SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2021)
Readings:Leviticus 13:1-2; 44-46Psalms 32:1-2, 5, 111 Corinthians 10:31-11:1Mark 1:40-45
HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!
There is a lot of talk about shortages during this pandemic; a shortage of vaccines, a shortage of hospital beds, a shortage of PPEs, a shortage of ventilators, a shortage of doctors, nurses, and professional technicians. As serious as those shortages are, there is also another shortage that is highlighted in today’s gospel – there is a serious shortage of “touch.” Unless you are a Neanderthal living in a cave (with no offense intended to Neanderthal’s), the normal human actions that used to be so much a part of our lives before the arrival of COVID, have all but disappeared behind oceans of hand sanitizer. While the social distancing and the masks are needed to protect us from what can be a lethal disease, there is a longing, by this author anyway, for the warm embraces that spoke of a chaste, but genuine, love; of the firm handshakes which bespoke a more than ordinary connection; the tap on the shoulder, the slap on the back, the overall closeness which defined those who were considered the closest of friends. The fist and elbow bumps are a poor substitute for the more intimate expressions of love and affection that we had grown so accustomed to in the days before the pandemic took hold of our entire world.
The gospel from the first chapter of Mark, which has already proclaimed several miracles performed by Jesus, recounts for us Jesus’ encounter with a faith-filled leper, who comes to Jesus begging, “if you wish, You (Jesus of Nazareth), You can make me clean.” The incredible faith of an outcast, a person who was not allowed to move in the ordinary circles of the society of his day, is, indeed, astounding, and one might see the leper as the primary focus of this story. But just as astounding as the leper’s faith, is the easily overlooked power of Jesus’ simple, but powerful, “touch.” Jesus’ touch not only proclaims that He is more than willing to heal the leper – “I do will it. Be made clean” – but He is also stating something about who He is, and what His ministry is going to be about. Up to now His interaction has been with “unclean spirits”, Peter’s mother-in-law, and those “sick with various diseases.” His encounter with the leper is filled with meaning.
Jesus takes a huge step out of the box today, and so His actions show a clear departure from the Jews of His day, whether ordinary temple-taxpaying Jews, or the Jewish elite, priests, Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Our first reading from the Book of Leviticus makes it clear how lepers are to be treated. With the lack of any advanced medical understanding, it is likely true that any ailment of the skin, whether an ordinary rash or a chronic case of psoriasis, were all treated as though the person had the affliction of leprosy. The treatment of lepers is not unlike the treatment of people with COVID- they are to be isolated ostracized, and they are to make their “abode outside the camp.” Unlike COVID, however, this condition could last for a lifetime, and the pain of requiring warning-shouts of “Unclean! Unclean!,” was surely humiliating to individuals with the disease. While there are no warning-shouts recorded in today’s gospel, it has to have been astonishing to all those present, who no doubt were keeping themselves at a safe distance from the person kneeling at Jesus’ feet, that Jesus did the unthinkable, and “stretched out His hand, and touched” the leper. Did the leper feel anything from that “touch” that dispelled the leprosy “immediately”? We will never know. However, we can be sure that for the first time in a long time, the leper felt accepted, loved and not feared. Indeed, he felt human again.
Jesus sent the leper off to the priest, showing a great deal of respect for the authorities, not because Jesus was unsure of the success of what He had done, but because only the priest could rule on whether the leper was truly cleansed. Once again, with the medical knowledge of the day, the priest would be quite accustomed to ruling on a “cure” from leprosy for those who only had a rash or a curable infection would be viewed as being cured from leprosy. Jesus’ admonition to “tell no one,” is typical of the “messianic secret” thread which runs all though Mark’s gospel, and it is clear that the leper, and others, ignore the request, publicizing broadly the “whole matter,” causing people to come to Jesus “from everywhere.” After all, who wouldn’t want to brag about such a stigma being lifted from one’s shoulders?
Today’s gospel gives us no indication of what the few disciples surrounding Jesus thought of the day’s events. They surely were shocked when Jesus chose to give him a hearing, for the curse of leprosy was far less benign than so many of the other cures Jesus performed. When Jesus reached out and “touched” the leper they must have been horrified, and one can almost hear the crowd gasp. Yet Jesus knew the power of “touch,” and His simple touch was not only the vehicle for the cure, but it was also the restoration of dignity, the dignity due all of God’s creation. Jesus ministry would be no ordinary ministry, for it would reach out to the clean and unclean, the tax collectors and sinners, the disenfranchised and those standing on the fringes of society, the Pharisee and the Publican. Few things proclaim more forcefully the notion that Jesus’ preaching of the good news is meant for all peoples than this simple cleansing of a leper.
Our hearts have been touched by Jesus, and He invites us to cooperate in the spreading of His Kingdom. We do that by not imposing boundaries on God’s love, as though God loves some people more than He loves others. We are “blessed” as the psalmist says when we “impute no guilt, in whose spirit there is no guile.” May our love for others be truly unconditional, as God loves us, and may we never tire of manifesting the gospel of Jesus Christ by the way we live our lives.