In 1966, England charged to glory by winning the football World Cup. It fell on the captain, Bobby Moore, to have the honor of walking up the steps of Wembley Stadium to receive the trophy from the queen.
Asked afterward how he felt during that historic moment, Moore admitted that he was terrified. The queen, he’d noticed, was wearing pristine white gloves. His hands were covered in dirt from the match, and he was going to have to shake her hand. And so, as he walked up those steps, he frantically tried to wipe his hands clean.
Most of us have had some experience of being unclean. But of course, there is more than one kind of being dirty. We can feel desperately unclean on the inside too.
How Shame Feels
Mark’s Gospel introduces us to someone who knew all too well what it meant to feel unclean. In Mark 1:40–45, Jesus encounters a leper, someone whose skin condition left him ceremonially unclean according to Old Testament law. Leprosy was a particularly cruel condition. It was regarded as incurable and highly contagious. Those afflicted with it endured both physical discomfort and social isolation, and for something they did not do or bring on themselves. They were considered a spiritual, as well as a physical, contagion.
“At the cross Jesus took the full extent of my (and your) uncleanness onto himself.”
That might be how you feel: toxic, radioactive — a contagion.
It might be because of something you’ve done. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth had been complicit in the murder of King Duncan, and it weighed so heavily on her that we hear of her trying to rub the blood off her hands in her sleep. “Will these hands ne’er be clean!” she cries. Shakespeare, it turns out, had incredible insight into the workings of a guilty subconscious.
Ashamed to Be Assaulted
It is not just our own actions that can leave us feeling unclean, though. Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of human evil, and it has left you with a deep sense of being unclean. One victim of sexual assault describes why she never opened up about it for so many years:
I told no one. In my mind, it was not an example of male aggression used against a girl to extract sex from her. In my mind, it was an example of how undesirable I was. It was proof that I was not the kind of girl you took to parties, or the kind of girl you wanted to get to know. I was the kind of girl you took to a deserted parking lot and tried to make give you sex. Telling someone would not be revealing what he had done; it would be revealing how deserving I was of that kind of treatment.
In her mind, this assault did not leave her with a feeling of her assailant’s dirtiness; it made her feel dirty.
‘You Can Make Me Clean’
So, we need to pay close attention to this encounter in Mark.
A leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40)
Again, his leprosy, as far as we know, was not a result of any sin he committed, but according to the law, he was not supposed to approach anyone. He knows, however, that Jesus has unique power — power to restore him, to cleanse him. “If you will” may indicate he knows he has no right to such healing. He does not presume that he deserves it.
Jesus is moved deeply by this man’s plight. He’s not indifferent. Jesus doesn’t back away in revulsion. He feels for this man. Jesus touches him. This may be the first time in decades this man had been touched by anyone.
“There is always more that’s right in Jesus than there is what’s wrong in us.”
This is what Jesus does with the uncleanness of those who come to him as this leper did. Rather than withdrawing in disgust, he draws near and reaches out to us. He moves toward us, not away from us. “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I will; be clean’” (Mark 1:41). Jesus is willing. And the effect is immediate and dramatic. “Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean” (Mark 1:42).
More Grace in Christ
Lepers were to be separated from people because they were seen as a danger, a contaminant. When it comes to Jesus, however, it turns out the leprosy was the one at risk.
Jesus’s cleanness is a far more powerful contagion than any dirt we can bring to him. There is always more that’s right in Jesus than there is what’s wrong in us, more grace in him than offense in us, more forgiveness in him than sin in us. The very worst in us cannot compete with the best in Christ. We can’t sully him. He can only purify us. However deep our mess goes, his holiness goes deeper. We will never exhaust it.
I don’t find this easy to believe. I think I must be the exception — that my toxicity is too much for Jesus to contain. Sometimes this thinking looks like self-deprecation. People mistake it for humility. Actually, it is a form of pride — I am so significant that not even Jesus can contend with me. So, I need to believe what I see in Mark.
All Our Sin and Shame
After his healing, the cleansed man is told in the strongest terms not to tell anyone what has happened (except for a priest, so that he can be certified as ceremonially clean and rejoin society). Jesus is not ready for this to go public. And yet the man does the exact opposite, and the news rapidly spreads widely. The result?
He went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:45)
The two have swapped places. Previously the leper had been unable to enter towns and had to live in desolation. Now he is back in the community, and Jesus is forced to the desolate places. The outsider and the insider have reversed roles. In a sense, Jesus has become contaminated by this man. And it is key for us all.
How Christ Removes Shame
How can I know I really have cleansing in Christ from all my sin and shame? Because at the cross he took the full extent of my (and your) uncleanness onto himself. Every sin, every wound, every piece of brokenness and shame.
Jesus went through ultimate exclusion — not just from people, but also from his Father (Mark 15:34). He was made toxic so I can be made fragrant. He was shut out so I could be beckoned in. That doesn’t mean I never feel unclean. There is the ongoing attack of the accuser. Satan’s gonna Satan. But I have a place to look in my war against sin and shame.
Bobby Moore was left to ineffectively wipe his hands on his shorts, but Christ wipes us utterly clean of all that has made us most dirty.