And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed. And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away; And saith unto him, See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. But he went out, and began to publish it much, and to blaze abroad the matter, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter. (Mk 1:40-45)
This has been an interesting story to many people, mostly because of the next to last verse. Jesus told the leper, whom he had just healed, not to tell anyone about the miracle. How would he expect such a miracle to go unnoticed? Why would he tell the man not to advertise it? There are at least three possible reasons: the common one, the rabbinic one, and the practical one. Any or all may be true.
The common interpretation is based on the final verse of Mark’s account. According to Matthew, this happened immediately after the Sermon on the Mount, so it may not have been in Jesus’ hometown. Mark says that because of what the leper said, Jesus could not openly enter the city. Jesus may have known this would happen and that it would make his life more difficult. Jesus did not often operate on what would make life easier for him, but this could be one such case. Luke says he took the opportunity to go to a deserted place to pray. There is a certain irony about this situation as well. The leper was forbidden to live in the city. Jesus had a home in a city, if not necessarily that city. But after touching the leper and the man telling what happened, Jesus and the leper switched places. Jesus ended up outside the city.
The rabbinic reason is a little more speculative. The rabbis say that leprosy was a condition that God put upon people who were guilty of bad speech. After all, when Miriam spoke against Moses she was smitten with leprosy. The leper was separated from all people, except, perhaps, other lepers, so he could not speak about or to others. All conditions point to leprosy as a punishment for evil speaking. If this is true, then it is possible that Jesus thought nobody would believe the man, leaving him open to a recurrence of the disease. If nobody believed him, then he must be spreading rumors, which is evil speech.
As unlikely as that reason may be, the practical one has its merits. Jesus did not just tell him to tell no man, but also to go and show himself to the priest. Leviticus 14:1-9 gives the law for pronouncing a leper to be clean. The priest has to examine the man. Offerings are made. Then after seven further days of exile, the priest again examines him and declares him to be clean. In the case under question, the man could not be pronounced fully clean for seven days. Jesus knew this. Mark makes it clear that there were joined commands. “Tell no man, but show yourself to the priest.” If this was not in Capernaum, Jesus might not still be around in seven days. By making him wait until then, he could avoid the issue of not being able to enter the town.
We have only two other instances in which Jesus said to tell no man. In Mark 7 he told the men accompanying one he healed to tell no man. This healing, though, was done outside the Jewish nation and that may be the reason. The other times he gave the command to tell no one was when someone admitted that he was the Messiah. Because his time was not yet completed, it was best not to openly advertise who he was. The Jewish leaders would figure that out soon enough. So this was really a unique situation. Any of the three reasons would end up with Jesus in the wilderness. This would make it harder for people to reach him, and for him to teach. So it was probably best that this man keep his mouth shut. Which, of course, he did not do.