A reflection on the Sunday readings for February 14, 2021 — the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Since the beginning of this year, I have had to self-quarantine twice for seven days. And then, in order to leave the quarantine, I had to be tested for COVID-19 at the end of the seven days. In the period before the results came, I have had to avoid physical contact with others. If I was to violate the laws governing my quarantine, would have risked endangering another person’s life. Moreover, both at home in India or here in Dayton, I had to announce my presence in order to avoid contact with others. After fourteen days of quarantine, let me say this out loud: “I hate it!” Now, try to imagine being quarantined for the rest of life. It’s possible that pandemic and its implications for family, social, and religious life give us a tiny window into the life of a leper in Jesus’ time. The difference is that during that time in history, being certified a leper was a death sentence. Even worse, in those times leprosy was considered a punishment for sin. Leprosy imposed and social, economic, and religious isolation that was literally a death sentence. No wonder, then, that they were often called the ‘living dead.’
I can imagine that many lepers in Jesus’ time gave up entirely, while others took desperate steps to overcome their fate. The leper in today’s gospel reading chose the latter. Twice the leper breaks social customs and divine commands with the hope of escaping what appeared to be his inevitable fate. First, he broke the laws of social engagement prescribed for lepers in Leviticus (today’s first reading). He broke the law by approaching Jesus, kneeling in front of him, and begging him to heal him. These were things he was not legally allowed to do. On the contrary, he was expected to announce his presence crying out, “Unclean, unclean!” He was required to avoid all social contact with people, and he was to refrain from entering into a conversation with anyone.
However, the leper was not the only law breaker. Jesus too was guilty. He broke the purity laws by engaging the leper, and even worse, reaching out and touching him. In fact, Jesus risked the possibility of contamination and in this way pass a death sentence on himself. Divine command is broken yet again when Jesus tells the leper, “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” (Mk 1:44). I chuckled at this point in the story. Jesus wants the man to fulfill what the law prescribed when both of them had just blatantly violated the law.
Contrary to Jesus’ command, the healed leper went and publicized the whole matter. Mark does not tell us whether he went to the temple to fulfill what Moses prescribed. All we know is that after the healing Jesus could not enter the town openly. Well, that’s what you get for breaking the law!
Of course, we must unravel the story behind the story. At the beginning of his gospel, Mark had introduced Jesus by beginning his ministry with the words, “The kingdom of God is at hand!” In the process, he also introduced Jesus as the one who inaugurates the kingdom of God. Jesus is clearly the Messiah, although, not ready to be introduced to the world yet (the Messianic secret, Mk 1:44). The leper came, knelt down and begged Jesus to heal him. This is Mark’s way of letting the reader know that Jesus indeed was the Messiah.
Jesus touched the leper without the fear of contamination because the Healer cannot be infected. Rather, he has come into the world to heal the world. The world will be healed and redeemed because Jesus is moved with pity. In compassion Jesus stretched out his hand toward the ‘living dead.’ He will stretch out his hands once again on the cross. On that day, even a Roman centurion would confess, “Truly, this mas was the Son of God!” (Mk 15:39). The compassion of God is the mark of the kingdom of God and the Messiah. Indeed, the kingdom of God is at hand.
What are the practical implications from today’s readings?
The Case for Compassion
On that day when the leper was healed, an unprecedented interaction took place between two unlikely people. The story of the leper is not just the story of the healing of a single leper. It is a commentary on salvation history. The human race—infected with the leprosy of sin, hate, division, violence, injustice, exploitation, poverty, misery—stands as desperately in need of healing and redemption as the leper in Mark’s gospel. But the more important point is that link between the leper (humanity) and Jesus (God, the Messiah) is “pity” (Mk 1:41) or compassion. As one commentator puts it, “Jesus’ compassionate touch bridges the gap between the holy and the unclean.”
