15th February. 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1st Reading: Leviticus 13:1ff
Lepers had to live apart. Only if a priest pronounced a leper cured could he or she come back into normal life.
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. he is leprous, he is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean; the disease is on his head.
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
“Do all to the glory of God.” And instead of offending people, we must aim to please them if we can.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
Gospel: Mark 1:40-45
Jesus cures a leper by the healing touch of his hand. Then he wants the cure recognised, so the man can rejoin his local community.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
Leprosy of the soul
By referrring to leprosy in two of the three readings today , clearly the Church wants to direct our attention to something deeper than a purely physical disease. This is confirmed in the Responsorial Psalm, celebrating the joy of those who confess their sins before God, and experience his forgiveness. We might regard sin as a kind of leprosy of the soul. The ancient world used to combat physical leprosy by isolating the lepers, make them live outside the camp or town, and making them cry aloud, “Unclean, unclean!” as a warning to anyone approaching them. Also, whoever had the misfortune to even touch a leper would be regarded as unclean, and would be excluded from the community.
Perhaps there is some parallel to this on the spiritual plane. In the church of Jesus Christ, a sin committed by any member of this community is never a purely private affair, but a rejection in some degree of the standards the members have pledged to uphold. One of the most disturbing sayings of Christ in the gospels was his reference to Judas at the Last Supper: “Not one of them is lost, except the one who chose to be lost” (Jn 17:12).
There is a touching humility in the leper’s request to Jesus, “If you want to, you can cure me.” This appeal was met with compassion by Jesus, who, as St Mark comments,was moved with pity. He went further, stretching out his hand and touching the leper, so making himself unclean according to the law. Shortly afterwards Mark says that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in country places. This compassion for suffering humanity resulted in more and more people coming to him, and even today the outstretched arms of God’s Son on the cross are a never-ending invitation to sinners to seek refuge with him. No longer was the leper, when cured, forced to live apart. After showing himself to the priest he was re-admitted as a member of the community.
What in the past was called confession is now called the sacrament of reconciliation. We should reflect that just as mortal sin is not an isolated act, but rather the culmination of a series of minor infidelities, so reconciliation is a gradual return to God over a period of time, with the reception of the sacrament as the high point, a time to celebrate our joy and gratitude in being at one with God again. This conversion, this newly-found commitment to the Lord is a thing which has to be constantly renewed. There is an enduring need for reconciliation, if we want to love God with our whole strength, and our neighbour as ourselves — the task Christ has set each of us when he said, “This do, and you will live.”
A Word of Thanks
Today’s story may be an early version of the story of the ten lepers. However the point is quite different. In this version the leper, far from not thanking Jesus, goes about shouting his gratitude to all who would listen. The passage is made more obscure by Mark’s literary device of the “Messianic Secret” his recurring claim that Jesus was trying to keep who he was a secret, which today’s scholars regard as just an odd, narrative form. Surely, however, Jesus did not want to be known as the kind of military messiah that so many people in his time wanted and expected.
The predicament of the leper in the time of Jesus was truly pathetic. Those unfortunates were debarred from all social life, both religious and commercial. We might try to explain their plight with examples from one’s local surroundings, although it is difficult to find such an all-embracing boycott, in modern cultures.
Jesus crosses social and religious boundaries in order to cure the leper. But before this could happen, the leper had the courage to break the Law of the Old Testament and approach Jesus. The outcast had such a high opinion of this holy man that he risked a rebuke from him for ignoring the normal prohibitions. At the heart of the encounter, compassion moves Jesus not only to respond with a word of encouragement, but also to reach out and touch him. Here Jesus shows us God’s attitude to human disability. He wishes to reach us in our weakness and restore us to fullness of life.
It is not enough that the outcast is restored to health. Without the permission of the priest he could not regain his place in society and would remain an outcast. Jesus wishes to reestablish communion in a broken human family. Leprosy drove people away from others through the fear of the healthy that they would contract the dread disease Jesus wishes to remove these barriers between human beings and set up a communion that is free and harmonious. We might apply this to our own community by instancing types of bias and prejudice that exist locally and invite people to ask the Lord to heal whatever keeps them at a distance from certain others. Continuing reconciliation is necessary as we go through life and receive various types of hurts, which could make us withdraw from others as the leper did. It requires the courage of the leper to bring these hurts and fears to the Lord for healing.
