Finding Simon in the Gospels: Commentaries and Preaching
How the Gospel is to be found in the Gospels is shown in a small passage from Mark: the healing of a leper (or, as the NIV notes have it: a man with an infectious skin disease).
The story takes place during the time that Jesus travels throughout Galilee, preaching in the synagogues (Mark 1:39). Verse 14 describes this preaching in greater detail: Jesus is preaching the Good News – the Gospel – of the Kingdom of God. In doing so, he drives out demons (v. 39): and here too we should take into account what we have already read in vv. 22-28. Jesus does not speak as the teachers of the Law; He teaches with authority. He commands the demons, and they cannot but obey Him. In the light of the previous verses, v. 39 shows that wherever He goes, Jesus brings – with divine authority and divine power – the Good News of the Kingdom of God. When in this situation someone with an infectious skin disease comes to Jesus (v. 40), we understand that he expects more from Jesus than could previously have been expected of God. The laws of ceremonial purity, recorded in Leviticus 13 and 14, do not really leave room for healing from this disease. This was an affliction from God: all you could do was wait and see whether it would come to an end. Until such time, you were unclean. People so afflicted would not visit doctors or healers – there was no point. Who could resist God? What God has made unclean, man cannot cleanse.
A better understanding
In turning to Jesus, this man’s expectation was quite extraordinary. He understands, more than most others, what Jesus’ divine authority can really mean. He says something that can only be said to God Himself: “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 40). He confesses Jesus as Lord, as God. And then we see Jesus’ compassion (v. 41). It is different from any sympathy humans can offer the sick. Jesus knows that those who are unclean, by God’s will must remain unclean for as long as He decides. At the same time, in His divine compassion, Jesus shows He has mercy toward the powerless.
He says simply: “I am willing. Be clean.” He speaks as God. Whatever God has made unclean, only God can cleanse.
Jesus does another remarkable thing. He reaches out and touches the man. And that was just what no-one was allowed to do. Whoever touched such a person became unclean himself. Jesus shows the true nature of his compassion: He takes the man’s uncleanness upon Himself. He takes his place. The plague has come upon Him.
This divine word and this willing substitution are sufficient to cleanse the leper completely. Without delay, the man is told to go to the temple, where the priest will declare him clean. Welcome home! Jesus does what the Old Testament could never do. He fulfils it. But He does not abolish it. The one who is cleansed must offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for his cleansing, as a testimony to the people. That will show them that Jesus is not an anti-Moses revolutionary, but someone greater than Moses.
When the man – declared to be clean – returns from the temple, he sees more in Jesus than just a fellow human being, a healer. He sees the One who is greater than Moses, the One who fulfils the Scriptures, the One who saves from the coming wrath. And he goes out and spreads the news everywhere. He proclaims the gospel.
This story was not included in the book of Mark as an example of humanity and compassion, or of the power of human faith to heal. It was included as part of the gospel of God. That is what gives this story its power. Many of the sick today will remain sick. To them, also, this healed leper has Good News to tell: the gospel of Jesus Christ, Who saves us from the wrath to come, a wrath that threatens us all, and from which we have no other protection.
The Gospel of Mark presents an extra layer to this story. In chapter 14 we read that Jesus – just before His death – is present at a banquet in Bethany. This banquet is held ‘in the house of Simon’ (14:3). Who is this Simon? A short note is added: he was known as ‘Simon the Leper’ (or ‘Simon who had been a leper’ – Tr.). Now the whole Gospel of Mark mentions only one leper, who was also healed. This Simon at the banquet in Bethany must have been the supplicant who was cleansed in chapter 1. It is in Simon’s house that a woman pours perfume onto Jesus to prepare Him for His burial. In response, Jesus provides us with an added perspective:
I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her. Mark 14:9
In this story about Jesus’ burial, we see Simon, healed from his leprosy, sitting at the head of the table. He had believed that if Jesus was willing, He could cleanse him. Now he sees what it means that Jesus had reached out and touched him. Jesus had taken the plague upon Himself, and must now die and be buried. Simon can smell it in the fragrance of the perfume.
Wherever ministers and evangelists preach the Gospel, they may also bring out Simon from the Gospels. Not just as a sick man, whose healing arouses envy, but as living proof of what John writes:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us ... full of grace and truth ... From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
John 1:14, 16-18
That is the gospel in the Gospels, which preachers may uncover and proclaim. Commentaries can help with that. It is this conviction on which the Commentaar op het Nieuwe Testament (CNT), 3rd edition,1is built.
The thematic volumes of this commentary provide a broad view of the whole. They form an introduction to the textual commentaries, which in turn refer back to the thematic volumes. The textual commentaries aim to throw light on the whole of the passage within the context of the document. Where the need arises, linguistic and historical aspects are also discussed.
Taking its starting point in a positive view of the text, the CNT at the same time gives a contemporary accounting of its scholarship. Many commentaries – such as Herder’s – have centred on modern and often Scripture-critical exegeses. This Scripture-critical approach has become the tractor to which the exegeses are attached, and which, so to speak, drives them past the text. The CNT takes the opposite approach: the text is what drives the exegesis, and as we follow the text we may sometimes look around to see what else has been said.
Commentaries always stand in their own age. A homiletic commentary, such as practised by Origen, is quite out of place today. A philological commentary, such as Greijdanus carried out, does not promote a clear view of the whole. The aim of the CNT is to provide commentaries that are optimally useful for Christians and preachers in the 20th and 21st century. And what can be more ‘useful’ than to enable us ‘to learn to praise the great works of God the more attentively, and to teach us to preserve the apostolic trust delivered to us the more diligently’?