus instead makes the man clean – whole, and healed. The scandal of this encounter is why Jesus has to stay away from people for a while. It’s not just that he has the weight of messianic expectation on his shoulders (v28, v37) – many would now see him as a potential leper, or at the very least as a controversial figure whom it would be risky to be seen with.
Not that this matters to those who need him. They still come (v45b). And we still come today. Jesus never runs out of compassion. Whatever is in your heart, take it to him. And may we, too, be filled with compassion for others, seeing them as Jesus sees them.