Here in the U.S. of A., we love our celebrities. Since our nation was founded on the rejection of any sort of monarchy, we don’t have any royal family to obsess over. Fortunately, in an act of supreme benevolence, a parade of actors, actresses, musicians, and models has filled this gap in the American psyche. Ah, the superior lives of the beautiful people!
The problem is, just like any European royal family, many of these celebrities have done little to earn the adulation they receive. For some, their only ticket to stardom has been their good looks. Somehow, they have drawn to themselves crowds of followers, to the point where they are unable to go out in public without attracting far too much attention.
So it seems odd and irreverent to say this, but Jesus was a genuine first-century celebrity—at least at the beginning of his ministry. He generated incredible interest and attracted many followers, but unlike many modern celebrities, he actually deserved the attention. In Mark 1:32–45, we find the beginning of Jesus’ position as a Galilean celebrity, but we also see Jesus’ unusual response to all this attention.
Not a day has passed at Capernaum since Jesus drove an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue. Between this and his healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus has demonstrated an ability to rescue people from both demons and disease. By the time evening rolls around, practically the entire town has surrounded the house. Hope for healing and freedom has been kindled by this preacher from Nazareth. This flame is stoked into a blazing furnace when Jesus responds to their cries for help by healing those who are sick and casting out the demons. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that news will be spreading very fast about this man. What’s strange, though, is that we’re beginning to get the idea that Jesus doesn’t seem to be embracing this publicity. The demons that he is casting out know who he is—that he is more than just another man—yet he won’t let them tell anyone.
Then, long before the sun rises the next morning, Jesus disappears from Simon’s house. The whole town goes looking for him, and Simon and his friends finally find him out in “a desolate place,” far outside of town. He has been spending hours in prayer to God. “Everyone is looking for you,” they appeal to him. Why did Jesus leave? He’s become incredibly popular in Capernaum! What is he doing out in the wilderness?
In the wilderness, Jesus has been praying, talking with God. Here his mind is free from the noise of the crowds; he can rest, and can spend time with his heavenly Father. However, that is not the only reason he has left Capernaum. He tells his disciples, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” Once again, his preaching ministry is his highest priority; although he is glad to perform miracles, he won’t stay in a town that becomes fixated on his miraculous abilities.
While on a journey between towns, Jesus is approached by a leper pleading to be healed. According to the law of Moses, anyone who had leprosy was pronounced unclean. Since his disease was contagious, he was placed under quarantine for as long as he had leprosy. He had to leave town, live alone in the wilderness, and announce to anyone who came near that he was unclean (Leviticus 13:45–46). This law was necessary to prevent an outbreak of leprosy, but it doomed the leprous person to a cruel and lonely existence. No one wanted to have anything to do with a revolting leper.
For this man, Jesus represents not only a chance to be healed, but a chance to rejoin society again. And Jesus feels such gut-wrenching compassion for him that he reaches out toward him. For the first time since leprosy broke out on his skin, the man feels another human being touch him. And at once, he is healed.
That touch becomes the pivot point of Mark’s account. Up until this time, Jesus could enjoy the company of his followers in town, and he can travel to the wilderness to spend time abiding with God. Not any more. Although he warns the man not to tell anyone how he has been healed, the man is so excited—can you blame him?—that he spreads the news to anyone who will listen. Before long, Jesus can’t enter town anymore, and even the wilderness is no longer a refuge from the crowds. They surround him all the time now, pleading for help. There is no escape from the celebrity status he has been trying to avoid. The irony is that when he touched this leper (an act that should have made him unclean, according to the law), Jesus offered the man a chance to rejoin society again, to leave the wilderness, to live again among other people, to enjoy their company. As for Jesus, he can no longer enjoy the company of his followers but has been driven out into the wilderness by the crowds. He takes the leper’s place.
Mark seems to describe Jesus as being pulled in two directions. On the one hand, he has a mission to accomplish, followers to train, and good news to preach. On the other hand, his compassion for other people is so intense that he feels compelled to help them, even if it means attracting an inconvenient and sometimes dangerous crowd.
I suppose at this point we could turn this story into a moral example for us. We could start feeling ashamed because we don’t love people as much as Jesus did; we could resolve to do a better job of following Jesus’ example. It wouldn’t be inappropriate.
For now, though, let’s not do that. Let’s simply sit for a while and watch Jesus as Mark’s story unfolds. How he longs to spend time alone with his Father; how he wants to pour himself and his teaching into his followers. But he is simply so compassionate that he can’t turn away anyone who pleads with him for help. No one is a nuisance to him. Not even you.