First reading: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46.
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 31(32):1-2, 5, 11.
Second reading: 1 Corinthians 10:31 – 11:1.
Gospel: Mark 1:40-45.
Link to readings.
The scriptural readings for today show divine power confronting one of the most dreaded of human ills: leprosy. The First Reading (Lev 13:1-2, 45-46) provides the biblical background with an extract from the lengthy prescriptions in Leviticus 13-14 concerning a variety of skin diseases. In fact, it is not at all clear that the biblical legislation deals with the condition recognised as leprosy properly so called (Hansen’s disease in modern medical terminology). Whatever the precise condition, the text brings out the terrible sense of ritual uncleanness and hence social exclusion that went with it, heightened by the belief at the time that disfiguring skin diseases of this kind were a divine punishment for sin (cf. Num 12:10-15; 2 Kings 5:25-27). The sufferer appears condemned to a living death in social as well as physical terms.
Awareness of this biblical background greatly strengthens the impact of the miracle story told in the Gospel (Mark 1:40-45). The leper, who of course is not supposed to approach anyone, feels emboldened to come up to Jesus. His plea, “If you want to (the NRSV rendering “choose” is too weak), you can make me clean”, is already a strong act of faith in the power and status of Jesus. With leprosy considered a living death, curing it was tantamount to raising the dead. The man believes that to approach Jesus is to access the life-giving power of God.
Jesus’ response (v 41) “moved with pity” translates a Greek word (splangchnistheis) that literally means “moved to the depths of one’s being” (the Greek plural splangchna refers to the lower abdominal organs). By stretching out his hand and touching the leper Jesus reaches right across the “clean/unclean” barrier in all its physical, social and moral dimensions. The gesture and declaration, “I do so choose”, expresses the divine compassion reaching out to afflicted humanity. The verbal command, “Be made clean”, would have effected the cure. But, in a way that foreshadows the sacramental economy of the Church, Jesus wants the man to feel physically in his hitherto repulsive flesh the divine compassion and acceptance.
In the conventional understanding of the time, breaking across the “clean/unclean” barrier would have exposed Jesus to contracting “uncleanness” from the afflicted person. But for Jesus the “clean/unclean” process works the opposite way: uncleanness does not flow from the man to Jesus; “cleanness” flows from Jesus to the man. “Uncleanness”, for Jesus, is not something human beings “catch” like a contagious disease from physical objects or conditions. “Uncleanness” is a moral condition and has to do with the dispositions — good or evil — of the human heart (cf. Mark 7:14-23). True “cleanness” or holiness is something human beings “catch” by coming close to God, which is precisely what this man has achieved by having the faith, in his condition, to approach Jesus.
Immediately following the successful cure (v 42), there is a curious detail where Jesus is said (v 43) to sternly warn the man and send him away (A literal translation would be, “snorting with anger, he threw him out”). This response probably reflects some conflation of this healing miracle with the account of an exorcism in the tradition: it is not so much the man who is driven out but his disease, seen as a residue of demonic infestation. In any case, the expulsion conflicts with the following command where Jesus tells the man to go and show himself to the priest and make the offering prescribed (Leviticus 13-14). Jesus may have broken through the “clean/unclean” holiness barrier to heal the man but he has not overthrown the legal prescription entirely. Performing the ritual will ensure that the man finds the social acceptance and reintegration into the community to which he is entitled on the basis of his cure.
The man violates Jesus’ (surely unrealistic!) desire to keep the whole thing secret. Wherever there is context of faith, the divine compassion at work in Jesus will out, despite his attempts to dampen down the popular enthusiasm his miracles raise. Such enthusiasm raises messianic expectations incompatible with the kind of Messiah he is ultimately destined to be: one who will enter into the suffering of the world rather than miraculously abolishing it at a stroke (cf. Mark 8:27-33).
The brief Second Reading, 1 Cor 10:31—11:1, perfectly encapsulates Paul’s sense of Christian life as a continual service of God, involving every aspect of one”s daily activity—none too “ordinary” or too “secular” to offer to the Lord. Christian living in this way is essentially “apostolic”, always looking to the salvation of one’s neighbour. One is not trying to avoid giving offence and to please others in order to avoid trouble for oneself but in the hope that one’s way of life may, through God’s grace, draw those not of the faith to the Lord.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media