How we treasure our prejudices! Think of all the people that we classify as second class, because of their gender, skin colour, accent or just because we think we have a higher calling. We would never admit to calling them unclean, but unhappily we treat them that way.
The story of the healing of the leper (Mk 1: 40 – 45) applies a Law set down in Leviticus, “The person who has a leprous disease1 shall .. cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ .. He shall live alone: his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Lev 13: 45 – 46) During Jesus’ time on earth most people, including the religious authorities, were convinced of the validity of this Law. Clearly the authors of Leviticus drew an unwarranted conclusion from their understanding of God’s purity. They thought that lepers (and other classes of people) had to be separated from the community. Believe it or not, Leviticus 13 begins, “Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron!” God said no such thing. Jesus’ example directly contradicts this law. He teaches us that we should not be casting out the lepers but healing them with love and compassion.
40A leper came to him (and kneeling down) begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” 1Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, and (looking beyond the disease to the person) touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” 42The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
43Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. 44Then 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.”
45The man went away and began to publicise the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. Jesus remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere. (Mk 1: 40 – 45)
Mark arranges his stories in groups of three. He challenges us to search out the common theme that connects them. In Chapter 1 the man with the unclean spirit is cured in the synagogue. (21) The cure of Simon’s mother-in-law comes next (29), followed by the healing of the leper. The man, the woman and the leper are all people who have been declared unclean and then marginalized. The man with the unclean spirit should never have been in the synagogue. Simon’s mother-in-law is not important enough to have a name – as a woman she has no standing in society. The leper is totally excluded from society and does not even rank as part of humanity.
Do you know how it feels to be excluded? Watch young boys picking teams and you will begin to understand. See the look on the faces of the “last, ‘useless’, five or six”; and then the joy when they are spared the humiliation of being the least wanted.
Jesus’ response to the leper’s request is to be, “Moved with pity.” However, if one reads carefully, it is possible to sense Jesus’ indignation and anger at a system that creates outcasts. He does not hesitate to flout this inhuman interpretation of the Law. The text says he “touched him.” A better translation is, ‘he embraced him.’ Jesus knew that there would be consequences to his actions. The moment he touched the leper he himself was classified ‘unclean’ and had to remain “outside in deserted places.” By identifying with the leper Jesus is now the leper. No wonder he asked the man not to talk about his cure.
Jesus’ disregard for an unjust Law struck a chord with many right-thinking people. They too ignored the strictures that were placed on Jesus and “people kept coming from everywhere.”
The Law, at its best, recognizes God to be “merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Ex 34: 6) As Jesus reaches out to the leper we recognize these qualities of God reflected in his life.
Who were the first people to share in Jesus mission? Simon and Andrew. They were the first chosen. Their first mission only starts in Mark 6: 7.
The story of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law concludes with, “Then the fever left her and she ministered to them.” This does not mean she made the supper. She devoted herself to bringing the Good News to her family, friends and neighbours. After the healing of the pagan demoniac he was instructed to, “Go home to your family and announce to them, all the Lord in his pity has done for you.” (Mk 5: 19) A woman and a pagan the first active apostles!!
Now there is a lesson for us!!
- Leprosy refers to any skin condition and not Hansen’s disease.