In Mark chapter 1 from verse 40 we find the story of the leper who approaches Jesus, keels and says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” The best text tells how Jesus reacted with anger to this request which showed the extent of the man’s lack of confidence, brought about by his separation from the healthy community. Jesus responded by saying, “I do want to,” stretched out his hand and touched him, commanding, “Be clean!”
Rembrandt dramatises the separation between the leper and the community, represented by the figures to Jesus’ right, who are disturbed by this encounter. The leper left space between Jesus and himself because of the law which forbad any physical contact between lepers and anyone else, forcing them to associate only with each other, on the fringes of society. To have the disease, which was in many cases not true leprosy, was a sentence of familial and social, if not also physical, death.
Rembrandt did not know the best text of the bible, so he showed Jesus, moved ‘by compassion” bending towards the man and abolishing the distance by stretching out and touching him, a gesture which was against the law. It is a revolutionary action, signalling disobedience to a holy rule of public health. Mark is of course recounting a miracle, but Rembrandt shows it as the most natural inclination of the body and mind of the healer: society creates the gap and turns away; Jesus turns towards the sick person and bridges the gap.
That most natural and gentle of gestures is made by Rembrandt into a symbol of Jesus’ ministry. The gap is also that between rich and poor, righteous and sinner, Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean. The person who is on the wrong side of any of these separations, can imagine the hand of Jesus crossing the gap to touch her. This carelessness with important societal taboos, aroused powerful opposition to Jesus, and was one of the reason why this gentle hand was eventually nailed to an execution stake.
The image of Jesus entering a forbidden area (death) in order that others should enter an area of freedom (life) is fundamental to Mark’s Gospel.