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A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” —Mark 1:40-41
During Ordinary Time, the First Reading and the Gospel proclaimed at Mass form a unit of readings with one serving to enrich our understanding of the other. Sometimes, the connection isn’t especially obvious (a good example might be last Sunday’s selection from Job being paired with the “raising up” of Peter’s mother-in-law). This Sunday, however, the connection between these two readings is not only clear, the First Reading from Leviticus provides the cultural and religious context essential in understanding the story we hear from Mark’s Gospel.
The Book of Leviticus can be understood as a collection of laws touching on nearly every aspect of life that is grounded in an effort to maintain Jewish cultural and religious values. As biblical scholar J. Edward Owens, O.Ss.T., observes, Leviticus helped do this through “its preservation of liturgical, social, and other prescriptions that acknowledge God’s holiness and seek to inculcate such holiness in the people” (from Leviticus, volume 4 of the New Collegeville Bible Commentary). Part of the way Leviticus does this is by setting the boundaries of what it means to be “clean” and “unclean.” This is important because what is at stake here is not just what it means to be holy and righteous before God, but it also speaks about the quality of our relationships with our families and communities.
Chapter 13 of Leviticus (where our First Reading is found) is completely devoted to diseases of the skin, none of which can be associated directly with we now call leprosy (Hansen’s disease). According to Leviticus, skin diseases, as well as scars and burns, render persons unclean. We have here the issue of contagion and the health of the community and we should notice that there is association between having a skin disease and being a sinner. Because of their condition the sick person was ostracized from the community.
As Owens observes, “One the one hand, no one wanted to contract the disease by proximity or touching. On the other hand, drawing the afflicted person back into the community was a value. Probably victims of skin disease were more pitied than judged.” As a result of all this, lepers and those with other disease of the skin became outsiders, surviving at the furthest margins of the community.
As we turn to the Gospel and the story of Jesus healing a leper, this sense of being marginalized should help guide our reading of this passage. For the sick man to approach Jesus was a courageous act. Remember, by law he was expected to maintain a specified distance from those who were judged to be clean or healthy. There is more at stake here than physical health. This Gospel passage certainly speaks to Jesus’ power to heal, but the deeper meaning that Mark is trying communicate is that Jesus has the power to restore relationships as he invites everyone—the rich and poor, the healthy and the sick, the sinner and the saint—into the Kingdom.
When he hears the sick man’s request, “If you wish, you can make me clean,” Jesus has a deep emotional response. The verb used here is splanchnizomai, which literally means to be moved in “the intestines.” To say it another way, Jesus has a “gut reaction” to the man’s appeal. Instead of turning away from the man, Jesus reaches out to him, touches him, and heals him: “I do will it. Be made clean.”
Through his encounter with Jesus, the man is not only restored to health, but he is, in a sense, brought back to life by being able to return to the life of the community and to the practice of his ancestral faith. The end of our passage relates that the man publicly professed what God had done for him through Jesus. This is certainly an invitation for us to reflect on how we express our gratitude for the healing and forgiveness we have experienced in our own lives.
How have you felt the Lord’s healing presence and power in your life? When have you rejected or turned away from someone because of their health or their way of life? What has helped you work towards healing in that relationship? What has prevented you?How does the example of the healed man invite you to proclaim the Good News?
Words of Wisdom: “To be holy means to be without dis-ease. What modern society would refer to physicians, they referred to priests. Their perspective is surely primitive, but every age grapples with diseases it does not understand and that can evoke panic among the people and ostracism of the victims. One thinks of HIV, SARS, avian bird flu, and other diseases today. Social lepers in every age are often the victims of misinformation and false labeling”—J. Edward Owen, O.Ss.T.