Gospel - Mark 1:40-45
- A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: ‘If you want to’ he said ‘you can cure me.’ 41. Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘Of course I want to!’ he said. ‘Be cured!’ 42.And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured. 43. Jesus immediately sent him away and sternly ordered him, 44. ‘Mind you say nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of your recovery.’ 45.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 places where nobody lived. Even so, people from all around would come to him.
READING THE TEXT
Our text this week is about a single incident-the healing of the man with leprosy. It is an important story early in the gospel that has many implications for understanding salvation and the mission of Jesus. It is filled with the sense of immediacy that we have found in our earlier text. Our text this week needs a liturgical reading. We need to read it through the first reading from Leviticus to really understand the implications.
CLEAN AND UNCLEAN
Over the years it has been the norm in the Caribbean to create a mental hierarchy of people through race, class, gender and wealth. We mentally and consciously put people on the top or bottom of the pile by societal rules and positions that we both consciously and unconsciously accept and use. A white person is placed ahead of a black person, the rich over the poor, a man over a woman –this is the Structure of our mental list.
In the time of Jesus, the critical element for creating this mental list was whether the person was clean or unclean. In our first reading, Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46,several things are said about the leper. In summary: The Leper must be taken to Aaron, the priest. The priest must declare him unclean. The unclean man 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 is unclean and therefore he must live apart outside the camp.’
Leprosy is a viral disease. To be a leper is to be declared unclean, to be cut off from the community. This is the most extreme form of social exclusion. In that period the notion was that sickness came through someone’s sins-yours or your parents. It was also an indication of guilt; an individual and societal shame in the most extreme form. To touch a leper was to become unclean and to be excluded also. It was to be ritually and societally unclean
AN UNHOLY EXCHANGE
In our story, the man begs Jesus: if you want to, you can cure me. Jesus disregards the laws of Moses and touches the man. This is a complete break with societal and ritual laws. According to the law Jesus having touched the man should be rendered unclean. But what happens is amazing-it, is the man who is cleansed. There is an exchange that is opposite to the convention. The man is made clean! This is ritual and social restoration. But Jesus now is the excluded one; he lives outside the towns and villages. The leper was included into the community again.
On the first level of the text- Jesus and the Leper is a very powerful healing story. But the text holds out an understanding that is more profound. It speaks to salvation. By becoming human, by touching humanity, God is not defiled. The human is cleansed. The story speaks in a symbolic way of the mission of Jesus and how he brings salvation. By entering humanity he heals humanity from within.
In the sacrament of confession, the priest, standing in the person of Christ, absolves the penitent. In administering this sacrament the priest comes face to face with the penitent; Christ touches the penitent through the priest and in this exchange the penitent is cleansed of his/her sins. What was done to the Leper in this exchange, is done for the penitent. It was also done for humanity on the cross.
‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on the tree’. Jesus became cursed, the most excluded by his crucifixion (Gal 3:13). But in this, too, there was an exchange. He took our cursed state to him and gave us the right to enter the sanctuary (Heb. 10:19).
This physical exchange also takes place in the Eucharist. This is the sacrament of mercy. Jesus, in the Eucharist, physically enters us-His body and blood-and by this makes us a tabernacle for God.
Lord, you know my heart, the many ways I judge others and put them into categories and make them more or less important by my sinful way of thinking. You see all of us as your children, your brothers and sisters, your disciples. Through this word, touch me and take the leprosy of prejudice away from me. This infectious disease that has caused havoc in my life and our region. Lord, if you want to, you can cure me.