February 11, 2018
SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Lv 13:1-2, 44-46
The law about leprosy
Ps 32:1-2, 5, 11
My guilt I covered not
1 Cor 10:31—11:1
Be imitators of me
Jesus heals a leper
Mark applies his general theme of the holy versus the unclean to a particular case. A leper comes up and asks to be made clean.
In Israelite thinking, there were two areas outside of normal human experience. One was the holy, which one dared not approach without due preparation. The other was the unclean, also dangerously powerful. While the Temple sanctuary exemplified the one, today’s leper represents the other. Mark uses this language to describe the fundamental struggle in Jesus’ mission—that between the Holy Spirit and the unclean spirits.
The passage from Leviticus lays out the expectations that were given in the law concerning leprosy. Today’s reading comes from two parts of Leviticus 15. In one part, the rule for dealing with lepers is given. They are to stay outside the community, and if anyone should approach, they are to shout out, “Unclean, unclean!” An early form of quarantine, it dealt with cases of contamination.
In the other part, given first, we learn how it is diagnosed. When there is a case of a sore that appears leprous, they are to take their case to a priest, who makes a decision regarding it. The fact that a priest is involved tips us off that the condition is as much religious as it is medical. The language of contamination is medical. But here we also see the idea of pollution at work. In cases of leprosy, the community was thought to be compromised by unwelcome influences.
Leprosy was polluting, and was also very visible, which didn’t help its cause. The mystery of leprosy typified the danger of evil influence. It was dealt with by way of banishment. In shunning the leper, the community was saved from contamination by evil influence.
There are some interesting things going on in today’s story. One of these is the question of how the leper came into contact with Jesus, if lepers were supposed to stay outside the community. Mark skips over that question. However, he does something interesting at the end, where we see that the leper, though told to keep quiet, in fact broadcasts the story. In the end, Jesus is required to avoid entering public places. Ironically, he ends up banished from town, just as the leper was before the healing—though for different reasons, of course.
One of the most surprising aspects of the account is the action of Jesus. The story makes a point of the fact that Jesus reached out and touched the leper, just what he is not supposed to do. One suspects that the ironic conclusion of the story imitates the logical conclusion of touching a leper, but one that did not play out in this case.
Instead of Jesus contracting leprosy, the leper is made clean. The power flowed in the other direction. That is, the holy power overcame the unclean, and the leper was cleansed. The one with the Holy Spirit overcame the influence that is elsewhere typified of the unclean spirits.
A key word in the story is “compassion”—literally, “to be moved in one’s guts”: “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand, and touched the leper.” Here we see a trait common to Jesus’ practice in Mark’s account. Consistently, compassion describes Jesus’ sense of the holy. He questions the practice of avoiding the unclean—that is, the purity model that avoids threats of contamination. That model is expressed today in the banishment of the leper.
Jesus not only restores the leper, then, but also rehabilitates the community that would seek to be holy. By providing them with another model for holiness, the community can now embrace their formerly ostracized members. They can experience holiness as restored wholeness.
For reflection: Who are today’s lepers?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.