Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The risk and the price of taking this Sunday's gospel to heart is that in some situations, including and welcoming the “lepers” of our modern world may lead to our being excluded, writes Christian Brother Julian McDonald.
A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: “If you want to”, he said, “you can cure me.” Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. “Of course I want to!” he said. “Be cured!” And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured. Mark 1, 40-45
There was a wonderful woman in Wagga Wagga who cooked for the Brothers there for decades. Back in 1948, she cooked a leg of pork, and nearly everyone in the community became ill. She refused to cook pork ever again. Somewhere in their history, the Hebrews noticed that some of their number took ill after eating pork. That led them to formulate rules forbidding the eating of pork. Similar kosher rules were made forbidding the eating of eagles, vultures, buzzards, crows, ostriches, hawks, seagulls, pelicans, owls, storks and herons, and about “those disgusting little creatures that crawl or walk close to the ground”. Shellfish was also forbidden, but locusts, grasshoppers and crickets were allowed to be served up at mealtime. Chapter 11 of Leviticus has all the details. Similarly, there were all kinds of rules about skin diseases and about avoiding contact with anyone suffering from them. In the popular mind, complaints like skin rashes, scabies, ringworm, boils and pimples all came under the one heading of leprosy because they were seen to be contagious. That explains why we hear in today’s first reading: “If you have leprosy, you must tear your clothes, leave your hair uncombed, cover your upper lip, and go around shouting: ‘I’m unclean! I’m unclean!’ As long as you have the disease, you are unclean and must live alone outside the camp” (Leviticus 13, 45-46). The penalty for leprosy was exclusion, and anyone suffering from it had to wear the distinguishing marks of exclusion from the community.
This challenges us to reflect on who are the ones we exclude from our communities and countries. Moreover, what are the markers we put on them to indicate to us and to others that they are excluded? Among those indelible markers are skin colour, ethnicity or simply the fact that such outcasts have arrived at our borders on small boats or on foot.
The leper is one of the central characters in Mark’s Gospel. Blind Bartimaeus, the leper and the destitute woman who gave her last penny to the Temple collection are, for Mark, models of true faith in God. Moreover, Bartimaeus and the leper not only recognise Jesus for who he is, but they place their entire faith and trust in him. Their cries for help are effectively professions of their faith in Jesus, the Messiah of God.
The story of the cure of the leper gets much of its force from the details associated with the act of healing. Jesus broke all the rules spelled out in Leviticus about dealing with lepers. Not only did he invite the leper to come near, he actually touched him, making himself ritually unclean. But Jesus did not encounter a “case of leprosy”, he engaged with a fellow human being, a man in desperate need, a man who had been excluded from the community and from all social interaction.
But there are also several levels of irony in this story. Though Jesus had deliberately broken the rules about dealing with lepers, he still told the man whom he had cured to observe what the law required of him: “Go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses, as evidence of your recovery.” This was Jesus’ way of trying to get the Religious Leaders to open their eyes to what was happening around them. Mark’s very clear message is that the Messiah had arrived on the scene and the Jewish establishment could not or would not recognise him. Ironically, a leper, ostracized from the community, recognized the Messiah while the established community leaders were blind to that reality.
While it is entirely understandable that the cured leper could not contain his happiness and excitement at readmitted to his village community, Jesus was the one who ended up being pushed aside: “He had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.” The great irony of today’s gospel is that the leper who had been excluded can now freely enter the village while the one who had cured him is forced to stay outside. Remember that Jesus was not interested in personal popularity or in gathering fans around him, who could not appreciate the real significance of the miracles he worked. Jesus was not going to let himself be distracted by those whose sole interest was in wonder-working. Of course he felt for those who suffered and were excluded, but he also knew that no amount of healing or holiness would remove sickness, pain and anguish from our world. He was really calling people to put their faith and trust in a God who loved them unceasingly in good times and in times of struggle, illness and pain. Jesus came not to make people’s problems and difficulties evaporate, but to assure them that they could cope with them by trusting in a God whose love for them is boundless.
This gospel is for all of us. If truth be told, we have all felt excluded at some time or another. Think of the times when we may have missed out on selection for sports teams or for committees for which we had been nominated. Some of us may have missed out in applying for promotions in schools or universities or been told that our services and expertise were no longer needed. Still others of us may not be able to disclose our failures or our personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities. All these situations cause us to experience loneliness, rejection or isolation. Today’s gospel is an invitation to anyone who has known isolation and rejection to come to Jesus as that leper did, asking for healing, consolation and acceptance. It is also a reminder to us that we, too, have the capacity to isolate and exclude others, as well as to welcome, accept, include and heal them. And, in some situations including and welcoming the “lepers” of our modern world may lead to our being excluded. That’s the risk and the price of taking today’s gospel to heart.