The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
"If someone has on his skin a
scab or pustule or blotch
which appears to be the sore of leprosy,
he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest,
or to one of the priests among his descendants.
If the man is leprous and unclean,
the priest shall declare him unclean
by reason of the sore on his head.
"The one who bears the sore of leprosy
shall keep his garments rent and his head bare,
and shall muffle his beard;
he shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean!'
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp."
Brothers and sisters,
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or
the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
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 him, and said to him,
"I do will it. Be made clean."
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
He said to him, "See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them."
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians should ring throughout today’s liturgy: “. . . I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many . . .” As other Christs, our actions are geared to helping others, not doing things for our own advantage. Pope Francis says it well: “We should be building bridges, not walls.”
We live in a world in which we’re convinced walls help us personally much better than bridges. That’s especially true when it comes to those we fear. And as we hear in our Leviticus reading, no one in the ancient world was feared more than a leper.
Leprosy back then was defined as any destructive skin condition. Though people knew nothing of germs, they were convinced a demon of leprosy had taken control of the afflicted person, a demon which could jump from person to person if someone was foolish enough to get close to the leper. One’s life was altered forever if he or she was declared a leper. (Though the 50s movie Ben Hur wasn’t historical, most historians believe the Jerusalem village of lepers it depicted was fairly accurate. A hell on earth.) That’s why only a priest could officially proclaim someone leprous. No “anonymous” accusations. Consequences were devastating.
Mark composed today’s pericope against this background. Read it carefully. Not only does Jesus cure the leper and send him to the priests for verification, he breaks the Levitical regulations and actually “touches” him before he heals him.
Two other things about the passage. First, we’re still in chapter 1 of Mark. The evangelist continues to tell his readers what evils Jesus’ followers should be eradicating. Obviously the “outcasts” around us are one of those evils. In Jesus’ faith, no one was out; everyone was in. He expects his followers to constantly reach out, not cut off.
Second, the phrase “moved with pity” replaced the evangelist’s original phrase “moved with anger.” Textual critics tell us not only that the latter wording is found in the best Marcan manuscripts but that it’s easier to see how a scribe would change anger to pity than pity to anger. After all, we’re dealing with Jesus of Nazareth. The question is, “Why’s Jesus angry?”
He doesn’t seem to be angry with the leper; rather, according to most scholars, he’s uptight with a frame of mind which created an environment in which such people are officially walled off from everyone else. For me to succeed, some individuals must be permanently out of my life.
According to our sacred authors, both the historical and risen Jesus envision a different world, a place in which we demonstrate our belief in God being one with us by becoming one with all those around us, especially those whom society has barred from being part of “our world.”
As we know from Matthew 23, Jesus’ early followers pictured the church as the place where such unity should begin; a place where there’s no honorary titles to divide us or social status to separate us. But then . . . somebody created clergy and laity. We’ve never been the same since.
Don’t let anyone tell you not to be angry over what we’ve created of Jesus’ church. According to Mark, Jesus was frequently angry when he shared his vision with his followers. (Check the other five or six places in his gospel where he depicts an angry Jesus.) Some things are worth getting emotional about.
Walls only come down when we actually tear them down. They normally don’t fall down on their own. No wonder Mark places such a disturbing action at the beginning of his gospel. That’s where Jesus believes it belongs – at the start of his good news.