Mark’s composition of the story of the healing of the leper has implications for the Church entrusted with the mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God. The Church’s mission is the mission of Jesus—to be the compassionate touch that bridges the gap between the holy and the unclean. And that is the mission of all of us who are ‘in’ the Church. So often we condemn people to the peripheries of our lives, our families, our church, and our society. Once we name and identify people as lepers, we deny them communion, fellowship, healing, and restoration. Let compassion be the name of the game! Like Jesus, let us play by the rules of compassion. When we encounter lepers, ostracized and relegated to the peripheries, may our hearts be “moved with pity” (Mk 1: 41).
The strangest observation Mark makes in today’s gospel is Jesus’ demand for secrecy. This is a common theme in Mark. Scripture scholars tell us that the ‘messianic secret’ was meant to protect Jesus’ Messianic identity till the appropriate time and the appropriate manner. Jesus’s messiahship would be revealed not from some human seat of power, but from the Cross. Jesus was also concerned that the Messiah-wary Romans could put a premature end to his ministry. But Jesus’ demand for secrecy is hardly met with compliance. The more he asked those he healed to curb their enthusiasm, the more widely they publicized it. The result is ironical, or more appropriately, paradoxical. Mark tells us that “It was impossible for Jesus to enter the town openly. He remained outside in deserted places” (Mk 1:45). Do we get it? “Deserted places!” (Mk 1:45)—that is where the leper used to be. The leper is now ‘inside’ the community, but Jesus finds himself ‘outside,’ in deserted places. Jesus traded places with the leper.
Once again, the story of the healing of the leper has radical implications for the mission of the Church. The Church must understand that salvation history is a paradox. Salvation history began when the first man and woman sinned. God expelled them from the garden of Eden, only to begin the work of restoring them back to divine life. For this, God goes ‘outside,’ where human beings were, to restore them to divine community. No wonder, then, that Jesus who brought the leper ‘in’ was himself put to death ‘outside.’ The church is entrusted with the mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God. The question is, where does the church operate? From the ‘inside’ or the ‘outside’? We ask, how far will the church go? Is she willing to go ‘outside’ so that those on the outside can come ‘inside’? Will the church accompany people by reaching out and touching them, or will she merely lay down laws that relegate some to the inside and others to the outside?
Mission as Restoration
Mark gives yet another important detail in the story of the healing of the leper. Jesus, who usually questions the oppressive traditions of Judaism, asks the leper to show himself to the priest and offer what Moses prescribed for his cleansing. For some reason, Jesus wanted the leper to fulfil the Jewish purity laws. Why does Jesus make this demand of the leper? Because this healing was more than a personal event. If the leper did not go to the temple, he would have to make his own case to the rest of society. By sending him to the priest in the temple, Jesus restored the leper both to his religious community and to the rest of society. The story of the leper is the story of restoration rather than personal healing.
This has huge implications for us today. Who are the people who feel isolated, left out, ignored, ostracized in society today? Who are the people we treat like lepers? Racism is leprosy. Gender inequality is leprosy. Xenophobia is leprosy. Homophobia is leprosy. Sometimes the leper is the baby in the womb, sometimes it is an abused child, sometimes it is the homeless, sometimes it is the immigrant, sometimes it is the person on death row, sometimes it is those with mental illness, sometimes it is those battling addictions, and sometimes it is an enemy. Alienation, inequality, ostracization, periferization, condemnation—that is leprosy. Mark’s Jesus shows us that the way forward in the kingdom of God is not further alienation or even a personal healing, but rather, total restoration. If the kingdom of God is indeed at hand, and if we are the people who belong to the kingdom, then our real mission is the restoration of human and divine dignity for every human person!
Lately, the very Eucharist we celebrate at Mass has become a moral and political tool in the hands of unscrupulous clergy and their followers. Some have used the sacrament to punish and alienate people they treat as lepers. The healing of the leper provides a totally different paradigm—not only for the Church, but for every one of us. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus taught his disciples (and is teaching us today) to play the game of life with the rules of compassion. Compassion leads to healing, to restoration, to dignity, and divine life. This indeed is the sign that the kingdom of God is at hand.
Image: Adobe Stock.