Sunday of Week 6 of Ordinary Time (B)

Commentary on Leviticus 13:1-2,45-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45

LEPERS WERE AMONG THE MOST PITEOUS of people in ancient (and in even not-so-ancient) times. Although little was known then of the origin of the sickness, it was clearly known to be contagious and therefore greatly feared. The only solution was to isolate the victim and not allow him/her to approach other people.

Apart from the appalling physical disintegration of body and limbs, there was the social ostracism, the contempt and the fear which the victim engendered. The real pain and suffering were here. It seems the disease itself was, for the most part, not particularly painful.

What was probably even more tragic was that many who were branded as lepers were suffering from some other ailment, which may not have been contagious at all – such as ulcers, cancer, eczema or other skin diseases (some of them perhaps purely psychosomatic).

Permanent exile

The signs for diagnosis are given in First Reading from the book of Leviticus, one of the books of the Jewish Law. To our ears they sound primitive indeed: “If a swelling or scab or shiny spot appears on a man’s skin, a case of leprosy of the skin is to be suspected.” This was clearly a very crude and arbitrary diagnosis but, such was the fear of the disease, it was a case of being safe rather than sorry. It was very hard, however, on a victim who in fact did not have leprosy at all.

Whether the person really had leprosy or not, the judgement was severe: “A man [or woman] infected with leprosy [real or feared] must wear his clothing torn and his hair disordered; he must shield his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean’. As long as the disease lasts he must be unclean; and therefore he must live apart: he must live outside the camp.” It was a sentence of indefinite exile from society.

Approaching Jesus in desperation

The scene in today’s gospel occurs during a longer passage which describes a Sabbath day in the public life of Jesus. It involves Jesus going to the synagogue, healing the sick and driving out evil spirits.

Then this leper approaches Jesus. He is desperate. He falls on his knees before Jesus, his last resort. There is marvellous faith in his heart-rending appeal: “If you want to, you can cure me.” This is not to say that Jesus only heals those he wants to heal but that Jesus has only to wish for his healing to be brought about. It expresses the man’s faith in the power of Jesus. He has already seen it at work in the other people who were healed that day. It is this faith which again and again in the Gospel is the necessary and sufficient condition for being made whole again.

Touched by Jesus

Jesus is filled with a deep sense of compassion for the man’s plight. (Notice how Mark, unlike Matthew, frequently highlights the feelings of Jesus.) Jesus then does something very significant: he physically touches the leper to indicate his compassion.

In doing so he rendered himself ritually unclean, opened himself to the risk of contagion but also expressed solidarity with the sick man. It reminds one of Francis of Assisi overcoming his own fear and loathing by embracing a leper he met on the road or of Princess Diana shaking hands with victims of full-blown AIDS or taking an AIDS-stricken baby in her arms.

In none of these cases was such touching actually dangerous (leprosy is only contagious after prolonged physical contact and AIDS can only be communicated by ingesting the blood or semen of a victim) but it sent a very strong message of affirmation to the sick person – and to the rest of us. “I do want it,” says Jesus to the man, “Be healed!” The man is immediately healed, made whole.

Re-entering society

But that is not the end of the story because the physical healing alone does not solve the man’s problem. He has still to be reintegrated into the community – this is the second part of the whole-making process. Leviticus had said: “As long as the disease lasts he must be unclean; and therefore he must live apart: he must live outside the camp.” He now had to get an official endorsement of his being healed. He is told to go to the priests who will examine him and then pronounce him fit to re-enter society.

At the same time, he is strongly warned by Jesus not to say anything to anyone about it. Jesus wanted no sensationalism. The healing was for the man’s sake; it was not a publicity stunt to enhance Jesus’ public image. Jesus’ mission was to bring wholeness into people’s lives but he did not want to be seen as just a wonderworker. Jesus’ healing work cannot be understood apart from his teaching about how we should lead our lives. Even today there are people who rush to this and that shrine to see wonders while having little awareness of what really constitutes the life of the Christian.

A secret that could not be kept

“The man went away but then started talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town but had to stay outside in the places where nobody lived. Even so, people from all around would come to him.”

Indeed, how could the man refrain from telling everybody about his wonderful experience of coming in contact with the whole-making power of Jesus? He becomes an ardent evangeliser, a spreader of good news – something we are all called to be. It was no wonder that people went out into the deserted places looking for Jesus. But what were they looking for?

And we can ask ourselves today, what has our experience of knowing Jesus been like? How come we do not have the enthusiasm of this man? So much of our religious living is focused just on ourselves. It is perhaps worth noting that the man’s experience was the result of having first been the victim of a terrible cross. It is often in our crosses that grace appears.

Jesus was forced to go out into the desert to avoid the enthusiastic crowds. He was not interested in having “fans”, only genuine followers. He would not be ready until his full identity was recognised. That would only happen as he hung dying on the cross (Mark 15:39).

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