A different homily could be built on the second reading. Paul’s emphasis on thought for the other’s good is a reminder that none of us can ignore. He does not pander to the desires of others, but in a generous spirit thinks of how his actions might affect them. He wants to imitate the Lord, who loved his brethren even unto death. Paul wants to love them in their weakness and to work for their advantage. This type of attitude is unto the glory of God in ordinary things, such as eating and drinking. It resembles the practical advice given by Matthew in 18:10 that no one can ignore anyone else, even the least.
Healing the isolated
We all need to connect with others, to be in communion with them. We don’t like to feel isolated or cut off from family, friends, or the wider community. One of the most challenging aspects of sickness or disability can be the isolation that it brings. When we are ill or our body grows weak we cannot take the same initiative we used to take to connect with others. People can become housebound because of their physical condition; the things they used to do to meet up with others are no longer possible. Certain forms of illness can be more isolating than others. The most isolating form of illness in the time of Jesus was leprosy. For hygienic reasons, lepers had to live apart, ‘outside the camp’, in the words of today’s first reading. Lepers were only allowed to have each other for company. They lived apart from their family, their friends and the community to which they belonged.
The leper in this morning’s gospel seemed determined to break out of his isolation. He did something that was unconventional and daring in approaching Jesus and pleading on with him, ‘If you want to, you can cure me.’ His desperation to be healed of an illness that kept him totally isolated drove him to do something that was against the Jewish Law at the time. In response to the leper’s daring approach, Jesus did something just as unconventional. He reached out his hand and touched the leper. If it was forbidden for a leper to approach the healthy, it was certainly forbidden for a healthy person to touch a leper. It seems that the leper’s desire to be freed from his isolation was met by an equally strong desire on the part of Jesus to deliver the leper from his isolation. The gospels portray Jesus as someone who worked to deliver people from their isolation, whether it is an isolation imposed by illness, as in the case of the leper, or by their lifestyle, as in the case of someone like Zacchaeus.
Both Jesus and of the leper have something to say to us about steps we can take to connect with people, to break out of our isolation, even when the odds seem to be stacked against us. We can all be tempted from time to time to retreat into our shell, whether it is because of our health or some disability or some past experience that has drained us of life. It is at such times that we need something of the initiative and daring energy of the leper. There can come a time when, like the leper, we need to take our courage in our own hands and, against the conventional expectation, to head out in some bold direction. It was desperation that drove the leper to seek out Jesus. Sometimes for us too, it can be our desperation that finally gets us going, gets us to connect with that person who matters to us and to whom we matter more than we realize or gets us to link up with some gathering or some group that has the potential to do us good or maybe even to transform our lives. Sometimes I can be amazed at the initiatives that some people take to connect with others, people who are much less healthier than I am and are much less physically able. I come across it all the time in the parish – older people who have mastered the internet and have come completely at home with Skype; younger people who in spite of some serious disability have found the means to live a very full life that is marked by the service of others. The man in today’s gospel who approaches Jesus could well be the patron saint of all those who strive to connect with others against all the odds.
Unlike the leper, Jesus was perfectly healthy, but he had something of the same desire and energy to connect with others. When approached by the leper, he could have turned away, as most people would have done. Instead, Jesus stood his ground and engaged with the leper, reached out to him not only by word but by action. He not only spoke to him, but he touched him. Jesus often healed people by means of his word alone; but this man who had suffered from extreme isolation really needed to be touched. Jesus did more than was asked of him; he took an initiative as daring as the leper’s move towards him. He went as far as any human being could go to deliver this man from his isolation. What the Lord did for the leper he wishes to continue doing through each one of us in our own day. There are many isolated and lonely people among us. The scope is there for all of us to take the kind of step that Jesus took towards the leper. Again, I can see examples of that in the parish all the time – people who look in on neighbours and make sure that they are all right and have what they need. There are always people among us waiting to be touched by our compassionate presence. When they are, they can experience the same kind of transformation as the leper did in today’s gospel. [Martin Hogan]